Author Kamal Al-Solaylee. Photography courtesy of Peter Bregg.
Toronto writer Kamal Al-Solaylee, a Yemeni expatriate, twice removed, is proof that you can never really go home again. And again. “It never feels like a holiday or a joy to be back in the Middle East. It’s a duty,” says Al-Solaylee, an ELLE Canada contributor who recently published his memoir, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, which traces his journey out of the Middle East and into his own Western mecca.
A former Globe and Mail theatre critic and current undergraduate director at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, Al-Solaylee writes about the tension with growing up watching his once-secular family embrace the values of the rising Islamic influence, as well as his guilt as a dalo’o omo (his mother’s spoiled child) – he’s the baby of 11 kids, after all – with breaking his mother’s heart when he eventually escaped to England for a better life.
Now living that life, Al-Solaylee, my much-loved former prof, speaks about his constant worry over his family in the Middle East, especially during recent violent outbreaks amidst Arab Spring protests, and why academia and Olivia Newton-John pop music—two prominent aspects of his Toronto life—saved him.
What’s the significance of the title, Intolerable?
“I wanted a title that’s one word…but I chose the word intolerable deliberately because something that is intolerable can become tolerable, whereas something that’s tragic does not become the opposite of tragic. Intolerable has hope in it somewhere—it’s intolerable now but it may not be intolerable in the long term. It’s the circumstances that almost make life intolerable, but that may change. With any luck, it will change.”
Click through to hear Kamal Al-Solaylee on the Arab Spring and Barbra Streisand!
You read Newsweek and People magazines growing up. Did you always feel that the Middle East was not the right home for you?
“I think initially—I don’t want to sound smarter than I actually was—at one level I thought there might be a place for me in the Middle East, in an older Middle East that existed before I was a young man. But my coming of age coincided with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, or political Islam, so I kind of knew that yes, I was born and raised here, but intellectually and aspirationally, the West was like a siren song that was calling me. And I didn’t know how to get there or if I would ever get there, but at least I knew that I had to try hard. And English was my passport to that.”
You taught yourself English with North American movies and pop songs. How has that shaped your Western life?
“It screwed me up! Do you know what it’s like to grow up listening to Barbra Streisand? Do you know the standards of love that those songs have exposed me to? And on an emotional level, no one has ever lived up to the beauty of the songs, to the kind of love and passion that I learned about from those songs. And I have this feeling that no one will ever come close to that kind of love in the songs that Barbra Streisand or Olivia Newton-John sang because in the real world, it doesn’t work out that way.”
You were a self-proclaimed mama’s boy but when you finally decided to leave, she told you to escape. Would your life have changed if she hadn’t said that word?
“Honestly, I owe her my life from that one word. Mothers know—she knew I was not going to be happy living there. And she knew I could do better, I could aim higher and that I would have a happier life outside of Yemen.”
You’re skeptical about seeing any long-term change arise from the Arab Spring protests. Do you think there’s a future for your nieces and nephews, who are around the same as you were when you left?
“I hope there’s hope for them. I’m not optimistic but I hope there is. I want them to have a better life than what their parents—my siblings— had. The odds are against them, especially in Yemen. It’s going to take an economic miracle to put that country back together again.”
Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee was published in Spring 2012 by HarperCollins Canada.