Danny Ramadan on the ‘unflinchingly’ honest truths of being a queer Syrian refugee

A Syrian man with tattoos on his arms and a beard smiles at the camera and crosses his arms.
Danny Ramadan is the author of Crooked Teeth. (Amanda Palmer)

The Next Chapter19:32Danny Ramadan on seeking refuge and acceptance

Vancouver-based author Danny Ramadan tells his story in Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir. He discusses facing persecution in his home country, and seeking refuge in Canada in hopes of succeeding as a free and fulfilled young queer man.

As a queer Syrian refugee, Danny Ramadan has continually experienced forced displacements which have distanced him from his hometown of Damascus. In his memoir, Crooked Teeth, Ramadan shares the pivotal moments in his life which led him to advocacy work.

A red book cover with an abstract pointy white tooth and black writing.
(Penguin Canada)

Crooked Teeth is Ramadan’s memoir that refutes the oversimplified refugee narrative and transports readers on an epic and often fraught journey from Damascus to Cairo, Beirut and Vancouver. Told with nuance and fearless intimacy about being a queer Syrian Canadian, Crooked Teeth revisits parts of Ramadan’s past he’d rather forget. 

Ramadan is a Vancouver-based Syrian Canadian author and advocate. His debut novel The Clothesline Swing was longlisted for Canada Reads in 2018 and his second novel The Foghorn Echoes won a Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction.

From the Arab Spring protests of 2011 to his own imprisonment, Ramadan discusses the challenging experience of writing his first work of nonfiction with Ali Hassan on The Next Chapter.

Your first words were quite powerful and quite challenging, immediately. You open your book by saying writing this memoir is a betrayal. Tell me why you said that. 

Despite public belief, I’m actually a very introverted person. I’m very private about the way that I lead my life and the way that I tell the truths about my experience as a queer refugee has always been through fiction. Fiction was my shield, it was the armour that protected me. It was the barrier between myself, my private self and the public image that you as an author have to put out there. When finally I found myself in a place where I’m ready to write a memoir, it felt like I was betraying a lot of my defence mechanisms and coping mechanisms that I created over the years. It felt that I am navigating a space that has always been private and I needed to to push through despite the fact that it felt like a betrayal.

Fiction was my shield, it was the armour that protected me.– Danny Ramadan

The Arab Spring pro-democracy protests hit Egypt right in 2011. You were working for a newspaper in Cairo at that time and you wrote that this moment of history changed your life personally. Can you talk about that?

I was living in Egypt between 2004 and 2011 and I had reached a point in Egypt where I was satisfied with my life. I was 20-something, I wasn’t a very mature person and I didn’t care for local politics — It’s not something that crossed my mind. But then the Arab Spring happened and I was thrusted into the middle of the protest, basically. I had a crash course in the political scene in Egypt and across the Middle East and that opened my eyes to a lot of the injustice that is happening in the country that hosted me… and the country that I belong to, which is Syria. But I think that moment of me witnessing all of this and finding truly what it means to grow up and to mature brought a lot of knowledge to me that I really needed at that time. 

A man carries a ballot and is smiling
Danny Ramadan says casting his first ballot as a Canadian was a “moment to remember.” (Ben Nelms/CBC)

You left Egypt and you moved back to Damascus and you created this place called Safe Home. Can you talk about Safe Home and what it is?

The Arab Spring is such a big thing. When it happened, it really forced a lot of people to mature quite fast and I think that pushed me back to Syria. I wanted to be part of that change in Syria. You can say it’s naive, but at the time I genuinely thought that [if] the same thing that happened in Tunisia and in Egypt, the Syrian regime is going to fall and maybe democracy is going to come into Syria as well. I wanted to be part of that change. I wanted to bring queer rights into that conversation. Naturally, a couple months later it was clear to us that that was not going to happen.

What started as a very authentic gathering… turned slowly but surely into a much more organized community hub for queer and trans folks.– Danny Ramadan

At the time, I was building friends in the queer community in Syria. What started as a very authentic gathering, people just being themselves in my house, turned slowly but surely into a much more organized community hub for queer and trans folks in Damascus. It was a safe retrieve from the civil war that was happening around us.

In May 2012, when you were coming back from a speaking engagement in Jordan, you were arrested at the Damascus airport. You had a therapist who told you that your childhood saved your life during that time that you were in prison. Can you talk about that?

During the time that I was in prison, I was asked and interviewed multiple times. And during that time, my ability to read somebody else’s emotions and to read their state of mind really saved my life. It allowed me to navigate them in a way that gave them the answers that they were hoping for, which I would say later on guaranteed my release. That is a skill, according to my therapist, that I learned when I was a child navigating the ups and downs of being in the same household as my mother who had mental health issues. If I didn’t have that experience I don’t think I would have been as relatively safe as I was in the Syrian prisons. 

Two men kiss
Vancouver author and activist Danny Ramadan, middle, posted this photo on Twitter. He says it’s one of his most cherished photos because it’s the moment he and his husband were married in 2019. (Danny Ramadan/Twitter)

You spent a few years in Beirut after that, that time was also spent awaiting to immigrate to Canada. When you landed in Vancouver, how would you say those first six months compared to that time you’d spent in Beirut?

In Beirut, my life was basically on pause because when you’re waiting to immigrate to somewhere else, why would you have dreams about the place that you’re in? So I was basically running in circles. The truth is I had no idea what Canada is. I’ve never been before. I’ve never been anywhere in the Western world. My only knowledge about what it means to live in North American society is through TV shows like Friends

Crooked teeth grow with a noble purpose.– Danny Ramadan

I always joke that I replaced my homophobia back in the Middle East with racism here. Living in the Middle East, being part of the homogeneous culture that is Syria or the brown people culture that is Egypt, I never felt discriminated against for being of the colour skin that I am, for looking different. If anything, as a lighter-skinned brown person, I received a lot of privileges, right? Then I come here to Canada, and suddenly I realized that racism is a thing. It manifested itself in many different ways, from microaggressions to job opportunities denied to people who thought that I am their refugee and they need to dictate how my life would have to go.

Without giving too much away, can you tell me about Crooked Teeth and what it is that we’re seeing on the front cover of your memoir?

There is a narrative reason why I call the book Crooked Teeth, but I’m not going to reveal that because it happens very close to the end of the book. But what I want to say about that is that crooked teeth grow with a noble purpose. They hope to feed you, they hope to bite into food, they hope to protect you if you need to. They have no idea that they’re crooked, they are different because of the other teeth around them being so straight. So crooked teeth are judged for the look, for who they are because of what is around them and I was hoping to bring in this understanding that growing up queer — crooked in a way — in that society, that being different here in this society is just the way of being, it’s not something to be corrected. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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