Novella captures migrant’s dilemma

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July 11, 2013

 The Lebanese Dishwasher
By Sonia Saikaley
Published by Quattro Books, 146 pages, $14.94

Reviewed by Lynne Van Luven

Born and raised in Ottawa, Sonia Saikaley’s work stirringly represents her Middle Eastern heritage.  In the past year, Saikaley has published both a book of poems (Turkish Delight: Montreal Winter, Tsar Publications) and The Lebanese Dishwasher, which was a co-winner of the Ken Klonsky novella contest.

Through its compression, The Lebanese Dishwasher captures the marginalized but intense life of a 30-year-old immigrant named Amir. The action alternates between his earlier youth in Beirut and his current life in Montreal, where streets are slick with ice and opportunities fall far below his expectations. Not only is Amir unhappy in his work, he is at odds with his very being. For his whole life, he has fought against his nature, attempting to deny his own homosexuality, a situation made more acute after he is violently raped by a male neighbour when he is 12. As he turns 30, Amir faces increased pressure to mimic the norm his family expects: he is constantly urged to  “find a nice Middle Eastern girl,” and get on with raising a family.

For five years he has been trapped in a dead-end dishwashing job in a Middle Eastern restaurant, where his only offer of friendship comes from one of the cooks, Saleem. The tension within the contemporary narrative escalates when Saleem invites Amir to his home for dinner. Over the food-laden table, Amir meets Rami, who is Saleem’s nephew, recently arrived in Canada. As the pair’s sexual attraction blossoms, so does Saleem’s rage and disgust.

In addition, Amir has a casual sexual relationship with Denise, who loves him as an exotic and calls him her “Arabian prince,” but expects far more from him than he can deliver. Yes: complications.

Sonia Saikaley writes affectingly about immigrants who struggle to survive and to attain some modicum of the freedom and “good life” that impelled them to emigrate. And she captures with courage and clarity the patriarchal nature of many of her male characters who see women only as domestic slaves and the bearers of the children necessary to perpetuate the family line. In such men’s eyes, any hints of homosexuality are beyond abhorrent. Young men who do not flaunt their interest in women are suspect, little better than “dogs.”

Amir, like many migrants, thinks often of his former life, where the violence of his shrill mother is offset by the peace he experiences with his loving grandparents when he visits their farm and helps them pick olives and figs. The richness of Amir’s lost life contrasts strongly with the grime and drudgery of his Canadian existence.

The Lebanese Dishwasher showcases Saikaley’s talents well; I look forward to reading more of her work.

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