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Life as a Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi Open in fullscreen

Fatima Kried

Life as a Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi

Life as a Unicorn: A Journey from Shame to Pride and Everything in Between. [HarperCollins]

Date of publication: 12 January, 2021

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Book Club: Amrou Al-Kadhi's award-winning memoir is a poignant and moving story about the author's fight to be true to themselves.
Amrou Al-Kadhi (they/them) is known for being Glamrou on stage and for their fascinating comparisons between our everyday lives and the world of quantum physics. 

Reading Amrou's memoir was a whirlwind. Initially, my expectation was to gain some insight into their upbringing and struggle with sexuality. Yet by the end of the book I was left with a brand new understanding of how queer people and women are systematically used and let down by patriarchal systems

There are many important topics covered in this memoir. I was particularly taken aback and grateful that Amrou didn't shy away from speaking about the ways Arabs in the West grow up to have internalised Islamophobia.

I see this in myself, and I especially saw it as the memoir described a drag night where Saudi women were in the front row watching Amrou's performance. The assumption was that they would be ashamed, as Amrou had been for a large percentage of their life. What came as a shock was how I also misjudged those Saudi women and was so easily conditioned to see them as harsh and critical. 

As they waited for Amrou after the event, I was bracing myself for second-hand pain. I had such a cemented belief of what was coming that I even considered not turning the page. But what actually transpired was the complete opposite. I felt my eyes well up as they told Amrou (standing in front of them as Glamrou) that the show was amazing, and that God loved them. 

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Tears immediately fell down my face, not only because of the kind words, but because of my absolute shock and guilt that I had believed the narrative presented to me of the rigid, unforgiving Arab, incapable of liberal thought.

It is a narrative fed to me through Western media for the two decades that I've lived in London, even when I, myself, am a liberal Muslim Arab. The irony really hit home, but drove me to consume the rest of the book as if it was a self-help guide encouraging me to learn more about myself.            

Amrou discussed in great detail their relationship with their mother, and it's clear how instrumental it was for their self-acceptance and identity. Although I was much more enamoured with my dad than my mother growing up, this didn't hinder me in seeing parts of my own mum in Amrou's descriptions.

The social butterfly, life of the party, able to get everyone's attention in any room she walked into. Although Amrou showed admiration for this from a very young age, and longed to be included, I grew up resenting the compulsory indoctrination into a feminine world I didn't feel I belonged in. 

Amrou doesn't shy away from speaking about the ways Arabs in the West grow up to have internalised Islamophobia

I couldn't help but find parallels as the book went on. I am reminded of my own childhood with every story Amrou tells of their upbringing. The way they grew up feeling hyper aware of societal rules, and the way their mother played within them, really brought memories of my own childhood to mind. The fact that Amrou's upbringing is so relatable shouldn't come as a surprise.

Most Arabs who think back on their childhood will most likely connect with the narrative of a social mother that would go to any length to portray the perfect image of herself and her family. This is exactly what Amrou nails in this memoir. Our culture puts reputation on an extremely high pedestal, and we are not alone in this. Many societies with a collectivistic culture hold reputation in high regard. But what Amrou does so concisely is show us a clear picture of the consequences of having high regard for very subjective matters. 

Read more: Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of
Respectable Racism in France

I found myself as bemused as Amrou was, at the panic and melt down their mother goes through on one occasion after accidently staining their shirt before a family event. The constant in Amrou's struggle is the cultural need to keep face and how it's prized so much higher than one's own image of themselves. The book forces us to ask; what are we left with after self-censorship makes up so much of our everyday life? 

We are all victims of this thought process, but as shown in the memoir, it's ultimately straight cis men who set the rules for what is acceptable or not. Queers and women are forced to live by those rules because the alternative is alienation from everything and everyone we hold dear. 

At least that's the story we're told. But when Amrou fights back in their own way and breaks the ultimate rule we hear growing up - "Your parents are never wrong" - I felt a moment of triumph for them. It felt like a turning point in the book, that eventually results in some sense of acceptance by their mother. The sense of full circle really hits home as they both meet in a cafe and discuss their place within society, uncensored for the first time. 

The internalised misogyny, homophobia and racism queers and women hold is increasingly obvious in how divided we are as a nation. Amrou shines a light at their own internalisation in an unfiltered and transparent way that pushes any reader of this book to do the same. 

Fatima Kried is a Libyan writer, poet and filmmaker as well as working within the production world of advertising.

Follow her on Twitter: @fkried

The New Arab Book Club: Click on our Special Contents tab to read more book reviews and interviews with authors:

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