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. When she and my father, Mohamed, were married in the fall of 1945, in the port city of Aden, then a British protectorate, he was fresh off serving a stint in the Allied army and she had just reached puberty mere months before. A year earlier, she once confided to me, she had listened to the radio for the first time in her life and her older sister, Mariam, had talked of something called the cinema. The voice of an Egyptian singer, whom she identified years later as Oum Kalthoum, flowed through the airwaves when she walked past a little makeshift work station in the hills of Hadhramaut. Another Egyptian artist--Anwar Wagdi, Egypt's answer to Gene Kelly--was starring in an early musical melodrama, which she never got to see but had Mariam re-enact several times during their breaks from tending sheep.
Little did Safia know then that her father was waiting for her first period, her first tentative step towards womanhood, to pair her off with the son of a co-worker of his in the civil court where both men served as guards. Safia would always muse about the fact that her father-in-law, Abdullah, kept watch over criminals, since Abdullah himself was a runaway from justice, having killed a man near the northern Yemeni town of Taiz as part of a long-standing tribal vendetta. Indeed, Abdullah ended up in Aden in the early 1910s while on the run from his victim's family. He may have been sixteen or seventeen at the time. There was no way of telling his exact age, as birth certificates didn't exist at that time in Yemen's history. He adopted the name Solaylee--also spelled in English as Sulaili--from a small tribe that offered him shelter on their land near the border that divided what was then North and South Yemen. His family name, and by all rights mine, is Komeath.
Kamal Komeath. It would have had a theatrical ring to it, befitting someone who studied Victorian melodrama in England and made a living writing about theatre in Canada. It might even be easier to spell than Al-Solaylee, a last name that I've always hated and spent most of my life enunciating one letter at a time--in English and in Arabic.
There's so much to a name in Arabic culture. Your name aligns you socially and politically with your clan or provides an escape from it. When we lived in Cairo in the 1970s, many of our middle-class Egyptian friends adopted foreign names--Susan, Gigi, Michelle--as aspirations to a Western life. Arab nationalists preferred names that drew on local history: Salah, after Salah-ad-Din, who stood up to the Crusaders; or Gamal, after Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Kamal itself means perfection, or the person who completes something and gives it the final push towards fulfillment. It's one of the ninety-nine holy names for Allah, although my understanding is that I'm named after Kamal El-Shenawy, the Egyptian matinee idol of the 1940s and '50s, who happened to be my mother's favourite, once she experienced moving pictures for herself many, many years later.
The verb form of my name, kamael, means to fill in the gap or complete a story. To try to live up to the many meanings of Kamal, even subconsciously, is an attempt at self-destruction, one meaning at a time. It's a given that I am far from perfect, but to fill in the gap between my life now, as a writer and university professor in Toronto, and that of my parents and my siblings in Yemen is what makes this book a necessity and a daunting task. How can I write of a mother who lived and died without learning to read or write in her native tongue, let alone English, when I went on to earn a Ph.D. in Victorian literature? Is it still a "gap" between my mother and me when the distance is the equivalent of living in different centuries and worlds? I look at family photographs in my Toronto apartment and wonder what Safia would have made of everything around me if she were alive today.
The 2011 uprising in Yemen and the civil wars that followed have made Yemenis' lives more miserable and are more likely to leave the country devastated than improved economically. Perhaps that's why I have mixed feelings about the so-called Arab Spring, which, a year into it, could stand some revisionist history--at the very least more realistic expectations from everyone there and beyond.
In the midst of all the celebration and suffering in the Arab world today, I want to step back and tell the story of how we got to this boiling point. How did we get from the promise of the post-colonial liberationist era of Nasser, to the dictatorships and social decline of Mubarak in Egypt, Gadhafi in Libya and Saleh in Yemen, to this new liberation movement? Perhaps the journeys that my family and I took weren't always in opposite directions from each other. In committing parts of this story to print, I hope to understand what happened before and during my lifetime to my Arab clan of Al-Solaylee. So much of Arab and Middle Eastern history has travelled through their veins and mine. Maybe I'm trying to live up to my name with the perfectly representative story, if not the perfect representation of a story. And maybe I'm just trying to fill in the gaps, not just between one family, but between the Arab and Western worlds.
I don't know when, how or if the changes in the Arab world will end, but I know that my story begins in Aden.
Excerpt from: Intolerable by Kamal Al-Solayee. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. © 2012 by Kamal Al-Solayee. All rights reserved.