It is no secret that most Middle Eastern and North African countries prohibit same-sex relationships. Some, like Yemen or Saudi Arabia, can go as far as punishing it with the death penalty, depending on the circumstances. Article 520 of the Syrian penal code states that “any unnatural sexual intercourse shall be punished with a term of imprisonment of up to three years”. This is the most widespread sentencing in the region, with it applying as well in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman. Under these appalling standards, these are also the countries where the law is the most lenient, to the exception of Jordan and Bahrain, where homosexuality is legal, and Iraq, where the matter is unclear. However, the absence of same-sex criminalization is far from granting the absence of discrimination, something no Arab country is free of.
Despite the struggle, members of the queer Arab community have and will continue to find ways to bloom.
I remember when I met Danny at the book launch of the French translation of his first novel, “The Clothesline Swing”. It was during Montreal Pride Week of 2019, which actually took place in the course of two weeks, during which countless events were happening throughout the city, inside and outside of the Gay Village. The feminist bookstore I was part of was situated inside of the Gay Village and was an active member of its community.
It was not often that MENA authors were invited, so as the only member of the staff from the region, I made it a point to attend this event, where I had the pleasure to meet an author whose compassion and courage, combined with extraordinary literary skills, far granted the many awards he was the recipient of.
Ahmad Danny Ramadan was born in Damascus 1984. He studied English Literature at Damascus University and proceeded to work as a journalist and writer in both Syria and Egypt. In Damascus, he ended up hosting an underground gay scene at his apartment. He had to leave for Beirut before asking asylum to Canada, where he graduated from the prestigious University of British Columbia with a MFA in Creative Writing, and became a well-known author and activist at Rainbow Railroad, an organization aimed to help LGBTQ+ refugees.
“The Clothesline Swing” is a semi-autobiographical novel where a man referred to as Hakawati tell to his dying lover, in Vancouver, British Columbia, his memories of growing up gay in Syria. Danny’s second book, “Salma the Syrian Chef”, is a children book who tells the story of a little Syrian refugee girl in Canada who wants to make her mom happy by cooking for her a traditional Syrian meal, but meets challenges as she struggles to find the recipes, where to buy the appropriate spices, etc.
We meet with this author as he shares with us his journey from the hardships of his youth to its emergence as a successful, blossoming, well-translated cultural figure.
1. What are your most vivid memories of growing up gay in Syria (and at some point, Egypt) ?
Digging deep right away, I see. Hmm, I would say that most of my memories in both countries are of the spiritual communities I created there. Friends and chosen family that I otherwise won’t be where I am if it wasn’t for them. For example, memoires in Syria include my first crush, a boy at school who never thought to acknowledge me except for that one time that I remember vividly. My attempts to negotiate my homosexuality with God, and hoping for some higher answer. Saying weird things like “I am going to count my steps from point A to point B, and if the final step is at odds, then God loves me no matter what.”
As for Egypt, I think the majority of my memories are of being sexually liberated: finding kin, lovers, and friends; and finding a place for myself there. I would say that Egypt allowed me to be who I am because of its distance from Syria, and because I became a loner with no blood attachment to anyone, allowing me to create meaningful attachments to those I cared for.
2. Tell us about the underground gay scene at your apartment.
Oh, I am writing a whole book about that right now. Where to start? We started as just a couple of friends; me -a gay man, and my best friend- a lesbian. We invited our friends, who invited their friends, and we slowly and organically created a community around us. The community became attached to the house, almost addicted to it. Think of it: it was a place unlike any other across the whole city. We were left alone to be as outrageously queer as we want to be. It was a gem for all of us, and I wish it lasted, honestly.
3. You said the Syrian government asked you to leave Syria. Were you banned from the country? If so, why? Did they threaten you?
I was arrested in May 2012, then released in June 2012, and told that if I stayed in the country, I will be arrested again. I wouldn’t be able to tell you why I was arrested, mainly because no one told me why. I was taken at the airport in Damascus on my way back from Jordan, and then released weeks later. In a matter of days, I was out of the country and on my way to Beirut.
I don’t know what will happen if I return to Syria now. I assume that I will be arrested again. So, I would rather not take my chances.
4. How was your experience in Beirut, then in Canada?
That’s a big question. Life in Beirut felt like I’m living on the margins, I did not know what tomorrow holds, and was struggling with everyday tasks like decent living, water and power. But also, as I said before, there is a complex perspective that needs to be established here. I did not sit in Beirut wailing in misery everyday; I had a group of friends, we hung out, we had jobs, we tried to survive and we laughed, loved and were doing the best we can. I think that period of time taught me so much about the complex human experience, and what it means to be a full human even in dark times.
