Amrou Al-Kadhi on the Intersections of Their Life
Ribald, heartbreaking and ultmately uplifting, Amrou Al-Kadhi's sparkling account of their journey from strict Muslim child to flamboyant drag queen, Life as a Unicorn, is now available to enjoy in paperback. In this exclusive piece, Amrou discusses the various faces that they have presented to the world over the course of a remarkable life.
Please note: This blog contains language which some readers may find offensive.
I am someone whose life has straddled an endless roster of intersections. But these intersections have never co-existed peacefully – they’ve warred with each other, as if my soul formed on a scaffolding of magnets perpetually repelling each other, yet each searching for their opposite in order to feel complete.
When we think about multiplicity, it conjures an image of formless excess – of a person unlimited by category or binary, of being on the constant verge of potential. Ideologically, it is completely where I sit. Though emotionally, in truth, my life has felt less like swimming in an expansive ocean of possibility, but rather like being stretched across a series of tectonic fault lines, each at constant risk of an earthquake.
I’ve spent my whole life feeling like I don’t belong. As a queer boy in Islam class, the threat of going to hell because of who I was inside was a very real and perpetual anxiety. Despite being able to leave the Middle East for a liberal Western education that afforded me numerous privileges and opportunities, I faced constant discrimination and prejudice when I took a place at Eton for two years (two of the worst of my life). I’ve lived between the Middle East and London, and have felt too gay for Iraqis, and too Iraqi for gays. My non-binary gender identity has meant that I don’t feel comfortable in most gendered spaces – gay male clubs, for instance – and I regularly feel out of place in my own male body, as though it doesn’t match up to who I am internally. For a long time, I felt as if I belonged under water, in a marine world with colours to rival the outfits of any RuPaul drag queen, where things flow freely, formlessly and without judgement, where difference is revealed to be the very fabric of this universe. On land I’ve felt like a suffocating beached whale, unable to swim to anyone or anywhere. It has taken three decades to get to a place where I’ve just about figured out how to hold these various facets of myself in harmony.
Here’s a brief overview of the various faces I’ve had to wear in my life.
Obedient Muslim Boy
My early childhood was entirely about pleasing Allah. We were taught that he was watching our every move, hearing our every thought, and that no sin could escape him. To keep us on our toes, we were forced to imagine that all sins would be counted on our left shoulder, and all good deeds on our right. And so I did everything in my power to keep my right shoulder wealthier. But besides being nice to my brother and cleaning the dishes after dinner, there wasn’t much else – it’s not like I could have saved a homeless person’s life or cured a disease (a hard task for any toddler). And so, every little thought – ‘I don’t like this TV programme,’ ‘his breath smells,’ ‘I wish my parents were richer’ – accumulated on my left shoulder until I turned into a lopsided hunchback. By the time I was 8, I was fantasising about rummaging in the bushes with Robin Hood (the cartoon fox) – and so the tally from left to right shoulder became around 1trillion to 5.
Fault line number 1 – Islam and homosexuality.
To remedy this perpetual fear that I was doomed to spend the afterlife being whipped by devils and burned at the stake – which, now as a gay adult, sounds a lot like my Saturday night – I decided that the only way to accumulate good deeds was through academic perfection. By 13 years old, I developed an OCD so extreme that even getting 99% in an exam could lead to a week’s worth of self-punishing behaviours. Some glorious moments from this torturous period included: Submitting a 123 page document for a 5-page GCSE Maths assignment; writing ever teacher a thank you card at the end of every week, just so I could earn good deeds; switching my sleeping pattern during the Easter holiday, so I was awake studying without interruption between Midnight to noon, and asleep the rest of the day. Fun times. My burgeoning queer sexuality was screaming inside of me, and so the only way to compensate for the implications of it (i.e. my failure in the eyes of Allah), was through external validations of success.
Fault line number 2: Internal hell and external trophies.
Glamrou – The British Aristocrat
By the time I was 15, me and Allah were on the cusp of a major breakup. Whilst we were in a committed relationship for most of my youth, the perpetual warnings I was receiving about his inevitable rejection of me meant it was time for me to call things off. And so, at 15, I ended it. I also told my parents I didn’t want to be Arab anymore (to which they accused me of ‘clearly being part of a Satanic cult.’) What I was experiencing was a severe identity crisis where I equated my faith and culture with homophobia - I thus decided I needed a completely new cultural heritage. So I ditched my prayer matt and put on a tailcoat and decided to take a two-year scholarship to Eton College, where I would try my hand at being a British Aristocrat (spoiler alert: I failed miserably). Attempting to convince all the boys that I too was a rugby-lovin’ good ol’ Christian boy was surely something doomed to fail. Buy you can’t help a lass for tryin’ guvnas!
Fault line 3: Arab past, British future.
The Many Faces of Drag
Recently, on that kind of Saturday night when a lack of plans turns to a narcissistic scrolling through every picture ever taken of you on Facebook, I realised, four hours into the void of urban loneliness, that my drag was only referencing Western images of femininity. All my looks were inspired by some image of Western celebrity I had admired. I owned wigs in the style of Lady Gaga, 80s blazers in the vein of (a very unpolished) Madonna, and pretty much everything else was an iteration of Carrie Bradshaw. My early drag was the continuation of me trying to wear the costume of the West at Eton, albeit in a very different guise. In the first five years of performing at drag shows, I did not once address my race. It had zero impact on my material, and I think I was trying to escape all the structures of my race and heritage that I held responsible for my pain. I thought that my drag was a form of Western liberation, and many commented that I was a particularly ‘wild’ performer. There was one show where I wore just knickers and a wig – without realising that a hanger was caught in it – and spent most of the set thrusting against the floor and moaning, in what must have seemed like a sorry mix between an improvised dance class and an exorcism. In drag, I would get absurdly drunk, mount people uninvited – if you are a survivor of this, I’M SORRY – and would often end up half naked on a pole screaming ‘I’M FREE MUTHAFUCKAS’, like that annoying person at a party who asks everyone to watch them dance when the chorus comes in (and it doesn’t for quite some time). During sets, I became a mascot for secularism, shouting ‘FUCK RELIGION’ and ‘FIGHT THE SYSTEM!’ I mixed up all the problematic Western platitudes that I felt had given me a voice. Drag spliced me from myself, my past, and the parts of me that I had completely fallen out of touch with.
Fault line 4: Me, myself, and who the fuck am I?
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