How drag saved my relationship with my Muslim mother and made me fall in love again with my Arab heritage

My happy family life in the Middle East took a dark turn when I came out. But slowly, through the use of drag, I reconnected with my strict mother by taking inspiration from her

Amrou Al-Kadhi
Monday 12 December 2016 14:18
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Before I even knew what the word gay meant, there was so much to love as a child raised in the Middle East. My Arab family household was like Ru Paul’s Drag Race (but without the cameras and acknowledged queerness). When I was eight years old and it was past my bedtime, I used to sneak around the house and watch my Iraqi-Egyptian mother in fascination: the meticulous construction of her glamorous social costume, how with a dancer’s grace she’d usher in her guests, how she’d conduct her conversations like a trained performer.

When I think back to my pre-teen years in Bahrain and Dubai, I feel fuzzy inside; Arab households pride themselves on open door generosity and a constant flow of relatives (with subsequent yet loving family “dramas”), and there’s never a lonely moment.

But things took a dark turn when my sexuality became an issue. What I once loved about home life was clouded by the strict expectations of my behaviour as a growing Muslim “man”. A compulsory Islam tutor at home was a weekly source of fear; at the age of 11, he painted my (straight) twin brother and I vivid visual descriptions of hell, where any non-conformist or unholy behaviour would be brutally punished. And resultantly, throughout my teens, I was victim to a recurring nightmare in which God himself pinned me down on a metal bed and tortured me for my gay sexual fantasies.

My parents – who were brought up Muslim and in Iraq – were so worried about my developing sexual orientation that they sought to “protect” me from the inevitable inferno, grounding me when they discovered I bought the Brokeback Mountain DVD, for instance, or throwing away all my “effeminate” clothes.

And now, at the age of 26, I’m a professional drag queen. After what was a traumatic coming out, I left home at 18 with as fraught a connection to my parents as you can imagine. And I made university my home away from home.

It was at Cambridge where I began drag, and set up my now musical comedy drag troupe, Denim. The sense of liberation I had as a student – where I could live and perform my sexuality and gender identity without familial reproach – was a profound emotional step for me. It is why I initially thought of drag as my “running away”. It was a way to transgress how I was taught a man should behave, and it was an act of self-creation that severed me from my upbringing.

(Amrou Al-Kadhi)

But while I felt powerful in drag, I was still searching. I think it’s because my sense of empowerment felt forced, like a sparkly cork-stop on the anguish of rejection bubbling beneath. Rather than processing how I felt, drag was my armour – hence as the wig came off, I felt more vulnerable than ever before. And as I was quite literally shoving my drag in the closet when I visited my parents in the Middle East, drag became tied to further feelings of shame that I hoped it would eradicate. While moments in costume made me feel invincible and most “myself”, I found my general self-worth to plummet. Yet I couldn’t ditch the highs from feeling like a queer unicorn warrior when on stage as my drag alter-ego Glamrou.

It wasn’t until I met the remarkable Amnah Hafez that things started to change for me. A remarkable stylist and editor-in-chief of Cause & Effect magazine, Amnah is the only other “runaway Arab” I’ve met and gotten close to in London. Originally from Saudi Arabia, Amnah came to the UK from a background of even stricter gender expectations than I did. And through a stroke of luck, we met, and she eventually styled my drag troupe’s first music video.

Through Amnah I was reminded of all the wonderful elements of Arab culture that I was quick to denounce at 18 – the generosity, hilarity, love, openness, and implicitly drag displays of emotion. And it was Amnah who encouraged me to wear my heritage proudly in drag.

(Amrou Al-Kadhi)

Since then, performing uplifting tropes of Middle Eastern femininity has been a key feature of my practice. Whilst I set out to reject my heritage through the queer art of drag, I’ve ended up falling back in love with it. And though my mother does not accept a large part of who I am, through performing what I love about her on stage, my wounds are healing. We’re in fact closer than we’ve ever been.

After all, I have drag to thank for rescuing the memory of my mother from when I was eight, peeping adoringly through the door crack, in awe of the ultimate Arab queen.

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