My wounds will not be healed in my lifetime: Rabih Alameddine
The clash of civilizations gets witty and acerbic treatment in Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alameddine's books
In Rabih Alameddine’s 2014 novel An Unnecessary Woman, the protagonist, 72-year-old Aaliya Saleh, lives all by herself in her apartment in Beirut. Divorced, childless, godless and fatherless, she embodies a combination that doesn’t bode well for women in most societies across the world, perhaps even less so in Lebanon. Surrounded by piles of books, Aaliya lives on her own island, in gloriously self-imposed exile. “Being connected to the world doesn’t appeal to me," she says, without a whiff of martyrdom. In a ritual that she has kept up for over half a century, Aaliya picks a book from her library and translates it into Arabic—from Leo Tolstoy to W.G. Sebald, she chooses whichever master, popular or obscure, her mood dictates. When it’s done, she puts the manuscript away in a box in her storeroom, which extends to the unused bathroom attached to the (non-existent) maid’s room. Not remotely interested in giving her work a public life or recognition, Aaliya does only the labour of love—in its most immaculate form, with no strings attached.
Aaliya’s life’s work reminded me of a remark her creator had once made to the critic and editor John Freeman during a public conversation in Sarajevo in 2016: “I write because I have something to say to me." At the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year, where I met Alameddine, his words assumed a special irony amid the ceaseless chatter about writing and reading, crossing over into the selling and marketing of books to the assembled crowd—everything that Aaliya, and Alameddine too, would rather stay far away from. “She is my ideal," Alameddine told me, when we finally caught up on the press terrace. “No matter how much I talk about not being in literature festivals, I am, in the end, drawn to these places too." Aaliya’s connection with the world, Alameddine says, is much “purer". In fact, she even manages to walk around the city without any qualms, after accidentally colouring her hair a bright blue.
Be that as it may, Alameddine’s presence in the world lights up the day for many who follow him on Twitter (@rabihalameddine). It’s worth logging into the platform from India as the US wakes up, or goes to bed, to check out the series of GIFs Alameddine begins and ends his days with. From babies being absurdly funny to cats playing nasty pranks, there’s never a dull panel. On some days, he mixes these up with poems or paintings. His social media daily run, Alameddine says, “keeps me sane". He was once a successful painter, with shows opening in galleries in New York and London, but he wasn’t “deserving", he felt. Just as well perhaps. The literary world would have been so much poorer without a voice like his—with a gift for wringing out the grimmest tragedy from the interstices of acid humour, acerbic wit and outlandishly camp moments.
Alameddine’s most recent novel, The Angel Of History (2016), bears out his linguistic virtuosity as well as his affinity with an intransigent episodic style. Revisiting the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which killed off nearly a generation of gay men in the US, the novel traces its roots back to Alameddine’s early take on the same subject, in his first novel, Koolaids: The Art of War (1998). In The Angel Of History (the title refers to an essay by the great German thinker Walter Benjamin, who, in turn, alludes to a famous painting by Paul Klee), the canvas is far more complicated.
The narrative’s mythical set-up, featuring Satan and Death, both of whom get speaking parts, mocks the epic conventions of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The overarching thread comes from a soliloquy by a Yemeni-born poet, Yakub (christened to Jacob in the US), who is probably having a nervous breakdown as he tries to salvage what little he remembers of his lover, a white American man who had died of AIDS 20 years before. As Jacob checks himself into a psychiatric clinic, we, the readers, keep vigil with him, and, during his nightlong monologue, we piece together the stories of loss and suffering he recovers from his fading memory.
In The Angel Of History, Alameddine told me, AIDS is more of a metaphor. “The book is really about memory—about how societies remember," he said. He lost several friends to the disease; he returned to those stories in Koolaids, but the ordeal of those years is hard to convey to a much younger generation. For much of The Angel Of History, Jacob struggles with an impotent rage at the glibness with which contemporary gay America treats the past. There was a time his anger was harnessed by creativity, but now it slips into violent outbursts, even into shades of lunacy.
In Alameddine’s work, too, indignation against the system, structures of power and rituals of oppression are delineated with an edge that anyone who has grown up on the cusp of cultures, especially in postcolonial Asian societies, will recognize. “We were trained and brought up to think that Westerners are better than us," Alameddine said at one point in our conversation. “How much do I fight it? My wounds will not be healed in my lifetime." It’s true, his books, wonderful as they are, haven’t travelled as widely as they should have. “There is the genuine possibility I am not that good," he said. “But my books don’t do as much as they probably would if I were a straight white writer living in the US or in Lebanon."
His refusal to toe a line—of an Arabic writer writing for the West, for instance, leads to misreadings. When An Unnecessary Woman was published, American critics found Aaliya’s life tragic, much to Alameddine’s mystification. In Lebanon, his books aren’t translated into Arabic. Their reflection on the simmering political crises in the country and unabashed portrayal of homosexuality don’t make for an easy transition. “I would be the Other in any culture I am put in," Alameddine said with a touch of melancholy, though perhaps with as much relief. Is there a better place for a writer to be in?
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