Finding freedom in Canada


Kamal (far right), his father and siblings celebrate Eid, the Muslim feast, with ice cream and soda in Cairo in 1972


First aired on Metro Morning (20/6/12)

Sometimes you have to leave your family to find a home. That was the case for Toronto author and journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee. He knew from an early age that he was gay. It was a secret that he kept from his family, and as political strife forced his family to move throughout the Middle East, Al-Solaylee found himself searching for a place he could call his own in the world. He describes this journey in a new book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.

Al-Solaylee's life began in Yemen. His mother married at 14 and had 11 children by the time she was 33. His father was a self-made man, building a real estate business out of nothing. It was a prosperous and joyous time for the family. "There was nothing that we wanted that we couldn't get," Al-Solaylee told Metro Morning's Morgan Passi. "it was like the golden years of our family life."

However, that all changed in 1967. Socialists gained control of the government and kicked Al-Solaylee's family out of the country. After spending a few years in Beirut, Al-Solaylee's father uprooted the family again and took them to Cairo, a city the family knew well and loved. There, the family was happy and free. It was an "idyllic Cairo, clean, quiet, peaceful, a very friendly space for us to grow up in and to feel not like outsiders." In Cairo, Al-Solaylee's sisters became strong, independent women and Al-Solaylee began his own journey of self-discovery as a young gay man.

However, this new phase of happiness would not last long. I the 1970s, the political climate changed. There was a "bizarrely abrupt shift in Egyptian society from secularism to fundamentalism," Al-Solaylee said. And it affected his family. His older brother became "entranced" with Islamic fundamentalism and began to force his family to abide by these conservative rules. It was a sudden and dangerous shift for a family who enjoyed their secular freedom. Not only were his sisters now "second-class citizens," but Al-Solaylee realized that he, too, could never be himself. "There was no way there would be a space for me or a place for me where I could be who I am."

In the 1980s, the family returned to Yemen, but it did not escape the conservatism or religious fanaticism. Al-Solaylee began living his life as a "phantom" and felt like an impostor much of the time. However, he didn't want to leave his mother and sisters, who were also suffering. But he decided he eventually had to make the choice to save himself. When he finally told his mother of his plans, she was supportive. In fact, she gave him the only source of wealth she had -- a gold bracelet -- so he could fund his education in England.

His time in England was an eye-opening experience for Al-Solaylee. For the first time since he was very young, he could be himself. He didn't have to hide who he was. "[I discovered] how great it is to live in societies where I am an openly gay man."

However, England still didn't feel like home. After he finished his education, Al-Solaylee began searching for another Western country where he could "continue this taste of freedom." After much searching, he chose Toronto, and in 1996 moved to Canada and never looked back.

"[It was] definitely a case of love at first sight. I've been here for more than 16 years and I don't regret for one second that decision," he said. "It was a city that opened its arms to me and allowed me to be who I am without any disguise or apology."

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