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Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable explores a lost world

Kamal Al-Solaylee’s memoir Intolerable affected me deeply. In engaging, clear-eyed prose, he traces a deeply personal story of coming out, coming of age, and coming to terms with the contradictory tensions of identity–all set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Middle East.

Following his journey from an idyllic childhood in Yemen to his teenage years in Cairo in the unstable period following the Arab-Israeli War and Answar Sadat’s assassination to his experiences as a university student in England, and finally starting a new life as a journalist in Canada, Kamal’s story is one of discovery, heartache, and a deep will to survive.

Intolerable was a finalist for the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and a deserving winner of the 2013 City of Toronto Book Award. Kamal Al-Solaylee is an associate professor and undergraduate program director at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, and was previously a theatre critic at the Globe and Mail. He lives in Toronto.

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How and when did you come to write your memoir Intolerable? Was it a project that had been percolating for awhile?

The idea for Intolerable came to me in 2006 after a particularly depressing visit to Sana’a, Yemen, where my family lives. I returned to Toronto with a sense of sadness, loss, regret, anger that I never knew before. A friend suggested writing about it as a way to deal with my feelings, especially the depression I was plunged into. I thought of nothing longer than a 4000-word personal magazine piece. Only when I met my now-agent John Pearce a year later at a social event did I think it could be a book-length memoir. Still, it took me about two years to summon up the courage to put my thoughts and feelings into a formal book proposal. Every single publisher in Canada my agent approached turned it down in 2009. HarperCollins picked it up in 2010 after the Globe and Mail ran a 2000-word piece I wrote that year that was, more or less, the book in broad strokes.

You’ve received deserved recognition for the book—including several major award nominations and the 2013 City of Toronto Book Award. Has the reception to the book surprised you? What’s been the most gratifying response?

Yes, yes, yes. I honestly thought this would be a noble failure. I knew I’d get some media attention because, frankly, I’m a former Globe and Mail journalist and now professor of journalism and therefore very well connected. But the literary awards surprised me because the book is very straightforward – conventional, chronological narrative – and without any bells and whistles in the writing. I didn’t think it’d register with juries. I’m thrilled with the response, of course. But the most gratifying aspect of the book’s reception has been the feedback I received from readers who identified with what I went through even though their backgrounds were completely different.

Intolerable explores, in many ways, the arc of late-twentieth century history in the Middle East, including ongoing political, economical and cultural turmoil and transformation that continues to unfold. What’s it been like to witness recent events (the Arab Spring) from a distance? 

Initially I felt like missing out on the most significant chapter in the history of the Middle East since, probably, the great decolonization movements of the 1950s and ’60s. I was excited, optimistic but also nervous about the safety of my family and friends back there. Soon reality set in. Look at what’s happening in Egypt or Syria and tell me if what we’re seeing is not the definition of tragedy. Egypt in effect returned to the days of Mubark and military rule. So much for democracy and reform. So much for youth exuberance.

The memoir also traces, in aching and moving description, your own growing awareness of your sexuality and the process of coming to terms with being gay. Have you seen a change in attitudes or experiences of gay life in the Middle East? Do you feel part of any global gay diaspora?

Weirdly enough (or perhaps that should be unsurprisingly, given that we’re talking about the Arab world), there has never been as strong a momentum for issues of sexual diversity as the one right now in the region. And yet, the backlash is gaining momentum too. Social media and technology has helped foster a nascent gay rights movement in the region — mainly for middle-class and well-educated Arabs — but society has not caught up. The gap is widening, in fact, as economies stall and geopolitical tensions rise. Most people retreat to hard-line politics and religion to cope with economic disparities. When you’re worried about being the target of a sniper while shopping for food in the market, you don’t think much about gay rights. My book has placed me within the general conversation about gay rights in the Middle East but I know I’m privileged enough to speak about this subject from the secure and safe vantage point of Canada.

Near the end of the memoir, you talk about beginning to re-embrace aspects of Middle Eastern culture—music, for example, that you had previously left behind or consciously avoided. How do you think, in your experience, our identities shift and transform over time?

I’m responding to your questions while playing Egyptian music from the 1960s on YouTube. There’s no such thing as a fixed identity, although I think we as humans are tribal by nature and like to align ourselves with one side or another. To me that’s the appeal of religions: tribal loyalties. I think it’s important to try on different identities and affiliations as you come of age. What a waste to limit yourself to one set of ideas and values all your life. You may settle on a few principles as you get older but everyone should have the right to identify any way they choose. I think of identities the same way I think of clothes. You should try something to see how it fits and if you wear it well. At least while you’re young. I grew up in an Arab, Muslim family and that was my identity. I think of myself now more as a Canadian with western, liberal values.

Your story ends with a very real and difficult physical gulf between you and your family in Yemen. Have you managed to return to Yemen since the book was published? 

No, I haven’t and don’t think I ever will. I don’t think I’m welcome in that country anymore. My home is in Canada.

Knowing what you know today, if you could go back in time and speak to a younger version of yourself—say a sixteen or seventeen-year old Kamal, what would you say?

I’d say: Stop tormenting yourself and stop stressing. Things work out so enjoy your youth and beautiful, thin body because in your late forties you’ll be old and, ehm, with lots more to love? I’ll also say: Kamal, in your early thirties you’ll make the best decision in your life when you immigrate to Canada and settle in Toronto. You’ll finally have a place to call home. Just be patient and keep listening to Barbra Streisand.

Finally, what projects are you working on at the moment?

Another book of nonfiction but I’m still developing it so details are vague and scarce at the moment.

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Listen to Kamal speak more about Intolerable in this interview for the 2013 City of Toronto Book Awards. To order a copy of the book, visit the publisher’s website. Kamal Al-Solaylee is also on Twitter.

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