Intolerable: Growing Up Gay in the Middle East

In this exclusive excerpt from his powerful debut, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, gay Arab author Kamal Al-Solaylee reflects on the first time he discovered the underground gay scene in Cairo.

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October 02 2013 6:00 AM ET


Above, from left:s,isters Hanna, Hoda, Raja (front), mother Safia, the author, brother Wahbi, brother Khairy, and father Mohamed. This picture was taken in Beirut in 1968, during one of their weekend outings.

In 1986 Mohamed insisted on relocating the remaining members of his family to Sana’a. Keeping two households had become too big a financial burden for him. I didn’t need to visit Sana’a to know I wouldn’t be happy there — not after I’d finally settled into Cairo’s underground gay scene. I saw what living there was doing to my sisters when they visited the family home in Cairo on their summer vacations. For one thing, they complained about life in Sana’a all the time. After the relative freedom they grew up in, they were having to adjust to a society where women had to cover their heads and wear an abaya — a black, loose-fitting coat to hide the contours of the body. For the first time, they experienced full-blown misogyny and discrimination, both as women and as Aden-born Yemeni citizens. Sana’a of the 1980s was a very closed society and rarely welcomed strangers. To the average Sana’a male, women from Aden who were educated in places like Beirut and Cairo were loose by definition. I don’t think that attitude has shifted much in the past thirty years, despite all the uprisings and anti-government protests.

On a political level, President Saleh ran the country like a private club and a police state. My sister Ferial was under security investigation for many months and denied an identity card — the most essential document a Yemeni citizen needs — because she was more outspoken and independent than my other sisters. The rest experienced various but milder forms of intimidation and harassment before they could work legally.

The combination of living in Yemen, an extremely conservative society, and being under my father’s and brother’s thumbs, both of whom were equally rigid by now, meant that my sisters had to internalize the dominant culture’s attitude towards women. “What’s the use?” Hoda would tell me when I suggested she should relax a little now that she was visiting Cairo, “I’m going back to prison in a few weeks.” It was both a physical and psychological prison. When we went out for lunch or dinner in Cairo, I noticed that my sisters left it up to me to do all the ordering and talking with waiters. Just a few years before, I’d left those decisions to them. They surrendered their voices to the nearest male relative, which on those occasions meant me. When we went shopping, they’d gravitate towards the most conservative clothes and avoid items that could give the wrong signals — high heels, bright colours — even if they covered whatever they wore with the abaya. How different were these shop- ping trips from the times we looked for bikinis for the summer sea- son together.

As a man, I knew I’d probably fare better than my sisters in Yemen’s male-dominated society. It’s a privilege to be a man there, period. But not a gay man. Leaving Cairo now would be one thing; leaving it for Sana’a another.

I didn’t have a choice. I’d failed to secure any scholarship to complete my studies abroad, and all the flirting and sleeping around hadn’t landed me a partner who might whisk me off to somewhere in the West. I had flings and silly crushes but no relationships.

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