FICTION: SEEKING REFUGE IN HUMANITY

Published January 30, 2022
Refugees at the camp in Lesbos, Greece, as they wait to be moved to Athens from where they will continue through Europe to seek asylum
Refugees at the camp in Lesbos, Greece, as they wait to be moved to Athens from where they will continue through Europe to seek asylum

When a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself on December 17, 2010 — in protest against the constant humiliation he had endured by state authorities — he set alight not only his body but, within a few weeks, his own country and, shortly thereafter, the entire Arab world.

Bouazizi, his frustration and his act of immolation embodied the stagnation and repression of Arab countries, whose populace had endured the weight of oppressive and tyrannical state apparatuses for too long. Here was a young man in the prime of his life who, through sheer hopelessness, had committed a desperate act that epitomised the feelings against problems that affected his country and much of the North African and Middle East region to which he belonged.

A dictatorship that had no legitimacy with its own people had snuffed out the life of one of its future generations. This was a classic example of what Soviet Russia’s head of government, Vladimir Lenin, had called a “revolutionary situation”, ie a situation in which a rotten ruling class has lost its legitimacy and cannot rule further, while those being ruled refuse to be ruled anymore.

After Bouazizi’s act of protest, the people of Tunisia took to the streets. With chants of “Ash-shab yureed isqaat an nizaam” [the people want to bring down the regime], the citizens overthrew the 23-year long dictatorship of Tunisia’s president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and set off a chain of events that has now come to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. To say that this was a monumental event in the history of the early 21st century, would be an understatement. Its impact still affects our world today.

Whether it is the migrant crisis and refugees pouring into Europe, or the rise of far-right nationalism in European politics as a response to these dramatic events, our current world has been shaped enormously by the events of the Arab revolutions of 2011.

A Lebanese-American transgender doctor finds echoes of her own history in a Syrian refugee camp on a Greek island. A touching and sometimes heartbreaking novel explores empathy and marginalisation

The one country that suffered probably more than any other as a result of these events was Syria. Long ruled under the iron fist of the Al Assad family — first by the wily and brutal Hafez al Assad and later his son Bashar — Syria’s revolution degenerated into a vicious civil war, which has now resulted in the world’s largest refugee crisis. According to figures by international organisations, approximately 6.8 million Syrians are refugees and asylum-seekers, and another 6.7 million people are displaced within Syria. In total, 13.5 million Syrians — more than half of the country’s population — have been forcibly displaced.

Among the places to which Syrians fled was the island of Lesbos in Greece, where Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine has set his new book, The Wrong End of the Telescope. Alameddine wrote this novel as a result of his own experience visiting Syrian refugees in Lesbos and his native country of Lebanon.

In what must have been a truly horrifying sight, Alameddine saw a mass of humanity lumped in refugee camps and tents, on an island far away from home, in what was a hopeless predicament. To be forcibly uprooted from your homeland because of circumstances that are out of your control is a horrific trauma for any person having to endure it. One can only imagine what it must feel like to have to leave your belongings, your livelihood and your dignity in your home country and jump on board a leaky boat with your family, to find refuge in another country.

Though the title of the book is an expression that means ‘the opposite of what is a correct conclusion’, one can’t help but interpret it to mean, in the novel, as someone out at sea being viewed through a telescope. The refugee, huddled down in a dangerously flimsy dinghy, with no hope and nothing to lose, is the unfortunate soul that is at the wrong end of a telescope.

In the novel, Alameddine tells the story of this refugee crisis through the narration of protagonist Mina Simpson, a 50-something transgender Lebanese doctor who, through an NGO and at the insistence of her friend, has arrived in Lesbos to provide medical assistance to the Syrian refugees. Mina herself is a refugee; she was forced to flee Lebanon during its own vicious civil war and struggled to make a life for herself in America, far from her home and far from her family from whom, with the exception of her brother Mazen, she is estranged.

The refugee crisis in Lesbos is the first time Mina has come anywhere near Lebanon ever since she fled during her youth. Though she is eager to keep a distance from her past, she finds herself drawn back towards her own country after forming a connection with Sumaiya, the proud and independent matriarch of a Syrian refugee family.

Sumaiya is suffering from terminal liver cancer. Mina is the only person who knows of her diagnosis and, through that secret, they form a friendship that rekindles a sense of compassion and empathy within Mina that — because of a sense of alienation arising from gender, orientation and lack of any successful relationships — had long fallen dormant. In many ways, it’s only a refugee who can truly understand the pain and suffering of another refugee, despite having different life experiences.

As Mina narrates this story, she weaves interconnecting stories of herself and other refugees, who symbolise the endurance of hardships and a sense of optimism for humanity and a better tomorrow. Despite the cruelties the novel’s characters have faced in their lives, the fundamental message of the book is of hope and faith in humanity restored.

Though Mina sees much suffering in the refugee camps of Lesbos, she also finds a cosmopolitan environment there, which includes Greek locals, Spanish lifeguards, Pakistani immigrants, Turkish fishermen, Norwegian divers and Swedish NGOs, all doing their part to alleviate the hardships of the Syrian refugees. Such a diverse background of individuals, including Mina herself, would not have gone through such trouble for others but for a sense of humanity and empathy for the other.

A location such as a refugee camp with compassionate volunteers from around the world exemplifies a famous Sanskrit phrase from the Upanishads, “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — ‘the world is one family’. Mina herself sums up the sentiment best when she says that, “In spite of quite a bit of evidence to the contrary, I like to think of the world as kind, of humanity as decent if flawed, my misinterpretation of the just-world fallacy. I like to think that we humans try to do the right thing.”

When reading this book, one can sense the influence of Irish writer James Joyce on Alameddine’s style and character creation. Mina Simpson is a personality that would be at home with Joyce’s characters Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, from his novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses respectively.

Like Dedalus and Bloom, Mina is Alameddine’s cosmopolitan alter ego, who narrates the author’s story vicariously and exemplifies a quote by Joyce: “When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets.”

Alameddine has written an interesting and, at times, very touching novel that pulls readers into a fictional story inspired by real-life events. There is no doubt that some readers may find it too heart-breaking, but it is precisely because the novel deals with a message of empathy and hope in difficult times that readers should pick this book up and read it.

The reviewer is a writer and journalist interested in history, politics, music, literature and cinema. He tweets @razmat

The Wrong End of the Telescope
By Rabih Alameddine
Corsair, UK
ISBN: 978-1472156112
354pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 30th, 2022

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