Ahmad Danny Ramadan lost his family and his home, but managed to gain his freedom and find his creative voice.
Born in Syria in 1984, the author, refugee and LGBTQ activist was granted asylum by Canada in 2014.
“I came out to my family when I was 17 and they didn’t accept it and that was the end of our path together. I left the house and I never went back,” Ramadan recounted to The Media Line.
“I grew up with the knowledge that my society, the religion of my family, my family—all reject the concept of homosexuality,” he said. “But at the same time, that feeling of love towards someone else was the most beautiful feeling that I had.”
Ramadan is currently in Jerusalem for the 7th International Writers Festival and International Book Forum, which is being held in a picturesque neighborhood overlooking the Old City. A celebration of literature, the annual event brings together leading Israeli and international authors. This year, the prestigious Jerusalem Prize was awarded to acclaimed American novelist Joyce Carol Oates.
As for Ramadan, he described to The Media Line his harrowing run-in with Syrian authorities and subsequent experience as a refugee.
“I got arrested [at the airport in Syria] and ended up in prison for around six weeks. Then when they released me, I became persona non grata. I ended up being a refugee in Lebanon,” he said.
“The day I left Syria in 2014, I didn’t actually want to go. It is the place that I was born; it’s the place that I call home; it’s the place that I kissed a boy for the first time and the place that I climbed a tree for the first time,” Ramadan explained, adding that he is nevertheless “very happy that I’m in Canada and part of that community.”
Ramadan is also an LGBTQ activist and regularly volunteers with the Vancouver-based Rainbow Refugee organization, which supports people seeking to resettle in Canada. While the writer mainly focuses his efforts on helping gay Syrian refugees, Rainbow Refugee works with citizens from dozens of countries where homosexuality is illegal.
Ramadan’s first novel in English, The Clothesline Swing (2017), tells the story of two lovers in the aftermath of the Arab Spring and was recently translated into Hebrew.
“[The book is] about the wisdom of the elders in the queer community [and] the complex experience of being a refugee,” Ramadan told The Media Line. “It’s [about] resilience within the refugee community as well as the power of nostalgia, love and holding on to a place that now only exists in your mind.”
Ramadan draws on numerous sources of inspiration, including works from Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, as well as Egyptian novelists Radwa Ashour and Mohamed Mansi Qandil.
Regarding his trip to Israel, Ramadan stressed that many people demanded he boycott the literary event.
“I think that I have critical opinions of the Israeli government, specifically [with respect to] human rights violations,” he said, before qualifying that “multiple other factors play into this complex story. One of them of course is that I don’t have a very high horse to ride on coming from Syria where the government is committing crimes against its own people.
“I don’t represent anybody—I’m just myself,” Ramadan said.
Currently, the author is working on several projects including a novel titled The Foghorn Echoes, which will be published as part of his thesis for the Masters in Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia.
Ramadan says the book will examine the “lies we tell ourselves and each other to justify the acts of war and the acts of conflict that we cause upon one another.”
Joyce Carol Oates on her Jewish Roots
Writers, publishers and agents gathered at the festival in Jerusalem in order to converse with their peers and pay tribute to this year’s guest of honor: Joyce Carol Oates, one of America’s most acclaimed authors who has published over 100 books.
In an interview with The Media Line, Oates opened up about her grandmother Blanche Morgenstern’s Jewish roots. After fleeing Germany in the late 19th century for upstate New York, Morgenstern never spoke of her heritage and it was only after she died in 1970 that a biographer uncovered details of the family’s religion.
The impact of the discovery is something Oates explored in depth in her 2007 novel The Gravedigger’s Daughter.
“[My grandmother’s] family came over in the 1890s and I’m not sure when she was born but she never identified as Jewish so we didn’t know that,” Oates told The Media Line. “My father didn’t know. I didn’t really know. I wrote a whole novel trying to imagine what her life had been like without knowledge of her [actual] background.”
Oates also expressed concern over growing incidences of anti-Semitism, describing the phenomenon as both “disgusting” and “upsetting.” She also noted the “tragic” increase in violence and hate crimes in the United States.
During her acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, a distinction she referred to as a “high point” in an already accomplished career, Oates spoke at length about her grandmother’s support and encouragement.
“It fills me with sorrow that I know so little of this person who figured so monumentally in my life. It’s as if I struggle to open a door – and beyond is a wall, blank and unyielding,” she concluded.