The Clothesline Swing
5. What was the catalyst(s) for you to write The Clothesline Swing at that specific time of your life? What motivated you?
I honestly never sat down thinking to myself “I want to write a novel”. I was living in Beirut at the time, and I was struggling quite a lot mentally. I did not know at the time that I was living with PTSD. I just wrote down the story because it made me feel better about the world around me, and what I am doing to survive it. It felt therapeutic, and I think it indeed was.
When I finished writing the book I didn’t even think anyone would ever read it. When it was published, I honestly thought only my friends would buy it. I am still as surprised as everyone else that it was successful.
6. You said you weren’t keen on your book being translated in Arabic. Why is that?
It is not that I am not keen, but look at how complex that would be. Firstly, we need to find an Arabic publisher who is willing to publish a book representing queerness in a positive light, a translator who will use accurate terms, then we will see the feedback from the community. I am trying to be trustful of the Arab world, but the Arab world hasn’t been the best; especially when it comes to the media. In 2015, for example, a story went across major Arabic channels and news outlets, with my photo in it, saying that I was the first gay Syrian refugee to ever get married to my husband. I was single at the time, and the story was completely fabricated, but then I spent weeks after receiving death threats and hate mail. I don’t know if I want to go through that once more.
7. Tell us about your activism work in Vancouver, with Rainbow Railroad and among the Syrian community.
As an LGBTQ activist, I have involved in coordinating online and on the ground efforts to support Queer and Trans identifying refugees from Syria to immigrate to Canada. I run the annual fundraiser, An Evening in Damascus, to support those efforts and donate the money back to Rainbow Refugee. Since May 2015, I raised over $200,00 to support a total of ten other LGBTQ-identifying Syrian refugees; and participated in efforts to ensure safe passage to 28 Syrian Queer and Trans refugees to Canada.
I used to be much more involved in actual relocation of queer Syrian refugees to Canada. A couple of years ago, however, I focused more on fundraising. The reason being that I honestly had to put my mental health front and centre; working with truamatized queer refugees without the experience of how to support them was a huge burden, and one such refugee passed away weeks before his travel date to Canada, which truly broke my heart.
Currently, I am completely focused on fundraising and advocacy in Canada. Hoping that the next generation will continue the work as I focus on what I can do best.
8. What motivated you to make Salma the Syrian Chef? What was the impact you heard the book had?
A couple of years ago, I woke up longing for a traditional Damascene breakfast. I did not want another protein shake or pancakes. I wanted oily Labneh and stuffed Makdoos and yummy fresh Foul Shami. So, I invited many friends over to my house for a brunch gathering (remember those?!) and I tasked each one with bringing an item for me to make this Damascene feast.
Some of my friends are from my own culture, while others are from neighboring cultures, or were born on the other side of the world. It was almost hilarious looking at my text messages as they traveled from across the city toward my home, and sought ingredients that they never heard of before. Pictures were shared, voice notes were sent, Google Translate was heavily used to find the English names of rare spices. A couple of hours later, and around lunchtime by then, I was finally in the kitchen making these delicious dishes for my friends. They awed and wowed, and we had a marry good time gathering around our food, talking about our cultures, and the similarities of our cuisines.
By that evening, I had the rough first draft of Salma the Syrian Chef written down.
I think that when we write complex topics into children’s literature, we offer the children the respect they deserve: they deserve to know the world as it is now, rather than a fantastical projected version of it. They deserve to participate in the change we are hoping to see in the world, and they deserve to be leaders for their own lives, and their own communities. I think offering such complex stories in an appropriate way to children is truly the way to build up empathy.
9. What are your next literary projects?
My next book is The Foghorn Echoes, coming out Summer 2022 with Penguin Random House. I will also be releasing my memoir, Crooked Teeth, in the summer of 2024. I have a collection of short stories, The Syrian Survival Notebook, which I have been building over the years, so maybe you will see that soon too.
During the book launch, I remember a man asking questions while seeming on the verge of tears. He looked both gay and Arab, and as he might have been waiting for this his whole life. Feeling seen, his experience accounted for.
I can only imagine what the multiplication of stories and cultural representation can mean for the queer Arab community, who has long struggled to reconcile its two identities in a way that feels safe, but there is no doubt that Ahmad left an immutable legacy to this fight – and he’s not done yet.