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review: memoir

A young Kamal Al-Solaylee in a family photograph

While family memoirs are often drenched in anguish, Kamal Al-Solaylee's Intolerable takes the genre to a new level.

The former Globe and Mail drama critic and university professor reaches back to his parents' history, from Yemen in the 1960s through Beirut, Cairo and then back to Yemen through the Arab Spring, in agonizing, heart-wrenching detail. Along the way, he illuminates the complex struggles and historical moments that have shaped the region, all through his very personal vantage point.

Al-Solaylee begins with loving portraits of his parents. His mother was a poor, illiterate Yemen woman and his dad a Yemeni who, while proud, was also an avid anglophile who carried a British passport. His father managed to make a reasonable living flipping real estate, until the colonial powers were overthrown and nationalist socialism moved in. With his properties taken over by the state, the senior Al-Solaylee had little choice but to move to greener pastures.

And so began the journey of the family with 11 children, who would try to settle in Beirut (not quite fitting in, as they were Yemeni), fleeing the war there to go to Cairo (not quite fitting in there either), only to return to Yemen as a last resort when ethnic, religious and economic friction became too much to bear.

Al-Solaylee tells his family's story in a basic, no-nonsense style, which turns out to be a perfect counterpoint to the intricate twists and turns in each chapter. He lucidly illustrates the evolution of the region – or devolution, as he sees it – through the eyes of someone who felt forced to remove himself from it entirely.

There are touching memories, in particular of times with his sisters in Cairo, when they would go shopping and indulge in colourful clothing and records by Western pop groups and singers. At this time, when Al-Solaylee was in his early teens, his sisters had actual choices in their lives: They were outspoken, and enjoyed dressing well and wearing a bit of makeup.

But any independence by female members of the family was short-lived. He recalls Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's historic 1977 visit to Israel, as the family huddled around the television to watch it live, suggesting that "the only comparable history-making event in North America would be the moon landing in 1969."

But while some in the West saw the Egypt-Israel peace accord as hopeful, many Egyptians viewed Sadat as a sellout and strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whom would ultimately assassinate him.

As the entire Egyptian middle class began to get squeezed, the Al-Solaylee patriarch made the painful decision to return to Yemen. And Al-Solaylee's eldest brother became increasingly swept up in Muslim extremism, often berating his sisters for wearing makeup and refusing to wear veils, telling them they looked like whores. Things would only get worse in Yemen.

If all of these conflicting questions of identity weren't enough, Al-Solaylee also had to contend with the fact that he's gay. In one scene – which many gay men will recognize as universal – Kamal's father looks at him anxiously as they watch a Barbra Streisand movie together, with the young Al-Solaylee looking at the American Jewish singer in complete adoration.

The gay thing, on top of everything else, meant that Al-Solaylee understandably felt he had no other option for survival but to flee to Britain to pursue a university education. Expecting histrionics from his mother, this self-described mama's boy recalls her saying one word to him: ihrab, escape.

Al-Solaylee ultimately manages to make a good life for himself in Toronto – a city he loves so much he dedicates the book to it – but is bogged down by staggering guilt and depression about the family he left behind, in particular his sisters. They bluntly describe their existence in Yemen as hell, stuck in a civil war and encumbered by religious repression and what Al-Solaylee refers to as "gender apartheid."

Intolerable features a number of family photos, as Al-Solaylee's father insisted on capturing as much of their childhood on film as possible. In his last visit to Yemen, Al-Solaylee describes his horrific realization that his siblings no longer took photos, as it became clear there was nothing about their lives they wanted to record. Worse, they never looked at old photos, as remembering a fleeting time when they actually knew happiness was too painful.

Intolerable crosses so many lines of identity as to make a reader's head spin: class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion and degrees of religious observance. This beautiful book about a family's tortured relationship to history – and a region's fraught relationship to modernity – is everything a great memoir should be: It's as moving as it is complex.

Matthew Hays teaches film studies and journalism at Concordia University. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers.