“I knew instantly that I had to avoid spending the rest of my life in a place where public hangings were held in broad daylight as part of sharia law.”
In 1967, Kamal Al-Solaylee’s family lost everything when Yemen threw off colonial rule. His father, a wealthy real estate magnate, had all of his properties confiscated, and the family fled first to Beirut, and then to Cairo when the situation in Beirut became too dangerous. Al-Solaylee grew up in what was then a relatively secular country at the centre of Arab cultural life, but his growing awareness of his identity as a gay man still made life there difficult. When the family is forced back to Yemen, he turns his attention to studying English in a bid to escape the Middle East once and for all. First as a student in England, and then as a new immigrant in Canada, he watches from afar as the rising tide of Islamic conservatism sweeps up his once-secular family.
As a young man, Al-Solaylee thoroughly rejected his roots, refusing even to speak Arabic or eat traditional foods once he arrived in England to attend university. Long years stretched between his visits home, and the phone calls got farther and farther apart. He forms a sharp contrast to his sister Faiza, who lives in an insular Arab community that tries to recreate Yemen in an English suburb. When her husband eventually dies, she has to return to Yemen because she doesn’t know enough about their business or English society outside her community to continue alone. But Al-Solaylee’s extreme rejection of his past has its own consequences. Refusing to prepare Yemeni foods, but without the knowledge to cook Western meals, he eventually becomes sick on a diet of packaged foods. But more seriously, he carries a heavy burden of survivor’s guilt for escaping. The very writing of Intolerable seems to be a difficult part of the ongoing process of coming to terms with his past.
Even as he recounts his history, Al-Solaylee seems to be keeping his distance from the reader, and we do not learn much about his new life in Canada. Rather, it is his family that is exposed, though they do not have their own voice in the narrative. Telling their story seems to be part of coping with his intense guilt for abandoning them in order to save himself, and penance for trying to avoid his history for so long. He particularly struggles with that fact that he left his mother and sisters behind. By the time he is well-established in Canada, and possibly in a position to help them, they have resigned themselves to the increasing control exerted over their behaviour in Yemen.
Al-Solaylee’s writing is straight-forward, and even a bit flat, perhaps as a by-product of his careful emotional distance. Though he realizes he has an important and timely story to tell, he is clearly still working through his own feelings. The reader benefits from Al-Solaylee’s dual perspective, and the fact that his life happens to span a crucial period in the history of the Middle East. As he finally starts to try to come to terms with his past, we gain glimpse into the Arab Spring through his tentatively renewed connection to his family in Yemen, and the nieces and nephews who form the next generation of the Al-Solaylee family.
Although Intolerable touches on topics that are both current and relevant, it was the first book voted off of Canada Reads 2015, despite the passionate defense of Kristin Kreuk, who argued that it was an important book because it humanizes Muslims and helps us develop a deeper understanding of the Middle East. Intolerable came under fire from Martha Wainwright, who argued that the narrator was himself intolerant and cold, as well as repetitive. Swayed by this argument, Lainey Lui joined Wainwright in voting against Intolerable, bringing it to a surprise tie with Kim Thuy’s Ru, which was not much discussed during the debate. Cameron Bailey, as the only panelist who had not voted for one of the tied titles, was given the deciding vote. As the defender of Ru, he naturally cast his vote against Intolerable. Al-Solaylee’s emotional distance and repetitive narration sounded the death knell for his memoir on the first day of Canada Reads 2015.
You can watch the Canada Reads debates on the CBC website