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Intolerable (Harper Collins) is remarkable. One of its most striking qualities is that unlike most coming out or coming-of-age tales, Kamal Al-Solaylee doesn’t limit his scope to his personal story. Writing in light, quick prose, he situates this vigorous narrative of sexual self-discovery and odyssey within two larger themes. Like cupped palms, they overlap and encapsulate a unique journey.
The first of the arcs is conventional; it concerns his history.
Al-Solaylee was born in 1964. His parents were prosperous Anglophiles. But the anti-colonialism of the late 1960s made them refugees–first to Beirut, then Cairo. Here, the writer grew up after his family was uprooted due to their tolerance and belief in the principles and values of Western culture.
The book’s more unexpected arc charts the family’s internal dynamics.
By 1983, when they began returning to Yemen, its embrace of radical Islam obliged them to adjust to a far more extremist society. By then, Al-Solaylee realized he was gay. But life was as complex and paradoxical for him as for other family members challenged by a fundamentalist son; the author’s older brother confronted them with hardline religious views they found oppressive. Still, to ensure their survival, they had to accommodate Yemen’s now-militant orthodoxy and mute their liberal ethos.
The searing multi-layered tale has resonance for all marginalized people. Just as each LGBT person is forced to redefine previous notions of Self when our scripting proves useless, Al-Solaylee’s grappling with the fact of being a gay man in a society where it’s impossible to be open, as well as the plight of his parents and siblings caught between worlds delivers a collision of the expected or hoped-for with the actual. All confront a double-binding conflict: choosing between the cherished normalcy of social integration and the non-negotiable loss of a secure, safe “known.”
Through the tense, intensifying coils accompanying his path to freedom, the author copes with his own differentness. His tripartite journey from being an innocent boy playing dress-up without censure to an adult whose mother urged him to, “escape” to a freedom which she and most of his family realized was now unattainable, illumines a previously alien landscape, one which becomes familiar and haunting.
If there had been an absence of love or empathy, Al-Solayee’s process of discovery and the necessity of emigration might be less painful. But with the sole exception of his militant brother, the author’s relations were neither rejecting nor oppressive. And it’s the universal desire to stay and be known and loved “as is,” vs. the necessity of departure as a self-exiled prisoner of conscience which makes his tale so moving.
From first stirrings of same-sex attraction in a lad spellbound by the movies and sneaking into a bathroom to kiss photos of male stars he idolized
– (and who can’t relate to the projection?) to his initial forays into the world, where we see him at school in England, and, later, as a journalist in Canada, we come face to face with stark choices. As the author finds a healthy identity and cultural acceptance, he realizes that these entail losing those he loves in a trade-off between integration and alienation, successful individuation and self-exile.
Framed against the Muslim world’s post-colonial upheaval in which democratic values are pitted against medievalism, this story of a brave gay man coming out is best seen as the microcosm reflecting the macrocosm. The tale is painfully intimate and tender in places, as in the depiction of a family which can no longer bear to see pictures from the years when they felt free, and as epic as the current dislocation and tortuously unpredictable tumult of “the Arab Spring.”
Ultimately, Intolerable is a bulls-eye of individual truth telling as well as an apt and timely metaphor. For any who doubt the validity of liberal values or the crucial potency of the written word, Al-Solayee’s account of his journey to autonomous personhood and the sacrifices that it required is a moving and wrenching reminder of the urgent need for integrity.
Intolerable:A Memoir of Extremes
by Kamal Al-Solaylee
Harper Collins Canada
Paperback, 9781554688876, 204 pp.