With nearly half a million Syrians dead and an estimated 10 million internally and globally displaced since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011, it’s no wonder that Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s The Clothesline Swing should feature Death himself as a living, breathing, joint-smoking character. This debut novel from the Vancouver-based Syrian writer reads as many things – a coming-out memoir, a history lesson, a critique of authoritarianism, a narrative about sharing narratives – but above all, it’s a requiem for a dying country and people.
In the Vancouver of a few decades from now, two unnamed, elderly lovers begin their long farewell. One is on his deathbed while the other, a Hakawati (fabulist), spins stories – both fairy tales and the all-too-real kind – to prolong their time together. This intimate setting is interrupted by Death, who hangs out with the lovers and expresses bafflement at the storyteller, who has escaped his clutches several times before.
Indeed, as the storyteller recalls scene after scene from his family history in Damascus, the reader wonders how anyone could have survived so much hate, violence, and degradation of the human spirit. The Hakawati’s mother lost her mind while he was still a child and once tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. The father’s retrograde notion of Arab masculinity inflicts physical and emotional pain on his gay, comic-book-loving son. (Those tight, bulge-revealing outfits superheroes wear really do make the father very nervous.) Even when the narrator escapes Damascus for what he believes to be the relative safety of Cairo, he falls victim to a gay-bashing crime committed by his own friends in a textbook case of homosexual panic. Much of this takes place before the Syrian civil war even begins.
What make these stories heartbreaking are the glimpses Ramadan provides of a once-serene Syria, symbolized by a swing made of clothesline that the narrator’s father crafted for his young wife. From the safety of her balcony, she often rocked her son and herself to sleep, unaware of internal and external battles to come. Ramadan also offers insights into the lovers’ early years as refugees in Canada, complete with a swipe at the saviour complex of one of their Canadian sponsors. These moments, while lacking the intensity of the Syria-set recollections, nevertheless document the lives of gay refugees to this country. (Ramadan came to Canada as a refugee in 2014 and is known for his work in activism and journalism.)
It’s in perennially overcast Vancouver that the “crushing weight of so much past,” to quote Gabriel García Márquez – whose words lend the novel its epigram and whose literary spirit haunts the book – catches up with the Hakawati and, unfortunately, also with Ramadan. The novel comes close to becoming a dumping ground of memories. The Death character emerges as the main source of the book’s more leaden dialogue, while the Arabian Nights inspiration of a male Scheherazade feels like a carefully constructed Orientalism intended to draw in western readers.
At times I wondered if The Clothesline Swing wouldn’t have been more gripping as a memoir. I’m not suggesting that everything here is autobiographical, nor do I want to conflate the narrator and novelist, but Ramadan could have handled the lines between the two genres with more care. The gay French-Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa managed auto-fiction in a shorter form and to a more literary effect in his 2012 novel, An Arab Melancholia. By comparison, The Clothesline Swing suffers as its author wavers in the interstices between non-fiction and fiction, and turns for the first time to writing in English, after two collections of short stories in Arabic. But while the stylistic lapses occasionally distract, they take nothing from the urgency and power of this book as a whole.
The immediacy of the personal stories in The Clothesline Swing serve as testimony and a record of gay life in the Middle East at the turn of the 21st century. I know that culture, and have written about an earlier period of it (the 1970s and early ’80s). I’m tempted to say that Ramadan brings that cultural examination up to date, but, in essence, not much has changed. By committing memories to the page in the form of a portrait of the novelist as a young man, Ramadan reveals how homophobia in the Arab world builds on a toxic social culture that discriminates against women, dissenters, and anyone different.
The book resonates because it’s a story of a man whose past lives come as a shock as much to himself as to the reader: “A man I don’t understand anymore,” the Hakawati reflects about his former self. How do you recount, let alone understand, an ongoing genocide? That the novel’s two refugees are now old folks suggests that neither time nor storytelling will alleviate the pain of this particular moment in history. But we now have a stirring fictional window onto it.