Amrou Al-Kadhi’s Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen is the searing autobiography the community needs
(This piece was first published on Firstpost.com, as part of my fortnightly column ‘The Queer Bookshelf’.)
Heartbreak is difficult to recall without feeling some residual grief. Even after the mourning is over, and the moving on seems complete, a book or a song or a film comes along and throws up questions to make you reflect on what happened. In my case, it was a queer autobiography called Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen (2019) that took me back to a few years ago when I felt so intensely connected to someone that I had no space in my mind for the questions that seem obvious now: How could I let them walk all over me? Why was I willing to trade my self-respect for some warmth and affection? When did I begin to tolerate racism just because I was afraid of being abandoned?
Unlike Amrou Al-Kadhi, the author of this book, I am neither a Muslim nor a drag queen, but their words make so much sense to me when they say, “It is not uncommon for people of colour to spend their early dating careers fetishizing white people…The reasons why this happens are complicated. For a start, the inherited shame that comes with being a person of colour in a racist society can warp your desires into looking for the thing that might compensate for this shame — in essence, a white badge of approval.”
They are a non-binary person of Iraqi heritage living in London, and the founder of a drag troupe named Denim. Their drag persona is called Glamrou. This book is about their journey through a traumatic childhood with parents who refused to acknowledge their homosexuality, their valiant attempts to pass off as British by seeking an elite college education, and their discovery of the transformative power of drag while at university. What I found most relatable were their reflections on the intersection of queer identity and race.
Let me tell you a story. There was a time in my life when I desperately wanted to move to New York. I used to imagine that it was the only place in the world that would make me truly happy. I kept replaying in my mind all the wonderful experiences I had when I visited the city, and stayed with friends. Soon enough, it became the fantasy I longed for. I began to seriously believe that New York would rescue me from leading an inauthentic life in India — a country that would never allow me to embrace my queer identity with joy, pride, and a complete lack of embarrassment.
Liberating myself from heteronormative structures felt so urgent that I, a person of color, was ready to overlook structures of white supremacy in American society. I had bought into the fiction that marriage equality had magically solved all the problems faced by queer folx in the United States. I knew that my dream world was built on shaky ground but I needed to project an image of safety onto the place I wanted to call home. I laugh when I think of how I actually wrote up a four-page prayer fleshing out details about the kind of person who would be my partner, where we would live, and how we would spend our weekends.
I am glad that I did not channelize my frustration into applications for graduate school. I sought out the services of a therapist. I came out to my parents. I poured my energy into cultivating a spiritual practice. I signed up for a course in queer affirmative counseling practice. I immersed myself in queer literature. I welcomed into my life a wonderful set of queer friends. I made a commitment to learning about the struggles and contributions of my queer ancestors. I began writing this column.
Terrible things are happening in India right now but I want to stay on. I will not give up doing what I can, and being the person I want to be. I will hug more trees, watch more sitcoms, forgive more easily, but I will let no one convince me that this is the end of the world. Love, poetry and hope can heal a lot. While Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was read down last year, and it was most certainly a moment of jubilation, we cannot rest on our laurels. We have to find ways to resist the horror that will be unleashed by two recent bills passed in Parliament — the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill and the Citizenship Amendment Bill. What they have in common is an architecture of control over people’s bodies, the authority to determine access to rights, and a normative mechanism to decide who belongs and who does not.
When their own freedom is at stake, there are people who do not mind colluding with the oppressor to ensure a measure of security, however false it may be. In the words of Amrou Al-Kadhi, “…imagine if your life was confined to being on aeroplanes, that you were always in transitory space, never able to land anywhere — the sense of isolation, of belonging nowhere, becomes maddening, and you’ll do anything to land the plane, even in hostile waters, and even if you have to drown other passengers in the process.”
Can empathy for others be at odds with self-preservation? Yes, people can be surprisingly flexible about their values when their own lives are threatened. This is happening within the LGBTQIA+ community in India today. In order to keep themselves in the good books of the government, many queer folx are supporting the communications blockade in Kashmir and the National Register of Citizens in Assam. They want to have this government’s backing to legalize gay marriage and property rights, so they do not want to stand in solidarity with other oppressed people who are being stripped of their freedoms.
