When I began reading Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes at the beginning of the week I did not expect to be pulled into a mesmerizing story of life in the Middle East for a young gay man. I also did not expect to learn about an Arabic world that was largely secular.
Al-Solaylee paints a life in Egypt and Yemen which once was an artistic hotbed, morphs into a place which is largely punishing to its own citizens. His reminisces of days when he would help his sisters pick out bikinis as a child in stark contrast to his visit with them in 2001 to discover his once highly independent siblings are forced to remain inside the home.
His heartbreak at the losses his family has endured, the way his native country has regressed, and his own guilt at being at home in Canada while his family lives in a war-torn state is astounding. However, what fascinated me the most about Intolerable was how Al-Solaylee explains how life in Arab nations had become largely restrictive not as a result of Islam in-and-of itself but how this religion became a way of coping and even surviving for a people who are suffering geopolitical, economical, and post-colonial fallout. English to Al-Solaylee was simply a means to escape what was becoming a life of few choices and little freedom of expression as civil uprisings and radicalization took over the Middle East.
I have never been a fan of memoir and have little memory for dates making history often a suffering, but Intolerable is told in a truthful, measured tone–as if Al-Solaylee is telling you his story over a cup of tea. His story is a prime exhibit of the “new start” Canada offers immigrants–safety, stability, and (mostly) freedom from discrimination. For a man who will never be able to come out to his family due to their strict Muslim views, Canada’s openly gay community in Toronto is truly the promised land he has been looking for. A place where he doesn’t have to look over his shoulder because of his sexual orientation and worry about execution.
Yet, I can’t help but feel suspicious of the political reasons Intolerable has been made a Canada Reads contender. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fantastic book and definitely a needed must-read for a Canadian public. Especially when many sources chalk up all the upheaval in the Middle East to its Islamic-based politics (when really it’s a culmination of so much more as Al-Solaylee points out), but at times Al-Solaylee is almost too pro-Canada. As a country Canada is far from perfect, especially in its treatment of immigrants. Perhaps his loud national pride seems off-putting to me as most Canadians I know often express their pride in a more modest way. Al-Solaylee waxes poetic about Toronto in a way which many Torontonians wouldn’t even if they feel the same way–which I suppose just goes to show how much Canadians take for granted.
I find making his book a part of Canada Reads is too much of a congratulatory pat on the back on Canada’s part, ignoring a great deal of things which need to be fixed and focusing on how much better we are than the Middle East right now. I do like Intolerable being read alongside An Inconvenient Indian as King has a very different opinion about the state of Canada. And I’m hoping it will pair well with When Everything Feels Like the Movies as a very different story of growing up as a homosexual man.
Al-Solaylee’s tale is moving, surprising, and at times too funny for the circumstances. By far Intolerable is one of the best written memoirs I’ve read. It’s difficult not to get invested in Al-Solaylee’s family and read the book through in one sitting, but I don’t think it’s the winner of Canada Reads 2015. Frankly, I don’t think Canada has earned it.