Crooked Teeth: A Queer Syrian Refugee Memoir by Danny Ramadan

Aware of the ways stories of refugees are twisted and misrepresented, Ramadan asks the reader to truly hear his story.

Part memoir, part critique of the expectations of the genre, Danny Ramadan’s Crooked Teeth opens with a discussion of trust. Aware of the ways stories of refugees are twisted and misrepresented, Ramadan asks the reader to truly hear his story. How can readers be trusted with a story that is so widely misunderstood, that already has assumptions mapped onto it? Ramadan offers a corrective in the form of his own story, which complicates many of the stereotypes of refugees as passive and abject and their new homes as liberal havens.

Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Ramadan is the oldest of three children. His mother was abusive and his father was largely absent, so he made his own way in the world, finding home in queer community. He spent time as a journalist in Cairo; upon his return to Damascus in the wake of the Arab Spring, he turned his home into a queer safehouse. In 2012, he was arrested and held in detention for six weeks. He documents the slow, painful process of applying for refugee status in Beirut, and then another agonizing wait as his application to immigrate to Vancouver as a refugee with the organization Rainbow Refugee Society made its way through the system.

When trauma is so often currency in the memoir genre, this refusal is an act of agency: not everything is available for consumption.

The plain facts of Ramadan’s story are themselves powerful: the difficult home life; the vibrant and loving queer communities he found and built in Damascus, Cairo, and Beirut; the series of displacements. What elevates this memoir, however, is the discussion of the genre itself and the deconstruction of stereotypes about refugees. At times, Ramadan directly addresses the reader, implicating us as participants in the construction of this story. He will not open every wound for the reader, skipping over the details of his six-week incarceration. When trauma is so often currency in the memoir genre, this refusal is an act of agency: not everything is available for consumption.

The narrative also refutes common, simplistic understandings of what it means to be a refugee. At one point, newly a refugee in Lebanon, Ramadan reflects on the fact that refugees had once fled to Syria. Where he once saw refugees with condescension, he is now in their position. This suggests that safety and security are contingent and delicate. When he is waiting to immigrate to Canada, one of his sponsors advises him not to post photos of himself having fun, saying that this undermines the idea that he is in need of refuge. This illuminates the need for total abjection to be accepted as a refugee, as happiness is seen to undermine the refugee claim. Through this scene, Ramadan urges us to understand the figure of “the refugee” more complexly. Pain and joy can and do coexist; people are who politically persecuted can enjoy a day at the pool with their friends. Throughout the narrative, Ramadan is an active participant in his own life: a writer, journalist, and community builder. He also rejects simplistic narratives about the immigration system, critiquing how exploitative it is and illuminating the problems that refugees face in Canada. Dependent on his sponsors, he has to put up with their overblown egos and even threats to his safety. Many of the sponsors have expectations of him, unable to put aside their own desires. The memoir also complicates common misunderstandings of queerness in the Arab world: queer and trans people exist and build community, mutual aid networks, and spaces of safety and joy. Some of the memoir’s most touching scenes depict these relationships: Sama, the trans woman who introduces Ramadan to Damascus’s queer community; Myriam, his lesbian coworker at a Syrian magazine; Cee, his best friend in Beirut.

Ramadan has entrusted the public with his story, and in doing so, he contributes enormously to creating a more robust, nuanced portrait of what it means to be a refugee, to be a queer Syrian, and to be Canadian. When “Syrian refugees” are a nameless mass, a category onto which we project assumptions and biases, Ramadan’s story is a necessary corrective, told with care and love.

DANNY RAMADAN (he/him) is a Syrian-Canadian author, public speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ+ refugees. His debut novel, The Clothesline Swing, was longlisted for Canada Readsand named a Best Book of the Year by The Globe and Mail and Toronto Star. His second novel, The Foghorn Echoes, won the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Fiction and was shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and the Vancouver Book Award. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and currently lives in Vancouver with his husband.

Publisher: Penguin Random House (May 28, 2024)
Paperback 8″ x 5″
ISBN: 9780735242210

Clementine Oberst is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in television studies. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Montreal and Glasgow and now calls Hamilton home. When she isn't writing her dissertation, Clementine can be found knitting, trying to cultivate a green thumb, and playing with her cats. She loves nothing more than losing herself in a good book. You can connect with her on Instagram @clementinereads.

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