The Wrong End of the Telescope: a novel by Rabih Alameddine
Rabih Alameddine’s sixth book, which earlier this year won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, is an extraordinary chronicle of the Syrian refugees who were forced to flee after the Syrian civil war began in 2011, and the novel is a document of the struggles of the volunteers who work to stabilize their lives. The humanitarian crisis in Syria grew more tragic by the year, and by 2015, over a million migrants and asylum seekers, fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, sought asylum in Europe, arriving by raft on the Greek island of Lesbos.
The book is also about writers and writing in the face of insurmountable world events and their tragic ripple effects. In The Wrong End of the Telescope, hostile governments and takeovers by militant forces spawn dozens of refugee stories told around the meta-narrative frame of a writer dealing with his political, cultural, intellectual, and esthetic preoccupations and the emotional fallout he undergoes as a result.
Early on in the novel, we meet Mina Simpson, a Lebanese-born American physician from Chicago who arrives on Lesbos to volunteer her services during the refugee crisis. Mina narrates the book to a confidante—a close friend who turns out to be a writer very much like Alameddine, and who, like the author himself, went to Lesbos to aid refugees and is struggling with his ability to affect change—so much so that he has a breakdown in the process. Mina’s dialogue with the unnamed author alternates with the present-time action of her work on Lesbos. She is drawn to one family in particular, who fled the threat of a Daesh takeover, and whose matriarch is terminally ill. We learn about the unnamed writer’s longtime activism for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and his feelings of helplessness that paralyze him as the crisis worsens. And yet, one thing an artist can do, the novel posits, is to tell the stories, especially of those who don’t have a voice, and The Wrong End of the Telescope is built around these personal histories, taken from the hundreds of interviews Aladmeddine conducted over the years, stories, as he writes, the world does not always hear.
The novel is also a critique of the global divide between passive observers and displaced people, and how, in a world that is ever smaller, those in stable democracies have become numb to the oppression of hostile governments and violent militias.
Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novels An Unnecessary Woman; I, the Divine; Koolaids; The Hakawati; and the story collection, The Perv. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Dos Passos Prize, the Lambda Literary Award, the Arab American Book Award, the Northern California Book Award, and the Rome Prize, among many others. Learn more about the author here.
I wrote about The Wrong End of the Telescope for Alta Journal’s California Book Club, and being a fan of Alameddine’s books, was excited to delve into the novel’s striking visual style, and precise, atmospheric detail (Alameddine is also an accomplished painter). You can read the essay here.