What is a motherland? What is a mother? What is our land? What does it mean to have a mother, to be from a mother? To have this motherland? To be mothered? And how do these mothers teach us to love? And what do they teach us about love anyway? The narrative of Syrian refugee and Vancouverite Ahmad Danny Ramadan’s first novel, The Clothesline Swing, engages with these questions again and again, surrounding each answer with even more questions. Taking each gentle step through both question and tentative answer, Ramadan suffuses his story with his uncanny comprehension of love and loss and of the precarious links between motherhood and selfhood. Ramadan’s work is an unforgettable elegy to the fragile sense of self, family and homeland that, at times, seems out of reach for all of us.
Hakawati (which means ‘storyteller’ and is the only name we get for the novel’s main character) begins the main throughline of the story by revealing that his partner of many years is dying of an unnamed illness, perhaps cancer. His grief comes to the foreground as he tries to deal with the impending death by spending his days nursing and telling stories while remaining in their lush Vancouver home. It is in this house where memories of the past and present coalesce. As Hakawati attempts to spend his last moments with his partner, he must also try to placate Death, who has come to take Hakawati’s partner from him. Hakawati attempts to assuage Death the only way he knows how, with stories, memories and tales, in a direct homage to One Thousand and One Nights, the Arabic collection of Middle Eastern folktales. Like Scheherazade (a name that can mean ‘noble lineage’), Hakawati sees his own stories, those of his life and those he has read and heard, as a type of drug or panacea meant to keep Death away or at least hold him back as long as possible. As both lovers come to terms with death/Death, their intimate relationships with other men, the violence they suffered for those relationships coupled with the violence that surfaces in their families and their home country are also reconciled. In one early moment in the story, Hakawati considers the various ways he might waylay Death and ends up realizing that all his stories lead to an ultimate realization:
I should tell Death the truth. At the end of the day, he knows it already. Since that day I ran from my mother’s house, I have never stopped running.
Two mothers figure prominently in The Clothesline Swing. These mothers, and Hakawati’s memories of them, form a large part of the novel, and stand centrally in any understanding of the insights that Ramadan gives us in his magnificent story of homosexuality, grief, and the dark days of Syrian displacement and war.
‘Mother’ Syria is where the unnamed couple at the centre of Ramadan’s novel were born. The narrative explores the story of Syria’s rise in the 1920s under French rule through its secession from the United Arab Republic (Egypt) in the 1960s to its current regime led by the Assad family. We travel to Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt. The violence done to the surrounded Mother Syria is echoed in multiple ways by Ramadan, through literal violence both to her and her people, and through the political and social regimes that continually try to write and rewrite her history. Ramadan shares some of this mother Syria in a poignant moment when Hakawati sits with a few other gay men and a bunch of “dykes” playing Mortal Kombat in Damascus. They play without the sound on, relying on the bombs and shootings not far from their refuge to provide the soundtrack. They are not disappointed.
The second ‘mother’ is the mother of Hakawati. This mother emotionally abandons and physically threatens Hakawati after a miscarriage and then tumbles into schizophrenia at an early age. Hakawati’s mother, however, does have a positive dramatic impact across his young life. Hakawati reveals the image behind the novel’s title when he writes, “in the darkness of the night, I used to hear my parents whispering loving words. They used to tell each other stories…On the balcony, my father built her a swing using old clotheslines and an abandoned pillow.” The echoes of the clothesline and pillow pulse strongly in Hakawati’s late-night storytelling to his partner as they lie in bed and Death retreats to a dark corner.
Both mothers could be symbolized by the glass rose that sits on the decaying wedding dress of Hakawati’s mother: fragile and easily broken; stored in the back of a closet but taken out on rare occasions, its pieces finally falling apart and tumbling to the floor. At other times in Ramadan’s story, motherlands are versions of Den lille havfrue, The Little Mermaid, possessing legs without a voice, or having a voice but no legs to carry them forward; neither choice offers real freedom or the real ability to speak.
From Aleppo to Damascus to Egypt and beyond, it is finally in Vancouver that Hakawati and his partner end up after a do-gooder sponsors them to come to Canada as refugees. It is only on arriving in Vancouver that the multiple and entangled legs, legends, and Lego-like pieces of the story seem to find a sacred space. Remembering some of their first moments, Hakawati narrates an intimate moment:
We walked up the hill and refused to jaywalk the streets, even when there were no cars. We wanted to be model citizens and we feared that breaking any law might cause them to take away our new city from us. We walked until we reached the rainbow crosswalk, met people we had never met before and became instant friends with them. We ate poutine and pretended to like it, even when the greasy sauce turned our stomachs upside down.
This moment is revelatory—as a type of ‘road’ novel or ‘travel’ story, the rainbow crosswalk and its invitational status contrasts sharply with the Damascus of Hakawati’s past. Both are multicultural cities, both attract a variety of peoples of different languages and cultures. But in Vancouver, what were secrets in Damascus are displayed openly and immediately embraced. The community that surrounds the couple is both legislatively and (mostly) culturally accepted, and provides them with a safe space. A place to breathe and to let go.
The story of The Clothesline Swing has an angulatory structure; the framing plot (Death comes for everyone but perhaps it can be waylaid a little) weaves, bobs, and spins through the story of Hakawati and of the fabulae and conversations he constructs. These little fabulae are meant to hold off Death, but also serve to entangle the reader. Memories of past, present, and future events are layered over the plot in constellations of memory and story, weaving and bending and sometimes causing confusion to even a careful reader as to what is ‘really’ happening. Hakawati says it himself: “My mind is like a factory that mixes our reality with epic elements of heroism, and my tongue is the end of the production line. The stories come out and I can’t untangle them, I can’t tell the reality from the dream … Battalions upon battalions of spoken words curve around me and they slowly tattoo themselves onto my skin. A billion singing voices tell my stories and a million flutes play.” To the enthusiastic and devoted reader like myself, it wasn’t really the plot that moved me; rather, it was the intricate and intimate dance of story and memory, space and place, that raveled and unraveled through reading about Hakawati’s life that set this novel alight.
Ramadan includes a series of gratitudes at the end of his novel and shares that his story is based not only on real events that are his own but that it also contains many events and stories other refugees have shared with him. While reading the novel, I was at times dismayed by the lack of names for the main characters, but, after reading Ramadan’s impassioned thanks to those others who helped him, I began to see that not-naming was an attempt at sharing his characters’ space and memories with others. That not-naming allowed Ramadan to suffuse his characters with a multiplicity of voices so that one meta-voice could ring louder and clearer to the reader. With The Clothesline Swing on the Canada Reads 2018 longlist, could Ramadan be just the Scheherazade that we are all looking for?
Rhonda Dynes is a Professor of Liberal Studies at Mohawk College and the author of Essay Essentials (2015, 2018). She is a senior editor at The Hamilton Review of Books (currently on leave) and has published multiple book reviews in other publications. She is a poet and writer with numerous Canadian and American publications, such as those in Quills, Tower Poetry, and 4 and 20.