Homelands: Exile and Return -In conversation with Amyn Sajoo and Kamal Al-Solaylee

In their public conversation on Jan. 26 entitled “Homelands: Exile and Return,” Amyn Sajoo and Kamal Al-Solaylee will delve into that feeling of belonging and the yearning immigrants have about returning to their homelands. Al-Solaylee will look to unpack these restless quests, including his own.

Sajoo, a term lecturer and scholar-in-residence at SFU, and Al-Solaylee, director and professor at UBC’s School of Journalism at UBC, go beyond the headlines to discuss the complexities facing migrants in search of homelands, who must often brave economic, social, and political storms along the way.

Looking back

Kamal Al-Solaylee. | Photo courtesy of UBC

Originally from Yemen, Al-Solaylee spent his childhood in Egypt. As a young gay man, who did not want to be secretive about his sexual orientation, growing up in the Middle East was very difficult. He escaped first to England and eventually to Canada and began his professional academic life by completing a PhD in Victorian Literature at Nottingham University. But, after moving to Canada in 1996 he found there were no jobs in academia, so he turned to journalism.

Al-Solaylee, recalls the humble background from which he came. His father was well educated, but his mother, a shepherdess, was illiterate and remained so all her life. She did however insist that Al-Solaylee go to university and complete his studies abroad. Looking back, he reflects with pride on his Journey. Within just one generation, thanks to his mother’s insistence on education, he is professor at UBC and director of the School of Journalism and Writing. This is the part of his journey that Al-Solaylee says he owes to his mother and treasures the most.

In his first book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes (2012), which won him the 2013 Toronto Book Award, Al-Solaylee explores the difficulties faced by a gay man living in an intolerant country. The book is a memoir about his journey.

Here and now

Al-Solaylee’s most recent book, Return (2021) looks at how migrants, no matter how comfortable they are in their adoptive country, will always have a very deep attachment to their ancestral land. He attempts to uncover what lies behind the pull back to a place that has often caused such anguish?

After 27 years here, Al-Solaylee feels every bit Canadian, but also says part of him will always feel Yemeni. No matter how successful he is as a journalist and a professor, there will always be part of him who is the son of a shepherdess and all the connections to the land that come with that.

“The ‘pull’ is very layered and complex,” he says.

It’s still romanticised in his own mind and full of childhood memories which are very fond and happy. “As with everything in life, it’s complicated” Al-Solaylee points out.

Amyn Sajoo. | Photo courtesy of SFU

“Migration is a circular movement,” Al-Solaylee continues, “it is not only directional in one way; it’s not from the global south to the global north. Often it is people coming and going. Migration is complex, people can have multiple belongings to different places that they call homelands.”

Sajoo, who will lead the conversation, reflects that even on a social level people can still be very narrow-minded.

“The idea that a person can belong to multiple places, that your homeland can be capacious and include Canada, England, Scotland, Yemen, etc. That is still something that is a wannabe part of our pluralism,” he says. “People like to think of themselves as both legally, politically, and social pluralist, but there is still a long way to go.”

For his part, Al-Solaylee hopes that people will join the conversation with an open mind and an open heart, without any preconceptions and come along for the journey exploring Exileand Return.

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