Memoir explores author’s transplanted life

Kamal_Al_Solayee

October 1, 2012

Kamal Al-Solayee    Photo by Gary Gould/Ryerson

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes
By Kamal Al-Solaylee
Harper Collins, 204 pages, $27.99

Kamal Al-Solaylee teaches journalism at Ryerson University and is a former theatre critic for the Globe and Mail. He answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions via-email at the end of September. He noted that his memoir has netted responses from “other Arab/Muslim gay men and women and they’ve all been supportive, inspiring.” In Yemeni media, he said, the book has been covered as a gay story, which he considers reductive. Mostly, Prof. Al-Solaylee is “disappointed in the lack of responses from the Arab community in Canada. They chose to ignore it. I was hoping that the book would kick-start a conversation about a number of issues: the pervasive nature of extremism here in Canada and back in our home countries, women’s and gay rights, and our civic participation in Canadian society. Maybe that’s a lot to hope for and maybe that’s to come.” Let’s hope so.
Clearly, you silenced and edited yourself for many years 
prior to writing this book. Can you look back now and see a “catalyst 
moment” that precipitated the idea of finally telling your and your 
family’s stories?

The idea for the book came to me after a particularly distressing visit to the family in Sana’a, Yemen, in 2006. It was my first trip in about five years and I couldn’t get over the rapid decline in both the material and emotional lives of my family. I also started to notice what I would term a disturbing level of religiosity. That visit put into focus the huge gap between my life in Toronto – a safe, privileged and even spoiled life – and that of my family. To illustrate the point, I returned to Toronto after that trip and within a few days I went to New York to review the Broadway opening of The Drowsy Chaperone, the Canadian-penned hit spoof musical about the roaring twenties. It took a few days and before I knew it a complete depression started to set in. A friend suggested I write about that experience which is how the book originated – in sadness and depression.

Towards the end of the book, as you worry on the page about
 your family members, and wonder about the viability of moving everyone to
 Cairo, I found myself thinking that you were suffering from something akin 
to “survivor’s guilt.” What can you say about that?

I never thought of it in such terms (survivor’s guilt) but I guess that’s how I felt and continue to feel. I believed that I betrayed the family, especially my sisters, and abandoned them when they needed me most. The events of the Arab Spring and the civil war in Yemen last year only exacerbated that. I can’t keep thinking that way, however, or I’ll go stir crazy. I have to accept that I made the decisions that were best for my personal, emotional and intellectual survival. Writing this book both helped me think through that and added to the sorrow associated with my decision to separate from the family and my helplessness about it all.

Do you think North Americans can ever begin to truly 
understand the complexity and convoluted cultural history of Arab culture, 
not just in Yemen, but elsewhere in the world? (I always remember
 Margaret Atwood’s veterinarian character Dr. Minnow in Bodily Harm, musing
 about the “sweet Canadians” who do helpful things like sending supplies of 
pork to countries whose inhabitants do not eat it.)

I don’t know if Arab people understand their own culture(s), let alone the North Americans. One of the most distressing aspects of the move to religious extremism in the Middle East has been the shutting down of debate and the marginalization of alternative and dissenting voices. Here in North America, I think we’re suffering from a kind of intellectual laziness. The idea of the general public educating itself on a part of the world by reading extensively about it has been replaced with the histrionics of 24-hour news channels and the banalities of the sound bites and the political messaging. Funny how having too much information – social media, cable networks, bloggers – has led to less not more real understanding of issues.

You comment several times in your memoir about how difficult 
your mother’s and sisters’ lives have been, yet at the same time you are
 frustrated by their tendency to self-sacrifice. Can you elaborate a 
little on how you feel about that now, in the wake of the memoir’s 
publication?

Writing this book has helped me understand the “choices” that all my family, male or female, have made. I put the word choices in quotation marks because I don’t believe that they had any. I should say “reactions” or “responses” because that’s more accurate. I must say that I don’t blame or accuse my family of anything. I’m just trying to reconstruct the sequence of events that led to where they (and I) are now. Strangely enough, the clarity that came with writing the book didn’t help mitigate my heartbreak or made the gap between us any less dramatic.

Had you not been gay, I wonder if you would have ever left 
your family and moved to England and then Canada. Do you ever imagine 
scenarios about what your life would be like if you still lived in the 
Middle East somewhere?

Being gay is so essential to my identity, to my life, that I can’t even think of one where I’m not. I came out of the womb gay! But, speaking hypothetically, it’s quite possible that had I been straight I would have settled with my family in Sana’a and led the proverbial life of quiet desperation. I’m glad that’s not what happened to me. I often say that being gay was the best gift that life gave me. I won the genetic lottery in the family. It allowed me to experience difference. I’m beyond grateful for that. Sometimes I think I would have been a very horrible straight man, given my instincts for self-preservation and my reluctance to sacrifice. My gay self made me more aware of the challenges and beauty of being a human being. I like to think I’m more empathetic because of my sexuality.

Lynne Van Luven is the Editor of Coastal Spectator.

 

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