Revisiting History, with Rabih Alameddine

Book Reviews, Fiction

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. 
–Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I walked up the stairs to the Poetry Room of the City Lights Bookstore one evening, eager to see Rabih Alameddine and listen to a reading from his most recent book, The Angel of History (Shop your local indie bookstore)While I did not know much about the new book, I read An Unnecessary Woman this year and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is every book lover’s delight, and you can read about my review of the book here.

Rabih read two passages from the book, and both times I held my breath at equal intervals — unfamiliar with the story but intimately acquainted with the themes of memory, of remembering all too well.

It couldn’t have been a better time to be reminded of not forgetting. With the onslaught of cultural and political amnesia these days, how can the importance of history be reinstated in a way that fosters consciousness?

The imminent return of a ruling family that nearly destroyed my home country, the Philippines, is terrifying, while the rise of a fascist government in the U.S., which has unleashed a wave of white supremacy all over the country  (even in the most self-proclaimed progressive bastions) is alarming.

aids1

Given the current climate, Rabih was right. And he was bringing up what used to be a significant issue among the population — the AIDS epidemic.

I watched as Rabih expressed his hurt, anger, grief and disbelief, at how easy it is to forget. That just few decades ago, gay men were dying in incredulous numbers as the AIDS epidemic run rampant in places like San Francisco and New York City. I admit that I’m a bad gay ally — that as a queer woman, I really don’t know much about what happened.

The Angel of History explores the life of Jacob, a gay Arab man living in San Francisco whose friends and partner succumbed to the AIDS epidemic. He’s grieving, in utter desolation because of the loss of lives, and he lives out his life as if writing an endless letter to his deceased partner he calls “Doc.”

How does the old cliché go? When every Arab girl stood in line waiting for God to hand out the desperate-to-get-married gene, I must have been somewhere else, probably lost in a book.

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Halabi Bookstore, Beirut

Ah, but where to begin with this book? I picked up a copy of Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman from a local bookstore at Green Apple Books. It was nestled in the annex, along with other well-read and creased spines.

Having just read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers, I was a little disoriented upon reading Alameddine’s first few pages. Porter’s writing had a different style and his voice stuck with me more than I thought it did.

My introduction to Aaliya was abrupt. Who was this character with the blue hair smack dab in Beirut?

Turns out, I have a lot more in common with this precarious woman, this reader with a voracious appetite who could not be bothered to spend time with the three matriarchs who ruled her apartment complex. While Fadia, Marie-Therese and Joumana spent their mornings, afternoons and evenings drinking ambrosia coffee, filing their nails, talking about their children (and their children’s plans or lack thereof), planning trips to the salon, Aaliya spent her days huddled in her apartment devoted to the written word, a phrase that I also use to describe my dedication to literature.

I long ago abandoned myself to a blind lust for the written word. Literature is my sandbox. In it I play, build my forts and castles, spend glorious time. It is the world outside that box that gives me trouble. I have adapted tamely, though not conventionally, to this visible world so I can retreat without much inconvenience into my inner world of books.

An Unnecessary Woman (And Her Books) by Rabih Alameddine

Book Reviews, Fiction