Alameddine’s spectacular novel is rendered through the refreshingly honest lens of Dr. Mina. A trans woman, born the third son of a traditional Lebanese family, she leaves Beirut for Harvard, dragging bitter memories of an abusive mother and a father who advised: “In private, eat according to your taste, but in public, behave according to the public’s.” Over the years she comes into her own as a skillful and empathetic physician. In her 50s, she travels to Lesbos to volunteer among the refugees who wash ashore; looking like aunts or cousins from back home, they carry garbage bags of broken treasures along with countless stories and unspeakable loss.
Dr. Mina is the storyteller the refugees deserve: respected by the Europeans, but steeped in their traditions and history. When a terminally ill mother arrives on shore, Dr. Mina cares for the woman’s family as they navigate the purgatory of the refugee camp. But her greater (and rarer) power is that she is able to observe what European volunteers can’t.
This is the first novel I’ve read that gives ample room to the ugliness of certain camp volunteers (the bored, the coddled, those battling pangs of uselessness) and the many humiliations some inflict on the displaced. But calling out anyone who gave up a vacation to meet boats seems ungrateful, so the refugees smile for their rescuers’ camera-phones and keep quiet.
Alameddine’s irreverent prose evokes the old master storytellers from my own Middle Eastern home, their observations toothy and full of wit, returning always to human absurdity. Here, a volunteer berates a group of refugees by telling them that they’re “no longer in chaos” and militiamen play at having “recently shot someone.” I never imagined I’d come across “doodool tala” (“golden penis,” a Persian mother’s adoring nickname for her son) in a literary novel. Again and again, Dr. Mina cracks open the strange, funny and cruel social mores of East and West. She shows us that acceptance and rejection exist across borders and often manifest in surprising ways. I will never forget a passage about a beloved Syrian village doctor, who, to evade ISIS’ strict rules on separation of the sexes, visits each house twice, once as a man and once in drag (a niqab) to treat the women.
Throughout the book, Dr. Mina addresses a blocked and disillusioned Lebanese writer who, having seen too much displacement and horror, finally breaks. I found this mysterious unnamed listener deeply poignant. In part, Alameddine is speaking to us storytellers, the ones who carry our people’s narratives westward, who shape how they’re seen (and used) by those in power. “Literature today is an opiate,” he warns, while “memory is a wound.”