Death, religion, and the plight of AIDS are hardly new topics for Rabih Alameddine. Since his literary debut in 1998, he has woven these and other difficult subjects seamlessly throughout his works, including Koolaids: The Art of War, The Hakawati, and An Unnecessary Woman.
In his latest novel, last year’s The Angel of History, these themes unite once again in the story of Jacob, a Yemeni immigrant. Through his memories we learn his history. Born into privilege yet raised in a brothel, we follow him from Beirut to San Francisco.
It all culminates, one night, in the waiting room of a psych clinic, where Death and Satan themselves play games with his remembrances. He will need the guidance of the fourteen Holy Helpers—saints who aid people stricken my physical and mental anguish—and perhaps his cat Behemoth, to get through the night. Jacob has leaned on them all his life, as he faced abuse at the hands of predatory nuns; when he fought shame over his skin, religion, and sexuality; when he tried to break his body through drugs and sadomasochism; when he lost his lover, Doc, to AIDS.
Alameddine allows us to travel with Jacob through minutes, decades, and even centuries, to understand his personal suffering while exploring larger themes of Arab identity, gay stigma, and the demons that, regardless of faith, haunt us all.
We spoke last winter, by phone.
The Rumpus: Let’s talk about the religious iconography in your novel. You draw from Muslim themes, Catholicism, Greek mythology, even Judy Garland. How does religion factor into your life and work, if at all?
Rabih Alameddine: It factors a great deal. I’m an atheist, a devout atheist, but I find religion fascinating. Primarily because of cultural references, as in: This is what we grew up with. Both on a personal level and a collective level.
For me, it’s like if you look at the Koran or the Bible, they all tell the same stories. You see them as the stories of the Middle East. The stories reflect who these people were in the Middle East, and this is where Western culture came from. All our literature is basically influenced by these great myths. So I’m fascinated by it. You could almost say I’m obsessed with it. But if you’re asking about the effect of religion on my life—almost everything I do is opposed to the practice of religion.
Rumpus: One of the most powerful scenes in the book is when Jacob is at dinner with two younger gay men and feels anger at both their ignorance and dismissal of the plague he and his friends had to suffer through. Do you feel, as we get further away from the 1980s and the height of the AIDS epidemic, that there’s an unbridgeable generational divide between homosexuals of different ages?
Alameddine: I don’t think it’s unbridgeable, that’s for sure. But there is a divide, and in many ways there should be a divide. The trouble I have, and it was the main theme of The Angel of History, is that it is Jacob who has forgotten. It is Jacob who has allowed this to go on. The ‘kids,’ or younger generation, do not remember. Well, they weren’t there!
What is of interest is that those of us who were have put it aside. This is what Jacob has to do and pay penance for, in many ways, because he does say “I’m the one who forgot.” And he did it to go on living.
It’s sort of what happened to me personally. I remember all my friends dying. But around 1996, when things settled down a little bit, I [unconsciously] decided I needed to go on living. That’s when I wrote my first book. Basically, I had to forget in order to write, although it was a book about AIDS. We could not go on with this kind of trauma. Yes, I’m upset with the younger generation. Jacob is upset, too, but he turns it back into how responsible was he.
Rumpus: Jacob endures quite a bit of self-abuse through BDSM, drug use, depression, and the voices of Satan. Is it related to some kind of survivor’s remorse? If so, is it just from AIDS, or also having escaped the Middle East?
Alameddine: It’s definitely not just from AIDS. Primarily, I’m using it as a metaphor for gay shame and Arab shame. He grew up in a postcolonial country where the whole idea of the nuns is to make him feel bad, make him feel less than. This is something all of us from the colonies internalize.
For someone like me and my generation, you had to speak French to be sophisticated, you had to be lighter-skinned. I remember growing up in a family where the worst thing that could happen would be if the child was born darker-skinned. They would pray. So of course Jacob had to be darker-skinned and he had to internalize that shame. Then there’s the gay shame, ‘bottom’ shame, whatever you want it call it. Growing up thinking everyone is better than you. Everyone. So he internalizes all that as well.
Rumpus: That also plays into the themes of exoticism, such as when Doc fetishizes Jacob and, indeed, all brown men. Let’s talk about the fascinating short story of the wild Arab in the cage at a dinner party.
Alameddine: It was inspired by Slawomir Mrozek, who is a wonderful Polish writer. The story is called “Birthday Party,” published quite some time ago. In his story, it was quite a different thing. The person in the cage was a liberal who could sing. So they had him there to entertain them. Of course, I loved the idea, so I put the Arab in the cage.
Rumpus: Another scene introduces a boy that Jacob has locked up in his basement. Do you think, after the story concludes, that Jacob would ever consider letting that boy out?
Alameddine: As someone who has let the boy out, I don’t know. I do think he would; I’m just not sure we have time to figure it out. The whole idea is that, because of how he grew up, the nuns would have to kill the boy. For me, who has been out since I can remember, this is one of my obsessions. When he goes back to his house toward the end, it’s like Buddha going up the mountain and coming back down. As opposed to Jesus, who goes up to heaven and promises to come back. For me, he has to return home. He comes the door but I don’t know what’s going to happen when he enters the house.
Rumpus: I would be remiss if it didn’t ask your thoughts on the current situation going on in Lebanon with Hezbollah and Syria’s refugees.
Alameddine: It’s a little confusing. The whole world is going insane right now. We, too, have our own problems. The president of Lebanon is an arch-menace. But I think, as horrid as he is—and he is absolutely insane—he’s still more sane than Trump, so that tells me a lot.
I have worked with Syrian refugees for the last four years. I was working with them in Lebanon, getting stories down. I went to Greece as well. I understand the situation more than most people, but it’s still very confusing.
The crime this regime is perpetuating is amazing. And Hezbollah backs the regime. Their reasons are many, but most of the rebels fighting them have been massacred. The only people left are Islamic fundamentalists. It gets a little confusing as to who is doing what to whom. All I can tell you is the people who get screwed are the people who always get screwed: the common people.
Rumpus: Religion aside, are there any of the fourteen Holy Helpers you call on most often?
Alameddine: No, not really. I would call on Pantaleon [the Holy Helper of Physicians]. In my mind, he’s the funniest. I made him so gay, it’s really lovely. A friend of mine wrote a novel about St. Barbara becoming Creole in today’s world. She’s the one who introduced me to the fourteen Holy Helpers. I find them fascinating as a whole group. But no, I’m not very superstitious…
Rumpus: Even with cats?
Alameddine: God no! Even with cats. If there’s anybody I pray to, it’s my psychiatrist.