Ahead of an appearance at WOWfest Lockdown, Julia Johnson speaks to non-binary Arabic drag artist and writer Amrou Al-Kadhi about their performance art and autobiographical account, Unicorn.
Amrou Al-Kadhi picks up the phone in their home in London. Like many, they’re staying put for the time being – both themselves and their drag queen persona Glamrou. Current lockdown measures have brought every show closer to home. However, such limitations on free travel haven’t entirely cut off reach to audiences further afield, such as here in Liverpool, where they’ll be speaking at WOWFest next week by way of London. Casually exchanging pleasantries over the phone today, we’re set to discuss Al-Kadhi’s recent book, an autobiographical account that covers far more mileage that the 221 mile stretch we’re respectively talking from in lockdown.
Unicorn: The Memoir Of A Muslim Drag Queen is a brilliant book that’s at once funny, tragic and deeply political. It explains and gives shape to the term intersectionality more effectively than many other theoretical texts. Reading about Al-Kadhi’s direct experience of being queer and Muslim in such personal terms, with a teenage desperation to be accepted as ‘British’, reveals the complex ways in which these identities interweave, and the inadequacy of applying stereotypes to any of them. If this sounds like a political book, this is very much the way it was originally imagined by Al-Kadhi.
“Before it was a memoir”, they explain, “the original iteration of it was more like a series of essays about intersectionality, using my own experience. Then… I came to the realisation that probably the most political version of it would be to just forget about it as an essay or argument and to put my personal experience out there on the page, and look for that to be a kind of example of that politics.”
It’s certainly a story worth telling. Crossing multiple countries and experiences, from aquarium keeping to chemsex parties, what stands out throughout Unicorn is Al-Kadhi’s self-awareness. They look back at their journey with remarkable insight, not just sharing anecdotes but recognising how their emotional response to circumstances have shaped the person they’ve become. “I know there are parts of it that are probably quite heavy, but I also wanted it to be quite human and full of humour,” they tell me over the phone, “[and] make it relatable.” And it is. We may not all have shared such strong identity conflicts, but there’s something relatable in the image of the young Amrou obsessively listening to their new favourite singer to learn her songs by heart. It’s this empathy that’s the key to its success. “People [reading the book] who might not usually think, ‘I want to think about this kind of politics’, will end up thinking about it,” they say. “All through something light-hearted.”
A ‘Muslim drag queen’ is likely to initially strike many people as taboo, a provocative contradiction. Consciously or otherwise, the idea is embedded in the Western perspective that Islam is based on a patriarchal structure which only allows space for heteronormativity. Unicorn isn’t necessarily arguing against this – these norms have certainly been part of their cultural experience which the young Al-Kadhi is determined to utterly reject. But it brings nuance into the question. When it comes to the clash between their Arabic, British and gay experiences, “there isn’t a winner. All the sides are competing against each other constantly in this kind of beautiful chaos,” they tell me. They make the reader understand that one result of holding this against Islam and Middle Eastern cultures is an othering that allows us to avoid scrutinising the prejudices of our British systems.
Nowhere is this point made more starkly than in the chapter documenting Al-Kadhi’s two-year experience of attending Eton. Pushing for academic excellence had been a means of distracting from feelings of failure elsewhere. Eton was idealised as a Harry Potter-esque realm of promise for a boy who was “desperately seeking a chance to build a new me” – an opportunity to break from his heritage and assimilate into “the most British of institutions”. But the account of their experiences is disturbing, at times harrowing. It’s an insight into the prejudices and power games which run through this heart of the ‘establishment’. Al-Kadhi’s difference is treated with hostility: they survive by pandering to their fellow pupils’ inherent Islamophobia in what they refer to in Unicorn as “one of the episodes I’m most ashamed of in my life”.
“Queer people do have a very complicated relationship with the ‘institution’ We’ve been rejected from it so we kind of hate it,” says Al-Kadhi. “But because we’ve been rejected from it, we’re quite desperate for it to assess us.” ‘The Institution’ referred to here is Eton but apply to national identity, family, or any of the other institutions which contribute to defining our culture. Even into gay culture, as a non-binary Arab, they’ve sometimes found the UK scene to be racially hostile and beholden to its own social norms. They attribute this to a queer desire to fit in with the norms of our capitalist society. “Queer culture’s up for commodification,” they tell me, “like in Pride, that thing of, ‘Aah, people and companies are accepting us now!’ But are they?”
Due to cultural production, queer, religion or other identifiable markers have become institutions too. It’s underscored several times in Unicorn how Al-Kadhi’s experience in the acting world is dominated by auditions for racially stereotyped roles, usually as a terrorist. They wryly observe that the closest they’ve come to exploring gender is auditioning as a terrorist who disguises a bomb with a burqa. Now a writer and filmmaker themselves, Al-Kadhi knows they can be a voice to work against the shallowness of these depictions, offering the perspective that a white or Western production team might miss.
This was important in their recent work co-writing the finale of Apple TV’s series Little America, an anthology of stories about immigrants living in the US. “[The episode] is about queer Muslims, homophobia. And I felt like my job there was to not make anyone the villain,” says Al Kadhi. “If it had been a team of white writers, potentially it would have been ‘evil Muslims punish gay person, who comes to America and is safe’.” Instead viewers get to see the central character emigrating to the US from a Syria full of nuance, where mutual support can exist as well as prejudice. This is work which asks uncomfortable questions of writers and viewers, forcing people to confront their prejudices, which Al-Kadhi points out isn’t always welcomed. “These [cultural] institutions will often expect you to assimilate and be polite, and I often noticed myself doing that in my early 20s,” they say. “Now I don’t. And it’s a harder job getting stuff commissioned, because if you do something that’s angry or that’s critical of white people, the institution will do a lot to bury it. It’s a long, long game”
Another way of showing people the experience of being a queer Muslim is through their drag performances as Glamrou. Expressing an authentic part of themselves, Glamrou gives audiences an accessible way into empathising with intersectional politics – and to have a laugh while doing so. “Although the show is very political, my first thought is always that I’m going to make it a laugh as much as possible” they explain. “Once everyone’s laughing, no matter how political you go, you’ve got them on your side.”
Unicorn ends on a beautiful note of inclusivity, with Al-Kadhi literally dancing in a garden of acceptance. There are other signs that the queer Arab/Muslim experience is being given more voice in culture, with the coming WOWFest discussion being chaired by Asifa Lahore, the pioneering first out British Muslim drag queen. Yet in conversation, Al-Kadhi reveals they’re pessimistic about what the future holds. “It’s getting more and more toxic in the wider world. The right has responded to the diversification of identities with more toxicity,” they say. “I have my bubble, and I’m lucky enough to live in London, but you do notice it. It’s a sobering perspective.”
At the start of Unicorn, Al-Kadhi explains that their affinity with the mythical creature stems from them being “ultimate outsiders… utterly conspicuous and irrefutably other”. The rest of the book demonstrates that this isn’t a picnic, that to stand out is to be vulnerable. That self- and social-acceptance are two very different concepts. Between their success as a drag performer, writer and filmmaker, Al-Kadhi’s is an alternative voice which could have a real influence on the public understanding of intersectional identities. But these projects need us to be more than just an audience – we need to be allies who listen carefully to their messages and give space for these stories to be amplified. Unicorn may just be the book to help make that happen.
WOWfest presents Unicorn: A Memoir of Muslim Drag Queen on Thursday 28th May, chaired by Asifa Lahore. Head to Wowfest’s Facebook at 6pm to view the event via Facebook Live.