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Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Those who knew Kamal Al-Solaylee when he was theatre critic for The Globe and Mail were largely ignorant of his life before his arrival in Toronto in 1996. That was how he wanted it, Al-Solaylee admits in his forthright and engaging memoir. A gifted storyteller, he exposes his own soul-searching in this very readable account of his family’s life in various Middle Eastern locations, beginning with his parents’ arranged marriage in 1945.

Now living quietly with his dog, Chester, and directing the undergraduate journalism program at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the author snares the reader’s attention with his opening sentence: “I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.” The youngest of Safia and Mohammed’s brood, Al-Solaylee was born in the British protectorate of Aden, (now a city in Yemen), and was three years old in 1967, when a socialist government kicked out the British and, with them, anglophiles like his father. Mohammed moved his family to Beirut, the cultural capital of the Arab world, but never recovered either the status or the means they enjoyed in colonial Aden.

The Al-Solaylees also lived in Cairo, a vibrant and secular city until the late 1970s, when Islamic extremism began to take hold. In 1981, they returned to Yemen to settle in Sana’a. Al-Solaylee, by that point aware that he was gay, knew he would never be comfortable in a country now known as the birthplace of the bin Ladens. He got a scholarship to attend university in the U.K. and from there emigrated to Canada.

As his siblings adapted to a society far stricter than that of their childhood, Al-Solaylee found himself growing distant from them. Back in Toronto, he wanted nothing more than to cut himself off from Yemen, but family ties took him back for several visits after 9/11. The last was in August 2011; civil strife had brought his family much hardship. The book’s final chapter is almost confessional, and the author makes clear his mixed feelings about the Arab Spring.

Al-Solaylee writes well, and Intolerable is finely tuned. Deftly interweaving the personal and the political, and covering more than 50 years of Middle Eastern history, this memoir is anything but nostalgic.