By Robin Bailey
‘My name is Amrou Al-Kadhi – by day. By night, I am Glamrou, an empowered, fearless and acerbic drag queen who wears seven-inch heels and says the things that nobody else dares to.’
This is the most powerful memoir I have ever read. Al-Kadhi grasps the reader by the wrists and proclaims their self-narrative with staggeringly witty prose. They were raised in Bahrain and Dubai, then studied at Eton and Cambridge. This book is an adventure; an emotional rollercoaster; a book that everybody must read, urgently.
Al-Kadhi is a multifaceted creative. They have skills in performing, writing, screenwriting, adapting, filmmaking, and directing, in addition to spearheading a well-established drag show. Diversity in creative output feels apt for Al-Kadhi, who reflects on their life trajectory with comedic bittersweetness and heartstopping bite in ‘Unicorn’. Their life has been, I think it’s fair to say, Quite A Lot. ‘Unicorn’ invites the reader to see the world through Amrou’s lens, accompanying them through uplifting and excruciating moments steeped in enough dramatic material to inspire infinite self-exploratory drag shows. The memoir delves into Amrou’s family, their Islamic heritage, their mental health, their immigrant status, their sexuality and the emergence of their non-binary identity. There is a lot to reconcile.
After a glimpse of Amrou’s drag performance career at the Edinburgh Fringe, denoting a surprising moment of connection rather than rejection from a group of Muslims in the audience, ‘Unicorn’ joins Amrou at the age of 8. Mother and child are taking their ‘regular joint evening nap’ and Amrou has just asked a question – innocent in intention – that has jeopardised the security of their bond. Mother is central to the text; we see her ‘frail regality’ and her traits as an ‘aesthetic perfectionist’. We empathise with Amrou’s wishes to be close to her when the world she inhabits is so much more enthralling than the masculine realms of his father and twin brother. We are alongside child-Amrou as they help Mother choose between her elegant boots and her silver open-toed shoes (we choose the silver, of course), and we envy Mother’s friends for taking her attention. Later, we stand beside teen-Amrou and feel the cacophonous fallout when Mother declares that “You are the source of my life’s unhappiness”. Al-Kadhi’s distinctive prose style delves into these upheavals and leaves them in the room to air. Their deft narrative portrays nobody as a particular hero or a particular villain; pain, when examined, is situational more than personal – it is the pain that results from rib-crushing social constrictions. Some hold those constrictions sacred; some, like Amrou, experience them as straitjackets. The exploration of this impasse between Amrou and their parents carries palpable electricity.
It’s easy to empathise with both sides, however, as Amrou doesn’t hold back from presenting the constrictions that they were taught as part of their Islamic education. They observe that ‘Sins were remarkably easy to incur, and could stem from the most natural of thoughts – I’m jealous of that girl’s fuchsia pencil case – while good deeds were nearly impossible to achieve at such a young age, and only counted when you made an active, positive change in the world, like significantly helping a homeless person (a hard task for any seven-year-old).’ Many moments like this feature in the memoir, and for a sympathetic reader, it’s agonising to see rejection and self-denial facing young Amrou from all angles. No further mention is made of their acquiring a fuchsia pencil case but I hope they have one now, and I hope it brings them a lot of joy.
The internalisation of Islamic stricture conflicted violently with Amrou’s identity – they state simply that ‘Eternal self-blame was Allah’s ultimate punishment, and it’s a feeling that has seeped into absolutely everything I experience.’ They present an upbringing where control and self-stability were difficult to achieve.
It is not surprising, then, when Al-Kadhi exposes their long-term challenges with their mental health. They do not flinch from the details. Beginning in their childhood with a compulsion to ensure that all shoes are placed sole-side down at all times (which originates in Islamic teaching), young Amrou’s brain was quick to latch onto methods of control. They describe irrational applications of ‘Dr ABC’ – the emergency procedure mnemonic. For 10-year-old Amrou, it evolved from an anti-sin mantra to an intrusive OCD symptom (‘Obsessively muttering DR. ABC meant I wouldn’t have the mental capacity to sin’). They comment on their academic compulsions; ‘I can control how hard I work at school. If I get 100 percent in everything, then maybe I won’t feel wrong any more. And even if my family think I’m wrong, I’ll have proof that I’m not because I’ll get straight As.’ They describe, in a moment of particular potency for me, the logical process which prevented them from physical self-harm; ‘Self-destruction is obliterative and nihilistic – you believe you are worth nothing – while self-punishment is an oddly abusive form of self-improvement. You punish yourself to preserve something deep in your core, which you innately believe might be worth saving, even if it’s tarnished, feeble, and almost gone.’ Self-punitive urges show themselves in other traits, particularly their cocaine and alcohol habits, and their troubled romantic relationships.
Their extreme self-awareness is consistently sympathetic but emotionally intense. Moments of respite are welcome, and often very beautiful, when they appear. Elation leaps from the page when they first listen to Umm Kulthum – ‘This feminine deity had the power to crumble the strict gendered behavioural rules that governed our communities. A fuzzy, comforting feeling started to circulate in my bloodstream. Hope.’ Their self-exploration through tropical aquariums is truly touching; they were ‘deeply stirred by the way that the marine creatures moved so freely; how the soft corals and sea invertebrates seemed to exist without physical boundaries, like warrior shape-shifters; the way the fish regally flaunted their colourful costumes. “That’s how I feel on the inside. In my soul, I’m that colourful; my sexuality, my gender – it’s free-moving, like in the tank. Maybe my soul doesn’t have any boundaries?” Theatre and drama provided creative release, from a childhood infatuation with ‘CATS: The Musical’, to a custom-written role as the Fairy Godmother’s gecko at the British Council’s pantomime, to liberating improvisations during school drama classes. Al-Kadhi participated in a training course at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and secured a small role in Spielberg’s ‘Munich’, commenting dryly that ‘The logical next step after a gecko was, of course, the son of a terrorist.’ After several auditions for roles like ‘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’, Al-Kadhi focussed their energy on creating a drag troupe (DENIM) at Cambridge. They are now working more as a solo performer and have created a show on their own terms, where their identity and heritage get more than a tacked-on acknowledgement as part of DENIM’s act; their solo show, ‘Glamrou: From Quaran To Queen’ is the creative space that they have made to communicate their unapologetic self.
‘Unicorn’ is beautifully written, truthful, and a vitally important read. I look forward to following Al-Kadhi’s career and I hope to see their shows in person when live performances recommence.
Robin Bailey (they/them) is a first year Music student at the University of Surrey.