Intolerable:A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

“Intolerable is part memoir of an Arab family caught for six decades in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics, part personal coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis. This is a story of the modern Middle East, in all its irreconcilable differences, seen through a unique lens.” (Book Jacket)

Kamal Al-Solaylee left Aden when he was three years old. His father Mohamed had been one of Aden’s “most powerful and influential businessmen.” Kamal writes that he wishes he’d “known that father and that Aden.” There are photographs of the family in the book and the author says that he prefers the history represented in those photographs  to any other “more complicated and less rosy story” about Aden.

In the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS the author explains that Intolerable had its Intolerable“first outing…as a two-thousand-word article in The Globe and Mail’s Focus section in 2010 and was titled “From Bikinis to Burkas”. He worked on the article with the section’s editor Carol Toller and “the forty-eight hours we worked together were the most intense and rewarding in my life as a journalist. In a career of over fifteen hundred bylines, the final story was by far my most read and discussed. As it went viral, I felt part of a worldwide conversation about Islam, the middle East and social change. ”

The dedication to the book is:

To Toronto,
for giving me what I’ve been looking for:

a home

He introduces the book this way:

“I am the son of an illiterate shepherdess who was married off at fourteen and had eleven children by the time she was thirty-three.
My mother, Safia, was born and raised in Hadhramaut, a part of my home country of Yemen that is better known today as the birthplace of the bin Laden clan.When she and my father, Mohamed, were married in the fall of 1945, in the port city of Aden, than a British protectorate, he was fresh off serving a stint in the Allied army and she had just reached  puberty mere months before. A year earlier, she once confided to me, she had listened to the radio for the first time in her life and her older sister, Mariam, had talked of something called the cinema.”

Safia’s father-in-law (Mohamed’s father) “was a runaway from justice, having killed a man near the northern Yemeni town of Taiz as part of a long-standing tribal vendetta.” He had been on the run and ended up in Aden. There were no birth certificates at the time but it was believed that he was sixteen or seventeen. “He adopted the name Soylaylee – also spelled in English as Sulaili- from a small tribe that offered him shelter on the land near the border that divided what was then North and South Yemen.”

Solaylee kept in touch with his mother (he last saw her in 2006) and recalls many memories including one of her walking him home from school in 1977. “She often did that, because she worried about her youngest child crossing streets by himself. I was about to turn thirteen, a year younger than she was when she got married, and, like many children in Cairo, was discovering Western pop music.” After his year-end exams she bought him a copy of Olivia Newton John’s album Come On Over: a gift he still keeps “as a memento of time, lives and a family long gone.”

He writes that he was struck by “her ability to bridge the gaps between her lives as a young girl, a middle-aged mother and now an elderly woman.”

Solaylee’s trips back to Yemen were stressful, physically and emotionally. The gaps between himself and his family became more pronounced. His trips caused serious depression and “a lot of willpower to recover from.” He locked the pictures from one of his later trips in a filing cabinet in his Toronto apartment. “Not even my dearest friends have seen them and I rarely look at them. They represent a descent into a world that, to me, in intolerable.”

A difficult read in a number of ways but also rewarding for the information, comprehension and awareness that it provides. A Canada Reads choice in 2015.