Finding a Canadian Refuge

A liberal gay man can’t avoid estrangement from his beloved Yemeni family

Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is a touching account of a gay man’s journey to self-awareness from his childhood in Aden and Beirut, through his coming of age in Egypt and England, to his eventual discovery of happiness in Canada. There is an almost fairytale quality to the telling—ugly duckling to swan—as the awkward child grows up to find fulfillment in love and a new home where he can be accepted for who he is and how he feels. The story gains in poignancy against the backdrop of a Middle East beset by conflict, economic decline and the rise of political Islam.

If autobiography is an orphan form that begins with a sense of being alone, then that sense is certainly present here, as are varying degrees of guilt, shame and exuberance. In prose that is commendably clear, we are introduced to the Al-Solaylee family—father, mother and eleven children. We are first told about mother: an illiterate shepherdess, married at 14, who soon becomes the rock on which the family is founded and the gravitational force that holds it together through tumultuous times.

Father, a liberal-minded anglophile, philanderer and property speculator, makes his money in Aden flipping real estate while giving no quarter to associates and competitors. The Yemeni family prospers until the British withdraw from Aden in 1967 and are replaced by a radical regime that expropriates Al-Solaylee property and expels them from the country. In a matter of hours they are forced to pack and leave for Beirut, where, although far from destitute, they live as refugees on a reduced income.

Beirut is a pleasurable refuge. Television introduces homoeroticism and American serials to the young Kamal. But within three years Lebanon’s sectarian tensions erupt into full-blown conflict. Here, as later in the book, Al-Solaylee deftly handles the politics and conflicts in the region, and avoids them overpowering or distracting from the personal story. One of the pleasures of reading Intolerable is that the momentous developments in the Middle East over the last 40 years are scaled down to a level that is easily grasped, as an account of one family’s resilience and adaptation to changing circumstances.

From Beirut, the Al-Solaylees leave for Cairo where Kamal gradually gains awareness of his own sexuality as some in his family lurch toward a sterile form of religious identity sustained by ritual and social conformity. The rise of militant Islam during the Sadat presidency and later through the early years of Mubarak’s rule gradually overshadows the Cairo of movie stars and singers that today only survive for Kamal on YouTube and iTunes—conservative dress and attitudes spread, and the headscarf becomes every woman’s necessary accessory.

Kamal’s oldest brother falls under the influence of political Islam as he struggles to complete his law degree. He tries to impose his views on the family and to restrict his sisters’ freedom to come and go from the home, as well as dictate what they wear, read and watch on TV. As Kamal’s liberal father is obliged to find work in Saudi Arabia away from the family in Egypt, the brother’s influence grows and his demands for religious observance become more insistent. Through this period Kamal has his first tentative sexual experiences. His encounters in stalled elevators, bars and hotel rooms are sketchily recounted, with men we are told almost nothing about. One disappointment with the book is that we hardly get to know any of Kamal’s colleagues, friends or lovers. When they are summarily introduced, and sometimes their names given, it is just as they are about to depart the story. We discover in retrospect that for weeks, months, possibly even years they were Kamal’s lovers and now they are gone. Coyly, they are kept from us. Barbra Streisand and Olivia Newton-John, their movies and their songs, get more attention and space than all the lovers and friends combined.

Al-Solaylee’s avoidance of detail and dramatization forces him to rely heavily on exposition. There is almost no dialogue and there are no scenes where personal history is played out. Conflict is described, but rarely does it unfold before us. Not enough is illustrated, whether by anecdote or scenic interactions between characters, to permit the reader to fully picture the personalities and the complexities of their relationships. Characters are mainly rendered with a sparseness that relegates them to the flatness of caricatures. The exception to this is the loving portrayal of the mother, with the early part of the book being as much about her as the author. A stronger editorial hand might have helped avoid the tendency for the storytelling to turn back on itself to recount something from a time and place we have already been, creating a stasis that can be frustrating—an effect compounded by an introductory chapter that summarizes the rest of the book so effectively that it undercuts the story.

From Cairo the family moves to Sanaa in their home country of Yemen. After a short and miserable sojourn there, Kamal obtains a British Council scholarship, travels to England for a master’s degree and stays on to gain a doctorate. England is a refuge from Yemen, but never fully home.

When he lived in Cairo and Sanaa, Kamal saw himself on the side of his sisters against the interference of his narrow-minded brothers. But during his stay in England and then with his immigration to Canada, he increasingly distances himself from the women in his family. At times he seems to blame them unfairly, and suggests that they are complicit in their own suffering, gaining satisfaction from being victimized, choosing to live a life of sacrifice. In other places he speaks of his own sense of guilt at abandoning them to a country that, under regional and local stress, is fast becoming a failed state—where his sisters’ options as women and where their opportunities to earn an independent income are diminishing at an alarming rate.

In Toronto, Al-Solaylee finds himself at home in a city where he can be himself and in a loving relationship. He rejects his own cultural background, as well as his family in Yemen, who clearly still love him very much despite their failure to understand him and his own sometimes less than generous responses to them. Their worried calls every time they hear of a Canadian snowstorm, thinking it must signal a calamity, are greeted by him with irritation and derision. The book ends with a brief recounting of the family in Sanaa during last year’s uprising against the Yemeni dictator and Kamal’s growing concern for them, as well as his gradual acceptance of aspects of his own Arab heritage.

There is much to commend and like in this book. It is often a delight to read. To write it required courage and could not have been a decision easily taken by a man as clearly protective of his privacy as Al-Solaylee. It is an accessible and informative introduction to a turbulent region, while being one man’s story of resilience, perseverance and, ultimately, the search for happiness.