While I worked as a journalist for many years, I went to what newspaper people call “the dark side” when I became Media Manager at the Stratford Festival, the country’s largest non-profit arts organization. My job was to garner media coverage and to make the job easier for journalists, both reviewers and those writing features about the Festival as a travel destination. Kamal Al-Solaylee at that time was the theatre critic at the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. We had a friendly and mutually respectful relationship and kept in touch after our professional connection ended when I moved on to other work and Kamal later started teaching journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University.
I didn’t know much about Kamal’s personal story, in the Stratford years. I knew he had grown up in the Middle East, did his PhD in England, immigrated to Canada, wrote about the arts for Xtra Magazine and Eye Weekly (now defunct), and first got into the Globe and Mail via an editing job. We had our love of men, and dogs, in common; he adored his Chester, an American Cocker Spaniel.
At dinner parties and other visits we had after our mutual Stratford years, I learned that Kamal was the youngest of 11 siblings, the rest of whom remained in his home country of Yemen. He felt badly that his sisters, in particular, were becoming more trapped by expectations that they follow the increasingly stricter rules of that society. Where once they wore Western clothes and went to the beach in bathing suits, they now were veiled and lived restricted lives.
Just how complex this all was came out in details I never before knew when in 2012 Kamal published his first book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes.
In the 1960s, Kamal’s father, I learned, was a prosperous property owner in Aden, in the south of Yemen, but he lost much of that wealth through political turmoil and property seizures; the family fled the country. They moved first to Beirut, then Cairo, where Kamal remembers some peaceful years before political unrest and Islamic extremism rose in Egypt, too, and the family returned to Yemen. It was in Cairo that Kamal first understood his feeling “different” was because he was gay, something not accepted in his family or culture. He began to plan his escape, conflicted that he was leaving his family — particularly his mother — behind.
As he told Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard, after the book was published, “The book is a coming-out story against the Middle East’s very prohibitive laws and a culture that by definition is homophobic and I’ve survived all of that more or less intact. I wanted anybody who’s growing up in a small town or a culture in Africa, or the Middle East or Asia that is not gay friendly to read this book and know there is hope. You can overcome all of that — unfortunately you may have to get away, as you can’t expect the whole culture to change around you.”
Kamal went on to write a second book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone) that points out the division of humans into white (Caucasian), yellow (Asian), red (American Aboriginals) and black (Africans) — such as might be represented in an Aboriginal medicine wheel — ignores those who are “brown” such as Arabs, Hispanics and South Asians. Al-Solaylee, as a “brown” man himself, travelled the globe, uncovering stories of race, identity, and immigration in the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines, Britain, Trinidad, France, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Qatar, and North America. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime book,” he told me, adding his next book, still in “germination” stage, will not have as broad a topic.
Brown is an important, serious book and Kamal himself acknowledges that, as he gets older, “I’m a more muted, conservative person than I used to be. I don’t see this in terms of losing the wilder side of life but as embracing of the more reflective, quieter one.” He told that to author and illustrator Teva Harrison who captures Kamal’s personality in a “colour quiz” interview she did for Open Book. He is, both at once, a serious and a playful person. When she asked “If you could be any colour (excluding fleshtones) what colour would you be?”, he responded, “I’d be navy blue. It has gravitas and hints of sexuality because it conjures up images of hunky sailors and sea captains.”
Kamal and I met up recently near his main work these days, as an associate professor at Ryerson’s downtown Toronto campus. He said that Brown has opened many interesting doors for him: beyond the usual circuit of readings to promote the book, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction, he is now being called upon as an expert in diversity issues and immigration. He was just back a panel discussion in Ottawa of “The Diversity Dividend: Canada’s Global Advantage.” A pile of marking loomed ahead as the term wrapped to a close. After that, he was diving back into Brown to write a new introduction for the paperback edition, set to launch in October, as “so much has changed since the book first came out.”
In his previous career, Kamal saw and reviewed 200 or more theatre shows each year but now his focus is teaching, research, writing, and all the literary and learned activities that come with that. “I don’t think I’ve been in a theatre in Toronto in three years,” he said. I mentioned a show I’d recently seen, and admired. “Ah,” he said, with rueful smile. “I did want to see that one.”
Main photo: Kelley Teahen
Main photo: Kelley Teahen