Review: Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes — Kamal Al-Solaylee

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To Go: 73

Book List:
21. Why Men Lie — Linden MacIntyre
22. My Dear I Wanted to Tell You — Louisa Young
23. Phaedrus — Plato
24. The First Wife — Emily Barr
25. The Last Boyfriend — Nora Roberts
26. Love in the Time of Cholera — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
27. Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes — Kamal Al-Solaylee

In the 1960s, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s father was one of the wealthiest property owners in Aden, in the south of Yemen, but when the country shrugged off its colonial roots, his properties were confiscated and the family of twelve was forced to leave. They moved first to Beirut, where sectarian violence began to tear the country apart, and then to Cairo. After a few peaceful years, even the safe haven of Cairo struggled under a new wave of Islamic extremism that culminated with the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The family returned to Yemen, a country that was by then culturally isolated from the rest of the world.

Kamal’s father, Mohamed, always impeccably dressed as he sought to provide for his itinerant family, would remain largely unemployed as his influence waned. Kamal’s mother, Safia, the illiterate daughter of a Yemeni shepherdess, struggled at first to adjust to her new life yet demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt. But Kamal, caught between the cultural and religious changes in the Middle East and the allure of the West, found himself with few choices for survival. As a gay man living in an intolerant country, Al-Solaylee escaped first to England and eventually to Canada, where he became a prominent journalist and academic. While he was enjoying the cultural and personal freedoms of life in the West, his once-liberal family slowly fell into the hardline interpretations of Islam that were sweeping though the Arab-Muslim world in the 1980s and 1990s. The differences between his life and theirs were brought into sharp relief by the uprisings and revolutions in Yemen and Egypt in 2011.

Hey guys, I’m down here!

For those of you who are unaware, Kamal Al-Solaylee was my professor in my first year of journalism, so I was especially excited to read his memoir (as, I’m sure, is the entire journalism school right now). As such, this review feels really personal to me, and it makes me wish I was a better, more eloquent reviewer so that I could say something original and intelligent about Intolerable. I’ll just have to try my best.

I’m going to go ahead and be unorthodox here, and address the historical portion of the book first. Aside from being a memoir about two very different living experiences, Intolerable also traced the Middle East (Yemen and Egypt specifically) from its liberal years, to the beginnings of the oppressive culture that us Westerners know so well, to the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Most people, myself included, don’t know much more than a somewhat one-dimensional story of the Middle East. Intolerable does a really good job at providing a much more comprehensive picture of that history, and does so in a way that’s super easy to understand. Plus it addresses the “Arab Spring,” and how our media has oversold it a little bit. It’s not just about an uprising over lack of rights — economy is tied into that as well, and countries like Yemen and Egypt probably won’t recover right away. We don’t always see that side of the story.

As for the memoir part, it was both heartbreaking and uplifting. I keep trying to articulate something wonderfully poignant here, but I can’t so I’ll just be blunt instead: at times, though it’s impossible for me to ever come close to understanding what Kamal and his family went through, I felt like he put me right in his shoes. During the chapters that were in Sana’a, I felt as closed-in as I imagine he did. And I felt for his family, especially his sisters, who were physically and psychologically trapped in an oppressive country and culture.

So. Congratulations to one of my favourite professors on an amazing, heartrending book. You should all pick it up and read it immediately, if not sooner.

Next book: Something light, I think.

– Kelsey

PS: Do you ever get excited when books mention places you know/have been to? I, personally, do. The Toronto-focused chapter made me all giggly because I knew all the places.


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