Almost forty years after fleeing war-torn Syria together in 2012 and settling in Vancouver, two old men, one of whom is terminally ill, are facing their final days together. “Tell me a story” says the dying man, and his partner, desperate to delay the loneliness, loss and grief the death of his long-term lover will bring, reflects that when he was a boy he used to write stories to save his own life, so would now tell his partner those same, and other, stories in the hope they would save his. Scheherazade-style, Hakawati (the Arabic word for a storyteller) entertains his lover with story after story so that, night by night death is kept at bay. However, black-clad Death becomes a real character as the story develops: he lingers in the corners of every room, ever-present, eavesdropping on the couple’s conversations, sharing their secrets and patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, awaiting the inevitable outcome of this attempt to thwart him.
The quality of the author’s storytelling skills immediately drew me into this moving, disturbing yet ultimately hopeful story. Through Hakawati’s reminiscences I felt I was travelling with him through his experiences of childhood abuse, living with a mentally ill mother, experiencing abandonment, the cruelty and prejudice he faced as a result of his homosexuality, his experiences of war-torn Syria, of being excluded, of being first a refugee and then an immigrant into a very different country and culture, facing all the adjustments necessary to fit in and to secure a settled future. Some of the descriptions of this culture shock, and of the stresses and strains faced by refugees, evocatively captured not only the pain of alienation, of necessarily repressed emotions being gradually revealed and re-experienced, but also of the relief and the healing calm which can follow such a release.
This is a book which at times feels almost unbearably raw and intimate, yet it engenders a sense that if its characters can face all the horrors they are experiencing I, as the reader, should be prepared to remain with them on their journeys, to attempt to capture something of what it must be like to “walk a mile” in their shoes. By engaging with this journey, I feel I have gained a much greater understanding not only of the troubled and tragic history of Syria and the Middle East, which is weaves in and out of the story, but also more insight into what life is like for anyone who doesn’t conform, who dares to be different.
The author’s beautiful, lyrical prose also captures, in a very evocative way, how the incredible beauty of Syria can feel so at odds with the brutality and oppression of the current regime. Much of the sense of optimism, and humour, in the story lies in the fact that, in spite of all the horrors, it is possible to hold onto hope, to find friendship, love, and for all to survive. The autobiographical element to the storytelling (the author is a gay, Syrian refugee who is now settled in Vancouver) means that the story is told with a visceral authenticity which permeates all of Hakawati’s reminiscences. I appreciated the fact that these reminiscences combined magical fantasies and fables with truly horrifying and disturbing accounts of the storyteller’s experiences of his troubled life. This felt like a very effective way of exploring some elements of the confusions faced by traumatised people when they attempt to understand what is “real” and what is fantasy in their recollections of past experiences.
Towards the end of the story, Hakawati’s partner reflects on the notion that art is “better left incomplete” because this allows the viewer to use their own imagination and experiences to fill in the gaps, to make the picture complete. The power of good storytelling also enables, even invites, the reader to do the same thing. It enables us to gain insights, to take something unique from a story, to allow it to complete a part of ourselves and, by doing so, to expand our experiences of the world, as well as our understanding of the experiences of other people. In this way it becomes possible to fully engage with the true intimacy of the storytelling, that special quality which has its own alchemy.
With his, at times, exquisite and poetic use of language, it’s hard to believe that this is not only the author’s debut novel, but his first using English to tell his story. Less difficult to believe is his previous experience with writing two collections of short stories (in Arabic) because it seems to me that he has managed to use this skill to write what is, in essence, a collection of short stories, but one which he has managed to transform into a coherent whole, to create a very impressive and satisfying novel. He has given a voice not only to Syrian refugees, but also to refugees and persecuted minorities everywhere. I cannot imagine how anyone reading this book won’t gain some new insights into the horrors faced by so many people who face the daily realities of oppression, brutality and alienation.
Apart from finding this a very moving, if at times, harrowing story, I think that the many important themes it encompasses would make it an ideal choice for reading groups.
Linda Hepworth 5/5
The Clothesline Swing by Ahmad Danny Ramadan
The Indigo Press 9781999683368 pbk May 2019