“I have a dog who goes to a daycare where they have organized activities. And my sisters live in a dangerous place where they only get a few hours of electricity and water every day. How do I make sense of that?”
This uncomfortable divide between the life Kamal Al-Solaylee leads in Toronto and the one he left behind in Yemen is the turbulent undercurrent in his new book, Intolerable, A Memoir of Extremes. It is also an animating part of his personality. The 48-year-old associate professor of journalism at Ryerson University offers explanations about it in the tone of an apology. A man of slight build, he brims with a quiet intensity from across the table in an uptown Toronto cafè. He fidgets. His eyes are dark pools of thought.
He is the embodiment of two worlds that rarely meet except on the pages of newspapers: Western liberal society and Islamic fundamentalism. And unwittingly, he’s also the story of their impossible reconciliation – a global socio-political issue, dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt and neutral pants, accented with a nervous laugh.
But it’s not clear, not at first anyway, where the tension lies – in the gap between the two equally important worlds or in having rejected one over the other?
Mr. Al-Solaylee often talks about his family’s plight as though it’s happening to people he doesn’t know, like a strange curiosity in a far-off land. But the physical and emotional distance hasn’t yielded the peace he craves. “I have mixed feelings and guilt and confusion,” he says.
He was the last and 11th child in his family, born in Aden, in the south of Yemen, a country best known as the birthplace of the bin Laden clan. His family soon got caught up in the turmoil of a changing political landscape. From a youth spent wearing bikinis on holiday, his sisters disappeared under niqabs, as they came under the influence of Islamic fundamentalism, some of it pushed on them by their religious brothers.
“They just want an easier life,” says Mr. Al-Solaylee, a former theatre critic for The Globe. “They don’t want a life of confrontation. It’s the same way a cult works. It’s easier to just follow the leader after a while.”
He helps the family financially, he explains. And every week, he calls his sisters. He rarely communicates with his brothers. Both parents have died so few common threads of experience remain. They speak of their children, and the state of affairs in Yemen. Last year, in the midst of increased insurgency, “the plan was for me to fly to Cairo, rent a big apartment, and bring them there gradually.” But his siblings refused. “They say they will live together and die together.”
His family’s story charts the region’s shift from secularism to fundamentalism. In the 1960s, Mr. Al-Solaylee’s father was a wealthy property owner and devoted Anglophile, who wore tailored suits – even when sitting under an umbrella on a beach. But as Yemen shrugged off its colonial roots, his properties were confiscated, forcing the family to flee. They lived in Beirut and then Cairo. But as the children finished their high-school education and faced restricted work opportunities as non-Egyptians, the family returned to strife-torn Yemen.
It is one of those strange twists of fate that gave Mr. Al-Solayee his freedom, and it has something to do with Olivia Newton-John. As a young man, he watched her in the film Xanadu, and immediately felt that his sexual orientation was affirmed. “It was finally like, ‘That’s my life. I am a homosexual. I’m not going to change.’”
He feared for his safety in Middle Eastern countries where homosexuals are publicly flogged and routinely imprisoned for sodomy. “Being gay allowed me to break free and perhaps use it as an excuse to get out of the clutches of the Middle East.” But if he can write about his homosexuality in his book – it’s partly a coming-out tale – he has never been able to tell his family directly even though he believes that his mother knew.
When he was accepted to university in England, he gingerly told her he would be leaving, worried that she needed him and that he was acting selfish. Instead of opposing him, she said,“Iharh,” meaning escape.
“I don’t think I would have the same life if she didn’t release me in that way,” he says. “But I didn’t have the courage to tell her verbally about being gay.”
Still, it took courage to write the book. “My nephews and nieces have read the book and seen all the media interviews. They are proud of me. However, they wish I didn’t write so openly about being gay.” And his sisters? “They don’t speak English. ... But I wrote everything knowing that sooner or later, there will be media about it in Arabic.”
Interestingly, though, it is his courage to write his story that also partly explains his palpable guilt. What becomes clear is that Mr. Al-Solaylee may express confusion about the dichotomy of a world where in one part, dogs go to daycare and in another, people live with limited water and electricity, but he has clearly chosen the one he loves most. The phone calls to his siblings are “a duty,” he confides. “The book is dedicated to Toronto and not to my family,” he says without hesitation.“That’s a deliberate choice.”