Ryerson professor Kamal Al-Solaylee opens up about life in the Middle East in his first memoir

Staff reporter

Ryerson journalism professor Kamal Al-Solaylee says writing a personal account of his journey to find acceptance and freedom in the end helped him understand his family’s shift hard-line Islam.

“When I started writing the book it was very much about the distance between me and my family,” said Al-Solaylee, assistant professor and undergraduate program director at Ryerson School of Journalism. “I’ve got to the point where the book has actually brought me closer to them and helped me understand the decisions they made.”

Al-Solaylee has spent the last year constructing a narrative, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, based on family history which dates back almost seven decades. Since leaving his homeland, Yemen, in 1987, Al-Solaylee watched his family transform from the secular people he left behind, to a household dictated by Islam.

“The gap got wider the longer I lived away from them,” said Al-Solaylee, whose book will be published this spring. “It was impossible to see what was happening to my family. Islam became the guiding principle in their lives. It all became about scheduling your day around the five prayers.”

His family, who has lived through colonization, decolonization and the rise of fundamentalism in Cairo, is one which he hopes people will see as representative of other families experiencing changes in the Middle East.

For Al-Solaylee, time was spent going through library books to get the correct facts, details and historical references to include, as the book examines political reasons for the Middle Eastern shift towards fundamentalism.

“The one thing the book will make clear is that it was a slow transformation process. It was a process of adaptation on my family’s part and it was the weight of history,” he explained. “They got caught up in history, they reacted to it. In some cases it was self-protection because if you stand out in the crowd, in a society like Yemen, you get ostracized, especially as a woman.”

Al-Solaylee says he faced many challenges and emotions when writing the book and he knows that his family will be “extremely unhappy” about him talking openly about his sexuality as a gay man.

“That will be the one thing they will be unhappy about. Mainly they will have a problem with their brother being so out there and publicly embracing his sexuality,” he said. “One of the reasons I left my family was to live in dignity as a gay man, which is important to me, and I know they will be devastated to read that in such a public statement.”

Growing up in a homeland that shunned and often executed homosexuals, Al-Solaylee was aware that he needed to find a place in the world where he could live with rights and freedom. The book talks about his immigration to Canada fifteen years ago, a place where he can finally call home.

“The book is also about my own journey and coming out as a gay man and finding my place in the world here in Canada. The book is very much about Canada and it is dedicated to Toronto for giving me the home I always searched for.”

Al-Solaylee said that one of the emotional challenges for him when writing the book, was talking about his mother. He stopped several times when writing because he would tear up and have to take a step back. However, he did not want the book to be “too melodramatic or too sentimental.” His focus was on providing a fair depiction of his mother.

“My mother died in 2009. Her death freed me to some extent to talk more openly about her experience and to also honor her memory as well. Emotionally, however, writing was very difficult because she came across as a much more central figure than when I envisioned the book.”

The early part of the narrative talks about his parents’ marriage in 1945 and their relationship onwards. He wanted to ease the reader into the story before talking about “the heartache and shift to fundamentalism” straight away.

“There is a reason why I started chronologically. I think the most exciting and flavorable details are about their courtship, their marriage, how their parents set them up, how she just reached puberty the year before she got married. She had just, for the first time, heard of something called the radio.”

Al-Solaylee wanted to present an honorable image of his mother who was illiterate, had her first baby at the age of 15 and came from “a different world” than her husband.

“I’d like to think I did a very balanced job,” he said. “To write my father was a womanizer and slept with other women while married to her is not something you discuss publicly in the Middle East. She came across as the cheated wife, the long suffering mother…However, one way I have shown her strength of character, is she raised 11 children, put them through school all the way to university. I hope by telling those stories about her, I have done her justice.”

Al-Solaylee, who teaches reporting in Ryerson’s School of Journalism, emphasizes the importance of telling the truth in their stories. One ethical challenge he faced when writing the book was combining fictional elements with facts.

“The problem for me as a reporter is our job is to tell the truth,” Al-Solaylee said. “However, I don’t think I am lying or misleading you in any way…The essence of the story, the essence of the details are true. I have not changed the facts but I have included dialogue and scene-setting for dramatization to make the truth come out.”

He says that dialogue helped portray the characteristics of his parents and he consulted family members to verify stories which took place before he was born.

“I wanted to be as honest as possible. It was my main concern.”

Al-Solaylee’s story is one which he touched on last year in his Globe and Mail article, From bikinis to burkas, which was published shortly after a man took orders from al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen, to blow up an American plane travelling to Detroit, with explosives in his underwear.

Al-Solaylee said he was “thrilled” with the public’s response to the article and with a revised proposal to write a narrative, HarperCollins Canada offered him a book deal. One of his biggest challenges, however, was finding the time to write the memoir.

“The bulk of the book was written over Christmas, reading week and when classes were over in May,” said Al-Solaylee, who was teaching two full courses a semester in Ryerson University.

Al-Solaylee’s book will be published in May 2012, and he hopes it will help readers appreciate the stories of people in the Middle Eastern world.

“I want to put a face and life to those faceless, nameless people you see on the screen when you watch the news from the Middle East,” he said. “What you see is dark skinned men and women and to the average viewer they are all the same, wailing and screaming, and celebrating, they are almost like extras in a movie. You don’t know their back story. Who are these people? What is their story? By doing this book I elevated at least my family.”

He hopes the book will help readers look at immigrants differently and think about what background they are coming from and what history they are bringing with them.

“It’s very much about what Canada does for an immigrant like myself. It provides a home. I’m always grateful for living in a safe, multicultural, democratic society that allows me to have rights.”

Al- Solaylee, a former theatre critic for the Globe and Mail, recently completed an anthology, Tonight at the Tarragon, which can found on bookshelves nationwide.

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