Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee and his family, from the time of his birth as the last of eleven children in Aden, Yemen, to his arrival in Toronto where he currently works as a professor of journalism. I had recognized the name of the author from his columns in The Globe and Mail as well as Xtra!, Toronto’s tiresomely whiny gay and lesbian biweekly. Based on what I already knew about the author, I thought that Intolerable would be an interesting read to find out about what it was like to grow up gay in the Arab world, including Yemen, perhaps the most homophobic place on the planet. From an early age Al-Solaylee realized he was different from other boys and exhibited stereotypically girlish behaviour. He hung out with his mother in the kitchen and played dress-up (in dresses) with a little more fashion sense than his own sisters.
Al-Solaylee spent his childhood on the move. As anticolonialism gripped Yemen in the late sixties, the family fled to Beirut, where they only stayed a little while until war there forced yet another move. Cairo became the destination where Al-Solaylee grew up and first acknowledged his gayness. In spite of the personal upheaval and day-to-day uncertainties of living in such a volatile area, Al-Solaylee filled his memoir with humour, most often with tales pertaining to his own life growing up as a gay youth. Ogling his sisters’ Tom Jones album covers and seeing repeated screenings of Olivia Newton-John and especially Michael Beck in “Xanadu” were two of his memorable teenage experiences. Cairo also offered him a gay nightlife and the first opportunities he ever had in meeting other gay people (although they were probably in the theatre watching “Xanadu” with him but he didn’t know it yet).
The growing movement towards fundamentalist and radical Islam in Cairo and neighbouring nations penetrated Al-Solaylee’s family. One of his brothers changed from being a follower of rock music to a follower of the muezzin’s call. This brother began to criticize his sisters for not wearing the hijab or niqab, and the entire family for not living according to his own interpretation of strict Islamic laws. Al-Solaylee does not mince words when he describes his brother’s criticisms as poison to his family.
Economic necessity sent the family moving again, this time back to Yemen, however to Sana’a, not Aden:
“Whole districts felt like a movie set for a period piece, circa the seventeenth century, perhaps one of those racist Hollywood movies from the 1940s, Road to Morocco, or something with ‘Ali Baba’ in the title. The feeling of being a tourist in my own land offered temporary relief from the pain of losing Cairo.”
Al-Solaylee as a gay man told himself that he could never return to live in Yemen, and sought out ways to leave the country. How could he live within his enormous family of two parents and ten siblings and hide his gayness? How can one keep such a secret from everyone? In cultures where mentioning the private details of one’s sexual identity was unthinkable, ignorance was bliss. His family spent his entire lifetime denying the flamboyantly obvious; by not mentioning his homosexuality, it did not exist.
Eventually Al-Solaylee obtained a scholarship to study in England and then emigrated to Canada. Each time he returned to Sana’a he was shocked to see how the repressive state had affected his family:
“It’s difficult to explain the feeling I, as an Arab person, get whenever I visit the Middle East, and especially Yemen. There’s a sickness in the belly, a nervousness all over. Every trip back could turn into a long-term prison sentence. The prison could be emotional, as I confront a family that has changed and is visibly suffering, trapping me in guilt and uncertainty. Or physical, should the temperamental government declare me an abomination for writing in gay magazines or curating a program of short films for a gay and lesbian film festival.”
In each visit Al-Solaylee noticed the health of his family deteriorate, as food and especially water supplies dwindled. The state of Yemen’s health-care system was so poor that his family had to leave the country for simple procedures. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that the title, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes made sense. While Al-Solaylee conveys his feelings of not belonging in the various Middle Eastern cities he grew up in, I never felt that his state of mind was such that each place (Aden, Beirut, Cairo or Sana’a) was for him utterly intolerable. I only felt that the title was apt after he moved to Canada, experienced a fully out-of-the-closet gay life, and then compared it to the repressed and poor lives of his remaining family members back in Yemen. That life, for him, would have been intolerable.
This memoir is a slight book, at 204 pages with a large font. Plenty of pictures of Al-Solaylee and his family (especially those of him as an adorable toddler) are placed throughout the book. When one has so many siblings–ten of them–it was helpful to have photos to identify who’s who. Intolerable was a can’t-put-down read because of Al-Solaylee’s wide-open writing style, where he often comes across as writing a hip queer psychiatric confession.