By Kamal Al-Solaylee, 205 pp. Toronto: HarperCollins
Reviewed by Don Rubin (Canada)
This is not a book about theatre but rather a book about a theatre critic, a Canadian theatre critic born in Yemen, a theatre critic who survived a life of extremes growing up in Aden, Beirut, Cairo, Sana’a and England before moving to Toronto where he became the lead theatre critic for Canada’s major national newspaper, the Globe and Mail. It is an extraordinary story of survival and sagacity set against a social and sexual backdrop, less a memoir than an insight into life in the Arab world for someone growing up gay.
Let me say right off that I know Kamal and I have long been impressed with his writings on theatre and his critical mind. Let me also say that in all the years I have known him he never once shared any of this, his personal story, with me or apparently with very many other people. I really did come to this book without any real sense of what it would be about. In the end, I felt privileged as a reader from a totally different background to be allowed to share his story: the formation of a critical mind through experiences as distant as any I could ever imagine.
The opening of this tightly written book sets the stage for the many surprises that follow: “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….”
Kamal’s father was a Yemeni businessman whose commercial life moved the family to Beirut (when Yemeni property was nationalized) and eventually to Cairo and then back again. Indeed, most of the family still live in Yemen. Kamal, however, escaped (his word) for a variety of reasons starting with the fact he was gay (a crime in most of the Arab world punishable by death) and ending with his desire to get a western education (he wound up with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nottingham). Today, following many years as a major theatre critic in Canada, he is a professor at the School of Journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University. He is also an outspoken advocate for gay issues in Canada and a passionate voice for social and political tolerance.
The book is itself mostly about growing up in the Middle East and particularly about surviving the many intellectual and sexual prohibitions which made life for him so intolerable. It is also about growing up in a family torn between imposed western colonial values lovingly laid upon them by the patriarch of the large clan and traditional Arab values ranging from religion to dress. Yemen is, of course, not exactly the centre of the Arab World and so the larger world is seen through what is effectively a triple lens: the colonial Arab worldview, the ultra-conservative Yemeni worldview, and today’s Arab sense of its own positioning vis-à-vis the west. All three are effectively positioned for the reader.
Kamal’s clear discomfort with so many of the traditions and his battle to break free when the family gets to the more cosmopolitan Beirut and Cairo are portraits of not-so-pure frustration. His ultimate move to England for his university education and his continual realization that he is losing his roots is deeply moving. For the most part, he does lose his family in this cultural struggle and even this book – because of its gay subthemes – probably further closes routes back to his family.
Intolerable’s core middle eastern story ends as Kamal’s career as a theatre critic in Canada is about to start (though he does bring his perceptions right up to the beginning of the Arab Spring near the end of the book). He is determined at that point not to look back anymore but it is a near impossible challenge. As he puts it in the closing pages: “The worse the situation gets in Yemen, the tighter I cling to my life in Toronto. The paranoid side of me still thinks that somehow even my Toronto existence may one day be taken away from me.” But then he adds, almost as a postscript: “The Middle East has a way of catching up with you no matter how far you run….after a decade of turning my back on Arab culture, I have rediscovered its music as if I’d never listened to it before….”
For anyone interested in the Arab World, for anyone interested in the intellectual formation of a theatre critic and scholar, for anyone interested in gay issues in alternative geographical contexts, this volume is a unique contribution to the field as well as an emotionally powerful read.
 Don Rubin is the editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre and a Professor of Theatre at Toronto’s York University. He is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association.