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March 11, 2015

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, by Kamal Al-Solaylee

intolerableKamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is the final book of my 2015 Canada Reads selections, and an interesting way to finish them off having started with Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian. Both are non-fiction and work to complicate perceptions of people some of us best know from stereotypes. Both also reframe history to present their people—King with Canada’s First Nations and Al-Soylaylee with Muslims in the Middle East—as victims of a capitalism. For Al-Soylaylee, this is only a small part of the narrative, but it’s an important one—he sees the move toward extremism in Egypt being fundamentally linked to Anwar Sadat’s open-market policies and free-market capitalism in the 1970s, which drove Egyptians into poverty and situated the state as an enemy of the people. Politicized Islam filled the gaps. Al-Solaylee states, “And because Egypt exerted huge cultural and moral influence on other Arab countries, the shift towards a more politicized and economics-driven notion of Islam quickly spread to other parts of the region.”

How does it connect to the other Canada Reads books? Like Ru, this is the story of an immigrant’s journey to Canada and place to call home, and the narrator’s starry-eyed idealism never wavers. Like When Everything Feels Like the Movies, it’s a story of growing up gay and seeking a place where one can belong—although the characters’ journeys are very different, partly because we don’t have the same access to Al-Solaylee’s isolation that we do Raziel Reid’s Jude’s. Al-Soylayee’s narrative strikes me as similar to the image on the cover—a writer moving from darkness to light but he’s so focussed on that momentum that the dark corners are left unexamined. They’re alluded to—he writes of falling into a years-long depression after a trip to Yemen in the 2000s, years after leaving. But most of the story merely skims the surface on the road from there to here.

Which is not entirely mere—it’s a fascinating road. His own family’s from affluence to poverty; from enlightened liberal ideals to religious extremism; from Yemen to Beirut, to Cairo, and back to Yemen again. It’s a movement that’s emblematic of transformations in the Middle East in general. While Al-Solaylee’s had a different trajectory—to get OUT, whatever it takes. Living as a gay man in Yemen, in his own family, would be impossible. Could be punishable by death. And so he plots his path—to England to study, and then to Canada. By the time he’s made his success in Canada as a journalist and cultural critic, the gulf between his world and his family’s is nearly impossible to bridge. He doesn’t even want to try. He writes of his terror at border crossings still—his fear at being forced back to the world he’s escaped. By the time his mother dies, he’s just about given up on remaining connected with his family. He has spent years turning his back on his Arabness—the language, the culture, the geography. And was this selfishness or self-preservation? He’s not entirely sure of this. But then with the 2011 Arab Spring and war and unrest in Yemen, Al-Solaylee finally realizes that he can’t entirely disown the places—and the people—he comes from. And it’s this transformation that to me is the most compelling journey in the book.

Intolerable is the link between the three Canada Reads books I’ve already noted, and the fourth, Jocelyn Saucier’s And the Birds Rained Down. Because it’s also a book that’s all about choice, except that it’s mostly about what happens to people who don’t have any. Al-Soylaylee notes that he took the freedom to pursue his dreams in Canada, while his sisters—educated and once-liberated women—retreated to Islam. They tell him they find comfort there, but he’s not sure they would have been permitted comfort anywhere else. And even his brothers, whose hard-line points of view were pivotal to eventually wearing down their sisters’ resistance to religious infringement upon their lifestyle, are given a bit of leeway. What else did these men have? It’s true, Al-Soylaylee notes, that his brother became more devout the worse he did at school, but even if he had been successful, what opportunities could a country like Yemen have offered him? Over and over again we see that poverty and economic stagnation is a hole that radical Islam rushes to fill.

While not as structurally innovative as the other Canada Reads books, there is a whole lot going on here, but, as I’ve said, it’s happening far beneath the surface. I found the prose confusing at times, sentence after sentence beginning with conjunctions to show disagreement—even, but, although, however, though. To the point where Al-Solaylee is not debating between sides but moving in circles, suggesting his own discomfort with his history, with his take on it, and that he’s still not sure how to hold it. While this detracts from the subject matter a bit, keeping the writing from going as deep as I’d like, it’s also interesting to consider, and typical of something that promises “a memoir of extremes”. That while where we’re talking about breaking barriers, life is complicated, not necessarily two-sided simple, and that some barriers are not easily broken.

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