Telling your own story: Kamal Al-Solaylee talks Intolerable
Journalists make a career of telling the stories of other people. But what about when it comes time to tell their own? Jeff Fraser explains how Kamal Al-Solaylee coped with this in the writing of his new book Intolerable, a personal memoir that documents his life as a gay man in the Middle East, his distinguished career and how his stories have affected his family.
By Jeff Fraser
When long-time journalist and respected theatre critic Kamal Al-Solaylee first decided to write a book about his life as a closeted gay man in the Middle East, publishers weren’t interested. No one had heard of Yemen, the small Arab country where Al-Solaylee was born and lived briefly in his 20s, book-ending 19 years in Lebanon and Egypt.*
Things changed in December 2009 when Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi citizen who was working with al Qaeda in Yemen, was found responsible for a plot to smuggle a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound flight in the underwear of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.** The U.S. marked Yemen as a haven for international terrorism, and since then it’s never been far from the international spotlight.
Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, published last month by HarperCollins, hopes to add some depth to our understanding of one of the Arab world’s poorest, most repressive regimes. Tracking the Al-Solaylee family’s exile from Yemen to Beirut, then Cairo, during the rise of socialism in the ’60s and ’70s, the book gives a rare glimpse into the cultural golden years of the Middle East, when Arabic art, wealth and social freedoms were at their height. Returning to Yemen in the ’80s – by then a police state under the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh – the family abandons its secular roots and turns to religious conservatism, following the region’s cultural undercurrents. To Al-Solaylee’s dismay, his sisters step back from the independence they won in Cairo, donning traditional garb and submitting themselves to misogyny and male dominance.
Meanwhile, Al-Solaylee struggles to come to terms with being gay in a part of the world where homosexuality is at best taboo and at worst punishable by flogging. Eventually, the repression of Yemeni society becomes too much, and he flees to the West. After earning a PhD in literature from Nottingham University in England, he immigrated to Toronto, where he made a living writing for gay magazines and arts publications, eventually rising to production editor of The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business and covering the reactions of Arab-Americans to the Iraq invasion in 2003. Before taking a teaching job at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, where he currently works, Al-Solaylee distinguished himself as The Globe’s national theatre critic.
Journalists often strive for objectivity by removing themselves from their writing, but Intolerable takes a very different approach. “It’s not like writing a book about the oil industry, where you have to document and present research,” the author said in an interview. “First and foremost it’s a story, and I wrote it as a story.”
Although this is Al-Solaylee’s first foray into memoir writing, his more than 1500 bylines include several features written in the first-person voice. In early 2010, after the attempted underwear bombing, he wrote a long-form article for The Globe about his family, “From Bikinis to Burkas,” which went viral online.
He said his experience teaching feature writing at Ryerson helped provide him with the skills to construct narrative scenes from the facts and photos that he collected. As an example, he mentioned an argument between his parents about finances depicted in the book, which was amalgamated from several similar experiences he remembers from growing up.
The meat of the memoir comes from his background, he said. He comes from “a family of storytellers,” and many of the book’s details about his turbulent childhood were taken from anecdotes his parents and older siblings told over afternoon tea when he was young. His father made a point of documenting the children’s lives in photographs, which Al-Solaylee says provided essential raw material for the book’s engaging descriptions.
Although the book relies heavily on his recollections, he said that gaps in memory created less significant limits than his commitment to keeping the book short. At 200 pages, it is remarkably compact for its genre, something Al-Solaylee said he learned from his days writing 500-word theatre reviews for The Globe. “I’m used to not having space to write whatever I want,” he said. “I got used to saying more with less.”
At times, he had to be careful to put emotional distance between himself and his subject matter. In the years leading up to his mother’s death in 2009, he struggled with guilt and depression over what he saw as abandoning his family, and feared that recounting the darker parts of his life might spark a relapse.
“Anything to do with my mother was very hard for me,” he said, adding that he set aside two weeks alone in Hong Kong to agonize over passages about her. ”I had not realized how much she sacrificed for us until I started thinking about it chronologically.”
He said that while writing the book has helped him to better understand his family, it has also increased tensions between them. Yemeni media coverage of the publication focused on his homosexuality, and this drew vocal outrage from his relatives. ”In their minds it’s an affliction, and you do not parade your affliction,” he said.
When one of his nephews came across “From Bikinis to Burkas” on the Internet, his family grew angry about one of the old photos that accompanied it, which showed several of his sisters in swimwear. Al-Solaylee said he was careful to choose less revealing photos for Intolerable.
Although he omitted some aspects of his family history that he felt would invade their privacy, he always treated his own life as his to share, regardless of how they might react. “If it’s me having sex at 13, I can write about that,” he said. “That’s my choice.”
Although the Arab Spring brought Saleh’s removal earlier this year, Al-Solaylee doesn’t expect the new government to bring an end to the country’s economic and humanitarian woes. As his father is quoted in Intolerable: “There is no such thing as security in the Arab world.”
The future of Yemen is far from clear, but Al-Solaylee said the book’s intent was never to provide a complete picture of the country. ”This is my life; this is what I’ve been living through. It’s not a book of history by any means.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Al-Solaylee spent his formative years in Yemen. Instead, he lived there until he was three and again from the ages of 22 to 24.
** A previous version of this article did not identify that the 2009 would-be underwear suicide bomber was Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. We have added this clarification and apologize for any confusion.