Monday, February 2, 2015

"Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes" by Kamal Al-Solaylee

Who Should Read This: Anyone interested in the history and culture of the Middle East. Anyone wanting to know about LGBT life in Middle Eastern culture.

Kamal Al-Solaylee was born into a wealth family in Aden, in the South of Yemen, in the 1960’s.  Though his mother was illiterate and married at an early age, his father had spent time in England and relied upon Western values as he crafted a career as a property owner.  But as his country began to move away from its colonial roots, the family found themselves on the losing end, all of their property confiscated, and forced to leave the country.

They first moved to Beirut, but it quickly became a dangerous place to stay so the family then moved to Cairo.  There they were able to enjoy the lifestyle they valued so much, one that placed importance on education and freedom.  Kamal and his siblings grew up in a very cosmopolitan world, listening to American music, frequenting the cinema, and watching Western movies and television.

But as the rise of hard-line Islam began to sweep through the Middle East in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the family found their liberal ways falling under scrutiny and soon a more conservative way of life entered their home.  As life became more difficult in Egypt for foreign born citizens, the family surrendered themselves to the idea of returning to Yemen.  But when they arrived in the capital city of Sana’a, they found themselves in a completely different country than they remembered.  

Kamal found himself having to leave Egypt just as he was beginning to find his place in the world as a gay man.  Arriving in a country that would publicly punish people for homosexual behaviour, he knew that if he had any hope of being happy in life, he would have to leave the Middle East. But even as he moved to England, and later to Canada, he found that he would never be able to shake off his roots, culture, and the family he left behind.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is Kamal Al-Solaylee’s fascinating memoir about growing up in the Middle East in a time of instability, of being on both ends of extremes, and of discovering his sexuality in a culture that isn’t always accepting of who he is.

This is an incredible book.  I pretty much read it in one sitting because I became so absorbed in the way he tells his story.  This isn’t just a book about growing up gay in the Middle East, it takes you on a journey of the region, of its history and how the politics of the last half century have led to what we see today.  

This is a timely book in a few ways.  Al-Solaylee charts the journey of his own family members as they go from “bikinis to burqas.”  In a short period of time, they went from living a life marked by freedoms and liberalness to a life that is marked by hard-line religion and intolerance.  It is so hard to imagine going through that big of a change in beliefs and actions in one lifetime.  It is also a great book in terms of the narrative it adds to the stories of the gay community.  There are many cultures in the world that are still not open and accepting of homosexuality and Kamal gives a voice to the many people who are trying to live an authentic life in a culture that does not tolerate them.  


I picked up this book because it is nominated for this years Canada Reads, which is looking at books that will break barriers.  This book not only teaches about Middle Eastern history and culture in the last six decades, but shares the story of the many people in the region who struggle because of their identity.  And it gives a voice to the people who have to leave their home to be able to live their lives they way they deserve to.  

3 comments:

  1. I'm always very curious about the changes in that region of the world -- especially from how people coped with going from liberalness to intolerance (a step backwards, in my view, but I suppose not everyone sees it that way). When I was a kid, I met a few people through my dad's work from Pakistan -- these were English-speaking, Western-dressing, computer experts. I wonder how they fared in the decades since.

    Joy's Book Blog

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I can't imagine what it is like for people to go from a liberal life to one that becomes narrow minded. I know many people from this region of the world who were like Kamal's family was originally. I know many people from this region of the world who are like his family now. But this change is not something I've heard much about.

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  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I'm definitely trying to read more diversely and reading about a totally different culture is something I need.

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