Reviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is a compelling read that follows Kamal Al-Solaylee from a life in the Middle East to one in Canada. The memoir traces his early life as he grows up the youngest son of a wealthy businessman in Yemen, and chronicles the family’s journey as they’re forced to leave their country and make temporary homes elsewhere. They move to Beirut and then Cairo, and still experience a life of relative privilege. However, the family gradually begins to lose their status and must adapt to the changing society around them.
Intolerable lets the reader see a Middle East that is different from the one in the news today. Today it is a region often painted with broad strokes, often dismissed as violent and intolerant, but this book lets the reader uncover a different reality.
Some of the most interesting observations are Al-Solaylee’s impressions of the way his sisters’ lives have changed over the decades. In the book, he recounts how he used to go bikini-shopping with them and how they’d spend vacations at the beach where they’d all swim together. He talks about the money they’d spend on makeup, clothes and jewellery, how they’d buy Western music and talk about their favourite movie stars.
Through the course of the memoir, Al-Solaylee illustrates the ways this society has changed over time to become one that was more conservative and religious. This is once again shown through his own family: he explains how his older brother began to bring home more rigorous religious ideas, which lead him to begin to pray regularly, as well as to start routinely admonishing his sisters for not covering themselves up in public. Once the family returns to Yemen, they begin to more completely embrace religion and his sisters begin wearing burkas.
Intolerable is as much about Al-Solaylee’s escape as it is about the changing Arab world. As a gay man, he knew a life in the Middle East wouldn’t allow him the freedom to openly be who he was, and his escape is made first to England, and then to Canada. As he settles in Toronto, his life is further contrasted with those of his family – they’ve made the move back in Yemen, and are struggling both financially and emotionally. When he visits, he is thrust once again into a world that he’s worked hard to leave behind him.
The memoir is an enlightening and heartbreaking read. By showing different facets of life in the Middle East and the ways in which social change comes about, Intolerable looks at the factors that led up to the Arab spring. Al-Solaylee writes with compassion and frankness. The book is divided by time and place, but though this clearly sets out the events, this structure sometimes hinders the book from making connections between ideas and concepts, many of which stretch across chapters.
Perhaps most importantly though, Intolerable is a memoir about family, and what happens when you decide you need to leave the people closest to you. It showcases the sacrifices that are sometimes necessary in order to live a life of tolerance and freedom.
Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes was published in 2012 by Harper Perennial.