Living In Toronto

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

Cover of book Intolerable: A memoir of extremes2013 Toronto Book Awards Winner

Part memoir of an Arab family trapped in the turmoil of Middle Eastern politics, part coming-out narrative and part cultural analysis, Intolerable covers the last 50 years and recounts the story of Al-Solaylee's family as they moved from Aden, to Beirut, to Cairo and then to Sana'a, Yemen, a country that was then culturally isolated from the world. Caught between the shift into political Islam in the Middle East and the allure of the West, the young and gay Al-Solaylee escaped first to England and eventually to Canada. Intolerable charts his journey against the backdrop of an increasingly violent Middle East.

What the judges said

Intolerable (Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.) is a story of prejudice, dislocation, courage and extraordinary achievement. It is a moving portrayal of the inner turmoil and emotional complexities that Kamal Al-Solaylee experiences being gay and leaving his Arab family and culture behind to pursue a life free from religious and social stigmas. His arrival in Canada is marked by a nervous optimism but he finds his new life is "enriched by many other things; from public libraries, to public broadcasting to the many parks and free art galleries."

In Toronto he finds a sense of acceptance, community and place. Set against the backdrop of conflict in the Middle East, he vividly portrays the sense of loss and sadness he feels as a result of the difficult choices he has had to make. It is a captivating and sensitively written memoir that explores the dynamics of family relationships, and the political and cultural influences that shape one's life.

Photo of the authorKamal Al-Solaylee

Kamal Al-Solaylee, an associate professor and undergraduate program director at the School of Journalism at Ryerson University, was previously a theatre critic at the Globe and Mail. Also a former staffer at Report on Business magazine, he has written features and reviews for numerous publications, including the Toronto Star, National Post, The Walrus and Toronto Life. Al-Solaylee holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Nottingham and has taught at the University of Waterloo and York University. He lives in Toronto.

Photo: Peter Bregg

Excerpt from Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes

I fell in love with Toronto instantly. Once I cleared Immigration, the nice officer actually said, "Welcome to Canada." I felt that I was indeed welcomed to this city. No one asked me if I had a history of infectious diseases. That was taken care of in the medical tests I'd done in Nottingham as part of my visa application. The first ride on the Toronto subway on my second day was a revelation. I was accustomed to being the only person of colour on the buses in Nottingham or in certain parts of Liverpool. Now, to be surrounded by so many people who spoke different languages and came from almost every part of the globe instantly laid to rest any self-consciousness I might have had about being the FOB –fresh-off-the-boat –immigrant. Even after eight years of absorbing local life in England, I still felt like an outsider.

In less than ten days in Toronto I was sharing an apartment with a gay man and a straight woman in the Little Italy neighbourhood of the city, which looked both refined and bohemian, just like one of those exterior shots in the American sitcoms I'd watched for years in Cairo and in England. The clincher for me was the stop a mere five-minute walk from my new home on Markham Street for the Wellesley bus, Number 94, which took me directly to Toronto's gay village at Church and Wellesley. None of this would strike readers who have lived in Toronto or other Western democracies as anything special. But after Cairo and Sana'a, where I lived a furtive and then closeted life, and despite the time in England, that bus ride had all the significance of a moon landing. A transportive experience, literally.

In Nottingham, the gay scene was mainly a couple of bars and one nightclub, all of which got busy on weekends only. I was now living in a city that had a definable gay neighbourhood with bookshops, coffee houses and bars that were open during the day. I don't think I had been to a gay bar in daylight except for maybe once in London with my then-partner. Every time I visited London, however, I felt like a tourist with time limits. But in Toronto I could finally slow down and enjoy this new world, which, from here on, I would have every right to call mine.