An Irreverent Novel Trains Its Gaze on Refugees and Their Rescuers

Using Dr. Mina’s refreshing candour, Alameddine’s magnificent novel is brought to life for the reader. When she leaves Beirut to go to Harvard, she brings with her painful memories of a mother who abused her and a father who said: “In private, eat according to your taste, but behave according to the public’s,” Over time, she develops a reputation as a highly competent physician with a keen sense of empathy.

She’s in her fifties and travels to Lesbos to help the refugees who wash up on the island. They look like aunts and cousins from back home, and they bring garbage bags full of shattered treasures and stories of unimaginable loss.

As the storyteller the refugees deserve, Dr. Mina is both well-respected in Europe and well-versed in the customs and history unique to the displaced peoples of Europe. After arriving on shore, Dr. Mina takes care of the family of a mother who is terminally ill as they make their way through the refugee camp. But her greatest (and rarest) power is that she can see what European volunteers cannot.

First time I’ve read a novel where the camp volunteers (the bored, the coddled, those battling pangs of inadequacy) and the displaced victims (those who have been abused) are given enough space to shine. For the sake of their rescuers’ cameras, the refugees smile and keep quiet when anyone who gave up a vacation to meet boats is called out.

Alameddine’s irreverent prose evokes the old master storytellers from my own Middle Eastern home, whose observations are toothy and full of wit, returning always to the absurdity of human beings. When a volunteer tells refugees that they’re no longer in chaos and militiamen pretend to have “recently shot someone,” they’re being sarcastic.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d encounter the Persian mother’s affectionate nickname for her son, “golden penis,” in a literary work. Dr. Mina has a unique ability to expose the idiosyncratic social norms of both East and West.

She demonstrates to us that acceptance and rejection can be found in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. One of my favourite passages in the book was about a Syrian village doctor who visits each house twice, once as a man and once in drag (a niqab) to treat the women because of ISIS’ strict rules on gender separation.

As a Lebanese writer who has seen far too much displacement and horror, Dr. Mina addresses a blocked and disillusioned character throughout the book. This unidentified listener’s words struck a deep chord with me.

“Alameddine is speaking to us storytellers, the ones who carry our people’s narrative westward and shape how they are seen (and used) by those in power.” Literature today is an opiate, while “memory is a wound,” he warns, according to this quote.