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Excerpt from Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir 

I am going to take a moment here to ask you: What do you expect me to write about my six weeks in a Syrian dungeon? What more can I offer that might make this story worthy of your time?

Writing about this experience wouldn’t ease it for me, and reading about it wouldn’t validate this book for you. Would a detailed description of the physical and emotional abuse I experienced make this story more complete? Would it make me more worthy of your pity, your sympathy? Or confirm the false dichotomy that Syria is bad and Canada is good? It’s easy to paint the world in black and white, to navigate life in absolutes.

In one of my latest speaking engagements, I stood six feet apart from a group of locals at a writer’s residency and smiled while introducing myself. I joked, as I always do, throwing in a couple of tried-and-tested one-liners. The crowd laughed, and some even clapped in amusement. Then the facilitator opened the floor for a Q&A.

“I just don’t understand,” someone asked from the back of the room. “How can you be so happy?” I sighed and looked to the moderator, who didn’t seem bothered by the question. The crowd eagerly awaited a response.

“I could stand here and talk to you about my trauma,” I began, my voice stern. “I can fall apart onstage and spend days picking up the pieces for your entertainment. I can confirm all your assumptions. But then you’ll have to pay my therapy bill.”

Everyone laughed.

“It’s easy for me to confirm what you think I went through, but instead I’ll tell you this: I once got high with my friends in Beirut, sat on the edge of a window overlooking the city, legs dangling out, and watched the sunrise colour our home red. Was that dangerous and dumb? Yes, but it’s also a happy memory. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face when I tell that story. I feel the embrace of my friends. My past is complex, and I have accepted that. Can you do the same?”

Silence fell upon the room.

What I suspect this audience member meant was that I did not look traumatized. I did not stutter or shake or cry when I talked about Syria. I fluently spoke a language I wasn’t born to speak; I took up space with an authority I wasn’t afforded by the colour of my skin. I defeated a stereotype that feels foreign to who I am, and it makes me feel powerful.

In my speeches and interviews I breeze through the mention of my arrest. I say it bluntly: I was arrested for six weeks by the Syrian regime, then I became a refugee in Lebanon. Curiosity flickers in the eyes of my audience, and they wait for the platter of trauma to be served. I reject that expectation and move on to the next story. When pressed by overzealous journalists, I set a clear boundary and say that I don’t care to talk about it. I feel there is a right to privacy that I should own, a right to self-determination around what you get to see of me and what I keep to myself. It’s an honest answer to an overwhelming question. It’s within my rights to reject it and to be a happy Syrian.

You and I talked about trust in the opening pages of this book. I promised to trust you with my stories, and you promised to trust me in my telling. Here I am, trusting you with what I’ve told you so far. Am I betraying this trust by not detailing more of the bloody moments I care nothing to share? Are you disappointed? Is there a value to the nights I spent cornered in a cell with a dozen or so other prisoners? Is there meaning to be distilled from the cigarette burn on my side or the permanent scar on my left foot? Counting my wounds won’t bring you enlightenment. I doubt I am denying you a truth that would enhance your understanding of my experience.

I understand my responsibility as a memoirist to excavate the past and bring you pearls of wisdom from my lived experience. I take this responsibility seriously, and I am telling you—there is no more value to what I can tell you, only harm.

You have been a good reader to me. You have turned these pages and trodden softly between my words. For that, I am thankful. I ask you now to trust me that I have uncovered enough. To believe that I have written and rewritten this chapter countless times until I found the right balance between what I can tell and what I must keep to myself. Trust my silence as you’ve trusted my voice. This is as far as I can go.

Danny Ramadan is a Syrian-Canadian author, public speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ+ refugees. He is the author of two novels, The Clothesline Swing and The Foghorn Echoes, and four titles, including Salma the Syrian Chef, for young readers. Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir publishes on May 28.

Danny Ramadan (Hannes van der Merwe)

Excerpted from Crooked Teeth by Danny Ramadan. Copyright © 2024 Danny Ramadan. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangements with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

By: Danny Ramadan

May 15th, 2024

11:01 am

Category: Excerpt, Writing Life

Issue Date: May 2024

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