‘As a queer Iraqi non-binary Brit, I grew up carrying a lot of internalised shame’: How filmmaker and writer Amrou Al-Kadhi used drag to embrace their differences

Wearing an ‘industrial quantity’ of make-up and seven-inch heels, Amrou Al-Kadhi looked out to the audience in front of them at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017.

As they stood on the stage, all they could see were the group of Muslim women on the front row.

As the women resembled ‘multiple avatars’ of their disapproving mother, the years of internalised shame for being a queer non-binary Iraqi came flooding back to them.

Years earlier, Amrou had discovered drag as a chance to embrace every aspect of themselves but now, in this very moment in time, their Muslim heritage and queer identity were meeting head-on right in front of them.

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Thankfully, the women were in sheer awe of the performer in front of them.

“Drag has taught me to take all the things I’m ashamed of and do the opposite and celebrate them,” Amrou, now 30, tells the Manchester Evening News.

“It’s been a great way for me to let go of inherited shame and perceptions of what I should be.

“I like my drag to blend images of the Middle East through a queer lens and embody both sides of myself.

“Drag is all about creating your own rules – it’s so powerful, it’s about rejecting what other people have said about you.”

Amrou says that performing as Glamrou is ‘so powerful’
(Image: Alia Romagnoli)

Amrou moved to the UK in 2003 at the age of 13.

Having grown up in Dubai and Bahrain, they were brought up with strict attitudes and perceptions of homosexuality.

“I had a turbulent and fearful internal life in the Middle East,” Amrou, who now resides in London, explained.

“Moving to the UK was definitely an opportunity to battle my own anxieties with Islam.

“However, as a recent immigrant, I did feel like I needed to assimilate into Britain as I was very much aware of the fact I was coming into a white, rich environment.”

Amrou says this led them to join in with the bullies as they made Islamophobic and homophobic comments at school and later when they studied at Eton.

“I look back on that time and it makes me feel pretty terrible, to be honest,” Amrou says.

“It was only by saying to people that I agreed with them that they would give me a break.

“Only now, with the intellectual eyesight I have, can I see the damaging effects of my survival mechanism.”

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After two years at Eton, Amrou went to study in Cambridge where they became the leader of drag troupe Denim and performed under the guise of Glamrou.

Through drag, they found a way of embracing their differences and their heritage – something that has managed to help them in other aspects of their life too.

Amrou has just released Tales of a Unicorn, a memoir about their personal journey and experiences of identity.

“A lot of my anxieties in my life come from wanting to fit in,” they say.

“I tried to fit into Eton and that didn’t work, I tried to fit into Islam and that didn’t work either. The more I tried to belong in one space, the more my mental health suffered.

“It was only when I started embracing and revelling in contradictions that I was able to finally see myself for who I am and that’s what I want the book to do for others.”

They recently released their memoirs called Life As A Unicorn

The book’s title relates to how unicorns “long to gallop in a herd but struggle to ride to the rhythm of others” – something Amrou can identify with.

“Unicorns are very symbolic and personal to me,” they explain.

“I’ve always felt that the unicorn has this big obtrusive horn that just barges into things and that horn is also a weapon that makes them stand out.

“The unicorn openly wears its pride and is always ready to fight.”

As a writer, Amrou has most recently written episodes for a number of television shows including The Watch, an upcoming BBC America show based around Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and Little America for Apple TV+.

The anthology series revolves around the lives of immigrants in the United States and Amrou’s episode focuses on a gay asylum seeker from Syria.

Amrou Al-Kadhi says that embracing drag and their non-binary identity has helped them ‘let go of inherited shame’

“They just trusted us to tell our experiences honestly,” they say of the experience.

Amrou also has a mentor in Russell T Davies as part of the BFI Flare Mentorship programme.

In a full circle moment, Amrou recalls in the memoir how watching Queer as Folk for the first time as a young teenager opened their eyes to the LGBT+ community.

Now, they’re able to work directly with the creator and writer of the and receive feedback from him.

“For me, I had no queer representation until I came to the UK,” Amrou says. “I just remember looking at the screen in total awe of these gay men talking and interacting with each other.

“I really respect Russell – he really thinks that getting paid to write for TV is such a huge privilege. He has a huge respect and understanding for audiences and television.

“He gives the harshest feedback I’ve ever known and it can be really intimidating – it’s like going to meet the gay godfather.

“But he really wants me to do my best and my writing has improved so much because of him.”

In 2019, Amrou Al-Kadhi held their own TED Talk
(Image: TedX)

Amrou is also working on a number of television shows of their own.

One show currently in development is Nerfititi, which follows a British-Iraqi-Egyptian drag queen in London who has to move back to Manchester with his strict Arab mother.

Amrou says, through their writing, they want to shift the narrative and show different sides to queer people.

“Queer people are often invited onto TV shows to debate our identity and why someone disagrees with them,” they say.

“We’ve got into a toxic culture war where drag and identity is always up for debate. I was always being asked to shout about why my identity is valid.

“With writing this book, I was able to write 78,000 words without ever having to justify myself.

“I want to celebrate the humour and fun parts of being queer. It’s not always issue-led, it’s not always about the struggle.

“I want people to see the humour and brilliance of queer life.”

Life As A Unicorn is now available in paperback and can be purchased here.

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