Syrian author Khaled Alesmael on writing the first gay Syrian refugee novel

Journalist and author Khaled Alesmael says he became the first Syrian to write what he calls a gay Syrian novel, after fleeing the civil war at home. The novel, “Selamlik”, published by the Swedish Leopard Förlag press, tells the story of two men’s love amid the bombed-out buildings of civil war Damascus.

“Nobody wanted to touch this subject, for a number of reasons. These topics aren’t well received in society, and at the same time homosexuality is forbidden by religion and custom. It’s considered a great shame to be gay. This kind of thing gets its share of criticism in the media, too. Homosexuals can face prison sentences from six months to two years,” Alesmael said.

The story of the novel’s hero, Furat, and his journey from war-torn Syria to Sweden as a refugee bears parallels to the author’s own life. But he stresses this is a work of fiction, not an autobiography.

“In fact, at first I picked up my pen to tell about my own life, and started taking notes. I started in Arabic, but later changed to English out of fear someone would get hold of it and I’d be punished by the regime (of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad). As the story developed, Furat took form and I chose him as the main character,” Alesmael said.

“The name comes from the Arabic word meaning hope for change and freedom. Furat is stronger than I am. In a sense he’s the person I want to be. He’s able to freely experience his sexuality and to talk about it. He’s a revolutionary,” he said.

This does not mean Alesmael’s own life story and achievements are anything to be scoffed at. He describes his first foray into journalism at the age of nine, when he took part in a radio show to describe children’s wishes.

His love for the radio endured, and in 2005 he became a founding member and programme director at Syria-Tomorrow, one of the country’s first-generation private radio stations. He would later be discouraged from taking too active a role in the media due to the tight restrictions imposed by the Assad government.

The author discovered his own sexuality while he was studying English language and literature in Damascus, and by writing about his experiences, he is putting on paper a history that until now had remained only a spoken one.

When the war made it impossible for him to remain in his home country, he migrated to Sweden, staying for some time in a refugee centre in the town of Åseda.

“I came to Sweden in order to feel safer and more free. But when I came to the refugee home I found myself once again within the same community. It was a painful period, but special, at the same time,” he said.

“I left four years ago, and sometimes I still miss it. I miss the connection between the people at the home; I think I should have done more while I was there. I tried to raise the subject of homosexuality whenever I could, and tried very hard to make people respect it even if they couldn’t accept it,” the writer continued.

“It is hard to sleep in the same room as a homophobic person. But I understand them, too; we (Syrians) don’t have much knowledge about this topic, we don’t have literature on it, and we don’t talk much with one another about sex. Even my women friends don’t know much about periods or about sexual health,” he said.

It was in the city of Goetheberg that “Selamlik” first began to take shape, after Alesmael met a publishing editor while giving talks on warzone journalism.

“He was interested in what I’d written. So later, I chose several chapters, translated them to English and sent them to him. He helped me get these chapters published as short stories in a few different journals and newspapers,” said the writer. Before long, the publisher had arranged for a translator to translate the book directly from Arabic to Swedish.

Once his book had come together, reviews in Sweden were excellent: it was featured in a number of newspapers and magazines, and recommended by writers.

“I’ve been invited to speak on television and at conferences. People are curious – especially in the West, they want to know what happens in the east, how people live their lives, and what goes on behind closed doors,” Alesmael said.

It was not always easy to tell readers his story in the way Alesmael wanted: the writer felt that Arabic held a richness of expression that he did not find in Swedish, and said he often struggled to find words and ways in the translation to narrate his relationships in a way that did justice to the original, opting often for short sentences to ease the process.

But Alesmael said he was fortunate to have a good translator he was in close contact with. “We had the luck to be close to one another, to get to know and really understand one another.”

As for Turkey, the writer has a family connection: Alesmael’s mother was Turkish, from the southeastern city of Mardin, and he describes her as a hugely supportive figure in his life.

“I was in my twenties and she was trying to arrange a marriage for me. In the end I invited her over to have coffee at my house, and I made the decision to tell her I was gay,” Alesmael said.

“She told me she knew. ‘You lived for nine months in my belly. Of course I know everything about you.’ It was her who told my family later and asked them to respect me, and she really made a lot of effort for this,” he said.

Before travelling to Sweden, Alesmael stayed for a period in Istanbul, Turkey, where he took part in a programme to train Syrian journalists.

“I really loved the city when I stayed in Istanbul. The people there really greeted me warmly,” he said.

The years since have seen growing discontent in Turkey over the rising numbers of Syrian refugees in the country, which now exceed 3.6 million, according to official figures. Simmering tensions this year have led to a government crackdown in Istanbul and reports that the authorities have been transporting Syrians back across the border. The Turkish government denies these reports.

“I see the news of reactions against refugees in Turkey in the news these days, but while I was in Istanbul there was no such reaction,” Alesmael said during the interview, which was conducted before news had emerged of the latest crackdown.

“I was there between 2013 and 2014 and my impressions of the city were very much positive. It was a great pleasure being there and people greeted me in a very friendly way.”

While Istanbul is open to gay people compared to Syria, being both gay and a refugee leaves one in a vulnerable position, he said. “You’re both a refugee and you’re gay, and there are people who try to use this against you.”

Nonetheless, the city’s openness to LGBT culture was a welcome surprise to the writer, who noted how many establishments in the central district of Beyoğlu openly celebrated Pride with rainbow flags. “I even had the chance to see male belly dancers,” he said.