Danny Ramadan, the enduring storyteller

Danny Ramadan has an intriguing way of answering a question.

“Let me tell you a story,” the Syrian-Canadian author, public speaker and longtime advocate for queer refugees says.

Ramadan is in every way a storyteller, a hakawati, who builds lyrical narrative around dichotomies; contrasting beauty with ugliness, tenderness with violence, love and loathing, all interwoven with memories bitter and sweet.

The most cherished and rewarding moments of a lifetime can occur as a person’s world descends into chaos, Ramadan said.

Case in point was the time following Ramadan’s return to the city of Damascus — as Syria’s military crackdown on pro-reform protests morphed into full-fledged civil war — and his home turned into a temporary safe haven and hub for LGBTQ people.

Members of the evolving community often stayed weeks at a time, gathering for chess, cards or video game tournaments along with sharing circles and movie nights.

Ramadan would download and project movies banned by the Assad regime, such as The Birdcage, Vagina Monologues and LGBTQ documentaries, onto bare walls.

Meanwhile, Syria and the ancient city Damascus spiralled into decay and violence.

“While the war was happening outside, I have to tell you, quite honestly, I enjoyed every single night,” Ramadan said.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful time,” said the writer, a former refugee who landed in Canada in 2014.

“I felt I had a purpose, and I was answering who I am as a Syrian.”

But the tension between such contradictory scenarios — a hallmark of Ramadan’s fiction — makes for a visceral, wild ride not unlike a roller coaster, he said.

“We’d mute the TV and be sitting there shooting stuff at each other in the video game while the sounds of machine guns were outside,” Ramadan said.

“That contrast and that heightened emotion stays with you, you can’t just shake it off … and it’s unique to my experience.”

A similar situation in Damascus plays out in one of the stories in Ramadan’s debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, which features a Scheherazade-inspired storyteller who tells his aged and dying partner a series of stories about the fractured journey of their lives in an effort to stave off death incarnate.

Heavily laden by magic realism, the tales are populated by ghosts, an ancient city’s lost glories, bursts of homophobic violence and family dysfunction, along with intimate conversations with the ever-present grim reaper.

“I’m a fabulist, a writer, a hakawati,” the narrator says at the beginning of the two men’s story together — which sees them fall in love in a country being torn apart, forced into exile in Lebanon and ultimately accepted for refuge in Canada where they grapple with the past and new experiences of hope and despair.

“The sweetest kisses are the ones we share in forbidden places,” the storyteller begins.

“The kiss I stole from you in the back of a dark cab roaming Damascus, while the driver was cursing at checkpoints and wars; the time I pulled you back into the changing room in H&M in Beirut and printed my lips upon yours; the one you gave me as we hid in the depth of tall grass on Vancouver’s Wreck Beach.”

This past winter, Ramadan drafted his autobiography, Crooked Teeth, slated for release in 2024, while hunkered down in a historic fishing lodge as the writer-in-residence at the Haig-Brown House in Campbell River on Vancouver Island.

Being snowed in alongside the banks of the river while revisiting difficult aspects of his past was not necessarily an easy thing to do, he said.

“But you can throw a rock at a river and the river will keep flowing no matter what, so it’s a good place (for writing),” Ramadan said.

Despite crafting a memoir, Ramadan, sitting in a historic white clapboard inn on Quadra Island after finishing the last reading tied to his residency, doesn’t think it’s valuable to parse out which aspects of his novels are fact or fiction.

A lot of readers ask if his work is autobiographical, Ramadan said, but it actually reflects many people’s experiences.

“I’m way more interested as an artist in what is true over what is real,” he said.

“I am interested in telling a truthful story about the refugee experience, and I don’t care if I added some real events from my life into it or if I didn’t.”

Like the traditional Syrian hakawati who carries a tome of tales designed to mesmerize cafe audiences, the author is looking to curate and share the diverse and infinite stories of the queer refugee experience, regardless of any similarities to his own journey.

His new novel, The Foghorn Echoes, to be released in August, tells the story of two boys in love in war-torn Syria whose lives are shattered by an explosive moment and how each deals with the ensuing shrapnel.

“These are two boys who come from the exact same background, who come from very similar families and a very similar history, who are faced with the same exact trauma but handling it in two completely different ways,” Ramadan said.

The two characters echo one another throughout the novel, in which war — both literal and symbolic — plays a big role, he said.

“The two characters are at war between each other, even when they’re so far away from each other, as well as at war with their own traumas.”

His two novels represent the first half of what Ramadan refers to as the Damascus Apocalypse Quartet, a set of four novels that reflect the four horsemen of pestilence, war, famine and death.

“I tried to do the angel of death as a character in the Clothesline Swing and wanted to see if I’m capable of bringing the theme of war into the Forgotten Echoes,” he said, adding he’s now confident about exploring the concepts of hunger and disease in coming novels.

“It feels like a tremendously volatile time in Damascus, it feels like an apocalypse, so I wanted to write four books that speak to that.”

Untangling an event of divine justice is intriguing and intricate, Ramadan said.

“The apocalypse is complicated,” he said.

“How do you judge who was righteous and who was sinful?”

Acknowledging the complexity of an apocalypse may be a useful tool for navigating our own lives, Ramadan said.

“It’s those contrasts that call to me,” he said.

“Because life continues as the apocalypse is happening.”

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer