Dr. Kamal Al-Solaylee

For his impact on the field of journalism and literature.

Kamal Al-SolayleeWe are very proud to present the first Canadian Arab to Watch of 2014, Dr. Kamal Al-Solaylee, for his impact on the field of journalism and literature.

Kamal received the coveted Toronto Book Award in October 2013 for his debut work, a memoir recounting his experience of growing up as the youngest of 11 in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt — as a gay man.

After completing his PhD in England, his ambition was to teach. Faculty positions were sparse and Kamal found himself instead at Canada's newspaper of record, The Globe and Mail. 

After years of contribution as the paper's theatre critic as well as amassing other bylines, Kamal's journey came full circle. He now teaches at, heads, and loves, the highly regarded undergraduate journalism program at Ryerson University. There he wants to instil in his students a deep sense of responsibilty. "Journalism is vital to democracy," he says emphatically. He pushes students to challenge their own assumptions and invites them into a conversation.

When asked about the prevalent sense amongst Arabs of bias in the media, he is understanding — acknowledging certain outlets take a negative approach -- but not totally sympathetic. "I would flip that and ask, 'what are you doing to combat these images?''

He believes it's up to Canadian Arabs to engage and fight back against perceived injustice: writing letters, complaining to press councils, getting involved. "Don't take it lying down," he says.

At the same time as we battle against external stereotypes, though, Kamal suggests we have a ways to go within the community on issues of sexuality and gender. "Human rights are absolute, they can't be parsed down," he says. "We tell others not to stereotype, not to judge us — we should extend that to other groups." For now, anyway, Kamal lives more without than within the local Arab community and implores other gay Arab men and women to "stand up and be counted" as a way of helping vulnerable youth be comfortable in their own skin.

The award-winning professor shows conspicuous humility throughout our conversation, almost shyness. On the one hand, he credits his family for providing opportunities. He recalls how his late mother — who herself could not read — had encouraged him to "escape" when he sought her blessings to leave to the U.K. He also acknowledges the role of patient editors and circumstance, being at the right place at the right time.

Importantly though, he dedicates his book to Toronto. "It was one opportunity after another," he says, largely crediting the city for his achievements. He praises Toronto's diversity and acceptance, its sense of security. After years of escaping conflict, and maintaining a relationship with an increasingly estranged family, Toronto is for Kamal, finally, home.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is on the bookshelves now. Kamal Al-Solaylee's next project will take a global look at race issues.