Kamal Al-Solaylee’s Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes vividly captures the author’s experiences growing up gay in the Middle East, specifically through his early years in Beirut through to his adolescence in Cairo and his eventual return to his familial homeland in Sana’a, a city in the south of Yemen. While he writes largely about himself and his own coming-to-terms with his sexuality, as well as the effects of his various uprootings throughout his childhood and adolescence, Al-Solaylee’s memoir could just as easily be marketed as an auto-ethnographic treatise that discusses the liberation movement of Yemen from under the control of the English, the rise of fundamentalist Islamic principles in the Middle East, and the effects of both of these historic events on Al-Solaylee’s own family. Al-Solaylee, who is a professor of journalism at Ryerson University, treats these events of socio-historical import with a sense of journalistic distance, often leaving his reader wanting in terms of the emotional, affective descriptions one comes to expect within the genre of memoir. However, one must keep in mind the trauma likely caused by the multitudinous displacements in Al-Solaylee’s childhood and adult life, which potentially begs for this impersonal mode of writing.
While Al-Solaylee’s life is marked almost entirely by his displacements, the one that appears to resonate the most for the author is his final move to Toronto. The appreciation Al-Solaylee feels for the city is evidenced by his dedicating his book to the city itself “for giving [him] what [he’s] been looking for: a home.” The love for Toronto is so evident that the city itself become metonym for the West in complete opposition to Yemen and the Middle East as the East, or the Orient. The representation of the city, however, is suspect insofar as Al-Solaylee figures it as a utopia wherein he experiences no discrimination, other than a questioned-but-never-confirmed discrimination on job applications due to his “very ethnic sounding name and Middle Eastern background” (166). The reader is thus left to question the veracity of this description of the city: does Al-Solaylee glamourize Toronto due to the liberation he feels as a gay man within the – especially in comparison to Yemeni culture – liberal political climate of Canada and Toronto, or is this city truly Al-Solaylee’s paradise?
Although I have not yet read Al-Solaylee’s second book, Brown, I would suggest the book as a companion to Intolerable. In Brown, Al-Solaylee discusses the implication of living with brown skin in the contemporary world, thus likely filling in some of the more glaring gaps of commentary the reader is left with in the wake of Intolerable.