By | June 24, 2013 at 10:06 am | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , , , , ,

Q&A with Kamal Al-Solaylee

On June 12, following a public lecture based on his bestselling memoir Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, Kamal Al-Solaylee spoke with PEN Canada about his experiences as a gay man in Yemen and Egypt. Since neither country acknowledges LGBTQ rights, Al-Solaylee left the Middle East in 1987 to start t a successful life in England before eventually moving to Toronto. Al-Solaylee is the subject of the short documentary Home: A Portrait of Kamal Al-Solaylee , by the Toronto-based photographer and filmmaker Joy Webster.

PEN: What role are novels and films likely to play in the acceptance of gay life in the Middle East? There have been a few that deal with this already (e.g. “I Can’t Think Straight”) but they have mostly been produced by emigrés. When, and where, are the first homegrown novels and movies likely to emerge?

Al-Solaylee: It may be a generation or two down the road. It is coming, because you simply cannot stand in the way of progress. You cannot stand in the way of a generation that is so well connected and sees freedom, rights, and privileges that other parts of the world have. They want the same, and I don’t see why they can’t have it. There’s already a great literary scene in Cairo and Beirut. Things may not be looking good at the moment—people are still struggling with day to day living, just surviving—and unfortunately in some parts of the world issues of international freedom and rights are seen as a luxury that can wait. I have to say there’s some truth to that, when you’re struggling to stay alive (while I may think a more free society can help you understand your situation better), your inner instinct is just to survive first and foremost.

Within western society, being Arab and gay qualified me for two subcultures. I just thought, I’m being caught between two identities so to heck with it

 PEN: When do you think democratization in the Middle East will expand to include gay rights? Are they too far down the government’s priority list?

Al-Solaylee: To be honest, I can’t give you a timeline. I don’t think anybody can cut the rights pie and say “We’ll deal with this chunk now and this one later”You have to have the pie all at the same time. The thing about it is that the general rights movement in the Middle East is what has been propelling the Arab Spring. I think the progressive people in that movement have already tackled women’s and religious minority rights, at least. The fact that sexual rights are not yet there is probably just out of caution for now. The idea is to begin with a general rights movement and expand after that.

PEN: I was personally struck by the idea that beneath the extreme conservatism projected by Egypt’s government an underground gay scene is able to exist. You discover that there is a gay scene in Cairo through a helpline in England; in view of the circumstances in the Middle East, how do you think others may have come across this scene locally?

Al-Solaylee: That’s a hard question to answer. I was very lucky to find out about this community in England. I don’t know how I would have otherwise. Sites like Spartacusworld.com help but there’s also the fear of there being undercover policemen in bars. I found that many locals discovered this through word of mouth. Only someone you knew very well could get you into the underground scene … you know, in case they also turned out to be an undercover cop. It took me almost a year to muster up the courage to break into the gay scene in Cairo.

I’m aware of racism and of sexism; the West is no Utopia, but I’m also very, very aware that it’s the best system possible

 PEN: You seem to cut yourself off from Arabic culture. As an Arabic gay man, you have only chosen to embrace one of these two realities of your identity as opposed to balancing both, why is that?

Al-Solaylee: The two don’t really agree with each other. The gay community was not all that interested in the Arab side of me, nobody had any cultural curiosity, really. For me to get into the gay community was to blend in, not stand out. So, the way I blended in was by dressing like everyone else, trying to sound like everyone else, and listening to the same music as everyone else. Also, the Arab community was incredibly homophobic, at least outwardly. The two cultures do not meet. Within western society, being Arab and gay qualified me for two subcultures. I just thought, I’m being caught between two identities so to heck with it. The one that welcomed me more was gay culture. It gave me a sense of community despite being so far from home.

PEN: The liberated West is a theme throughout your book. What would you say to the idea that the West might be sexually free but retains racial prejudices?

Al-Solaylee: I often get asked that question. Perhaps the book creates this polarized world of the liberal West and the backwards East, but I’m also aware of the limits of life, the limits of identity. I’m aware of racism and of sexism; the West is no Utopia, but I’m also very, very aware that it’s the best system possible. It is a system where I’ve been allowed to be as happy as I can be. While in England, however, I remember being called a “Paki” on the busThis certainly wouldn’t happen in Toronto. Here, I see subtle forms of racism, even on the university grounds where I am a professor. Sometimes groups of students will only hang around people of their same culture. I wonder why this happens.

PEN: Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, is the western tendency to label eastern norms as ‘other.’ What do you make of the idea of “reverse Orientalism” in which the Middle East uses similar concepts of ‘otherness’ to resist western tendencies to modernization and reform. What would you say to the idea that homosexuality is a western ‘other’ that must be resisted?

If you were to dig deeper into Arab society, you’d find there is a tacit, if limited, understanding of homosexuality that comes, in part, from the segregation of the sexes

 Al-Solaylee: I think we need to distinguish between homosexuality as an orientation, desire, sexual expression and the activism or rights movement that comes with it in the West. If you were to dig deeper into Arab society, you’d find there is a tacit, if limited, understanding of homosexuality that comes, in part, from the segregation of the sexes. What many people in the Arab world struggle with is importing a westernized gay-rights movement.

Even sexual rights activists in the Middle East will tell you that the gay liberation model doesn’t translate well into their culture. Personally I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the western gay lib movement of the 1970s. I modeled my sexuality on it. Perhaps that’s why I never identified as “queer” — a relatively recent term — but as “gay.” I know that gay has gender and class assumptions and I accept that. I’m, after all, male and middle class.

PEN: You mention in the book that you never formally came out to your family. Would you say that you had to be very careful while doing your research with them for the book about its context? How much did they know?

Al-Solaylee: I was more interested in finding out family stories from them, particularly of my mom and dad … the stuff that happened before I was born. There is a section in the book when I was very young in Aden that came out of me trying to trigger their memories of what life was like. I wanted to get a sense of what they wore, what they did for entertainment, etc.

My sexuality was never up for discussion; it was a part of me that I knew very well but one that they were never involved in. But my mother had a pretty good sense. At one time my ex-lover from Montreal had been calling me a lot, and she just looked at me and said, “Wow, he must really love you.” I’m always amazed at how she must’ve known, because as I’ve said in the book, she’s not a very well-educated woman, but she had a sense for this somehow.

PEN: What does the title of your memoir mean?

Al-Solaylee: It’s a bit philosophical. Rather than naming the book ‘Doomed’ or ‘In Peril,’ I chose the word ‘Intolerable’ because its meaning can easily be reversed if the first two letters are omitted … I wanted a title that captures a sense of hope for homosexuals in the Middle East. A lot of people also think it’s referring to my family back home, but it’s really about my personal situation. After leaving my family, they experienced the effects of the Arab Spring in both Egypt and Yemen; their reality ended up being my survivor’s guilt. And even though I won the genetic lotto win by being gay — in that it gave me a motive to leave — I still see what’s happened to them and feel upset.

Photo credit: Deborah Baic 



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