Saturday, January 24, 2015

Intolerable, A Memoir of Extremes

This is a fascinating memoir by Kamal Al-Solaylee, a professor of journalism at Ryerson in Toronto and a former theatre critic for the Globe and Mail.

Al-Solaylee was the eleventh and last child to be born (in 1964) into a well to do family in Aden, Yemen.  His mother was an illiterate child bride, the daughter of a shepherdess; his father a property developer who was partially educated in Britain and maintained close relations with the British colonial officers in Yemen.  The family was modern, concerned with fashion, immersed in the arts, and enamoured with British and American culture.

Everything started to change in the late 1960s when Yemen shrugged off the colonial powers and nationalized all of the property owned by Al-Solaylee's father.  His father relocated the large family to Beirut in what was supposed to be a temporary move until the situation in Aden stabilized.  The author was still a young child and has few memories of the time in Beirut though he does remember they lived above their means and were surrounded by the country's cultural elite.   They spent a lot of time watching Egyptian movies and listening to Egyptian and other pop music.  However, when Beirut became less safe due to the sectarian tensions, the family again relocated to Egypt.

Here the family remained very modern for years, spending beach vacations in Alexandria in bikinis.  The author, now a teenager, also realized he was gay.  Again the family lived beyond their means as their father was never able to re-establish his business and relied on savings he had squirrelled away in the UK.  Slowly the family turned more religious - first the eldest brother and then other brothers turned to the Quran and tried to restrict the movements and dress of the family's many daughters.  Of course, Kamal kept his sexual preferences to himself.

In the 1980s the family was again forced to move as sentiments in Egypt turned against Yemeni immigrants and the family members could not get permits necessary to work.  With no other options they returned to Sana'a, Yemen.  There the family became more and more religious as Kamal yearned to escape.  Which he did, eventually to study in England and then to become a permanent resident and finally citizen of Canada.  In the west he could live as a gay man though he never formally advised his family (he was sure his sisters and maybe even his mother had figured it out).  As Kamal becomes more and more free, his family, especially the women, become more and more trapped by a religious and isolated country.  The gap between them creates tension for Kamal which leads to depression.

In whole this is a fascinating story of how the events of history can have a major impact on a family and even markedly different impacts on different family members.

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