The sweetest taboo
Myth and Mideast serve as backdrop for forbidden love story
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/06/2017 (1881 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ahmad Danny Ramadan has crafted a novel that compels readers to share — vicariously, with his characters — the beauty and history of Syria, the horrors of civil war and the joy, release and pain of forbidden love.
The Clothesline Swing, Ramadan’s first novel in English, is both a lament for Syria and a gay love story — mostly tender, sometimes bittersweet — which unfolds against the backdrop of the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war.
The author, who now lives in Vancouver, left his home in Syria to escape persecution after he came out as gay. For eight years, he travelled throughout the Mideast before emigrating to Vancouver in 2014. The Clothesline Swing draws on his experience both as a gay Syrian and a refugee.
Ramadan patterns his novel after the classic Arabian tales of One Thousand and One Nights. His three principal characters are the storyteller (known as a Hakawati in Syria), his aging lover and Death. The Hakawati is in a tug-of-war with Death for the soul of his dying lover.
Death challenges the Hakawati’s motive. “You are not telling the stories to keep him alive… You are telling the stories because you don’t want to face life without him.”
For Muslims, “The soul is the glue that holds the body together,” one of the Hakawati’s lovers tells him. Despite thinking this idea is “rather cartoonish,” the Hakawati frequently uses the soul to spin out his stories.
Death tries to force the Hakawati to face his past “to see the beauty in it.” But his stories are haunted by personal demons. He was savagely beaten by his father when he came out as gay and his mother, plunging into madness, tried to kill him.
“She dipped her face into the dark water of her fantasies and never came back,” the Hakawati says, fearing he is following her into that same dark water.
There are fond recollections of preparation for the nightly feasts when a day of Ramadan fast has ended, balanced by bitter memories of gay-bashing.
On rainy Vancouver nights, where the lovers have finally settled, Death plays games with the souls of the dead. Once, he brings the soul of former Syrian leader Hafez al Assad for an exposition on his dreams for the country.
Under Assad’s rule during the 1960s, Syria enjoyed prosperity. But there were no civil rights protecting gays. “For us foreplay wasn’t sweet touches and soft kisses; it was finding a place where no police officers, angry parents or nosy neighbours would find us,” the Hakawati reminds his lover.
The civil war period was “a busy time,” Death says. “I was hired by lunatics… They throw their bombs. I collected their souls. The hundreds of thousands of them. I worked hard.” Yet, Death brings a sense of humour to his job. If you die while you are stoned, your soul will taste like blueberries, he says.
There is a tinge of bitterness in the Hakawati’s stories about Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Driven out of their homes by the Israelis in 1948, a whole generation of Palestinians “grew up inheriting the keys to homes long destroyed in their grandfathers’ land.”
Stories of refugees’ struggles adapting to life in Canada are a timely reminder of the cultural chasm that must be bridged. Sometimes, social cues are missed; Canadians talking about the weather leaves refugees feeling they are being pushed away. That’s how the topic is used in Syria.
The Clothesline Swing is an enjoyable, if challenging, cultural and historical excursion.
Gordon Arnold is a Winnipeg writer.