Here is a confession from the author: “To make my own life a little easier, I actually encouraged Islamophobia, and till this day I wonder if any of what I said has made life difficult for Muslims elsewhere in the world. Are Charles or William out there somewhere, drafting legislation, steering foreign policy, weighing up a drone strike, or deciding an aid budget? Do they still see us as somehow beneath them? As someone who had been the subject of such racism at the hands of British boys, why was I willingly invoking more of it?” They are now beginning to appreciate queer possibilities in Islamic texts with community support but a large part of their life was spent in erasing their ties with the religion because it seemed unprepared to accept their nonconformism in matters of gender and sexuality.
Even before they got admitted to an elite college, they felt imprisoned by their race and heritage. They had begun to hate being an Arab, and wanted to do all it would take to be seen as British. When they were auditioning for roles in films, it seemed that casting directors always found them suitable for stories linked to 9/11, and to play characters such as “terrorist, terrorist’s son, terrorist’s relative, terrorist’s friend, something to do with terrorism, mute refugee, violent refugee, nondescript refugee, Indian person, Asian person of some kind — once, a CHINESE person — token brown boy to fill a scene, a thug, and even, one time, a cold-blooded wife rapist.” This kind of racial profiling undermined their self-esteem. They felt ashamed of their roots, and everything that their father and mother represented. They experienced what they call ‘race dysphoria’, coming from “the deification of whiteness everywhere around.”
For a long time, they had an uncomfortable relationship with their nose, which got linked to their ethnicity. When they went for auditions, people made unflattering remarks about this part of their body because it was prominently noticeable to them. From being called ‘exotic’ to ‘distinct’ to ‘impressive’, they had to endure it all for the sake of continuing to get opportunities. Their nose became an additional source of shame so much so that they would wake up in the morning and hit their nose with a book or their fist, hoping that the pressure would cause it to push back in. My heart went out to them when I read this part of the book, and it made me think of so many queer folx who constantly berate themselves for not looking like their own version of perfect.
Listen to the author’s explanation: “This unhealthy drive for perfection is not uncommon among queer people. You see it very visibly among gay men, many of whom are driven by the obsession to obtain the most perfect muscular physique, say. For as a queer person, it is a mathematical certainty that you will be hit with a feeling that you have failed — by your family, your God or your society — and the crack in your being that this causes, however small or big, can bring with it a drive for external markers of success that might somehow repair it.”
For Glamrou, perfection was also tied up with the idea of whiteness before they began to incorporate their Middle Eastern heritage into their costumes and music. Their initial drag avatar referenced only Western images of femininity. They owned clothes and wigs that would recreate style icons such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Carrie Bradshaw — the character played by Sarah Jessica Parker in the television show Sex and the City. They were reluctant to pay tribute to the two most important goddesses of their childhood — their fashionable mother who was the life of every party she hosted or went to, and the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
In their first five years of performing at drag shows, they were trying hard to escape everything related to their Arab and Muslim identity because they had been rejected by their own people.
To fulfill their need for acceptance, they ended up in relationships with people who wanted their body but had no respect for them and they also got addicted to drugs that provided temporary respite from their loneliness. They are able to write about all these experiences with a remarkable vulnerability that not only speaks to how far they have come in their journey of self-love but also of their desire to support other queer folx who are facing similar hardships. Their own resilience came to their aid in the toughest of moments but they also found queer community and allies along the way.
Their twin brother helped them reconcile with their mother, who sincerely tried to apologize and make amends when she realized how much hurt she had brought upon her own child. They realized how they and their mother were both victims of patriarchy in different ways, and how she had chosen to be a footsoldier because that was the only choice she saw as available. Though their mother did not approve of their homosexuality and their drag persona, she loved them and recognized their bravery in being able to stand up for what they believe in. Her husband did not reach out in the same way. The fact that even one parent had found it in themselves to repair the harm — inflicted over several years — had a reparative effect. It helped Glamrou reconnect with the aesthetic and emotional aspects of their heritage that they wanted to bring on stage.
This is what they have to say: “I always feel empowered when I’m in drag and entertaining a crowd — it’s my sanctuary, a space where I invite the audience into my own reality, where I don’t need to adhere to the rules of anybody else’s. No matter how low I’m feeling, the transformative power of make-up and costume is galvanising; for most of my life I’ve felt like a failure by male standards, and drag allows me to convert my exterior into an image of defiant femininity…it was the first time I honestly articulated my tumultuous relationship with Islam onstage, trying to mine humour in the unexpected parallels between being queer and being Muslim. How I haven’t been hit with a fatwa yet, I do not know.”