Part of 'Inspired' on Nothing Concrete - our series of inspiring conversations returns with a twist as we hand over to our Barbican Young Creatives to interview the artists that inspire them as they being their careers in the arts.
Inspired with Amrou Al-Kadhi and Amani Saeed
Barbican Young Poet alum, writer and spoken-word artist, Amani Saeed speaks to the British-Iraqi writer and drag queen, Amrou Al-Kadhi, also known as Glamrou, as they discuss gender, drag and faith.
Amrou Al-Kadhi - aka Glamrou - is a writer, performer and filmmaker; they are the author of the multiple award-winning Life as a Unicorn, published by Harper Collins, and their episode of Little America on AppleTV + was recognised as one of the best 10 episodes of television in 2020 by The Hollywood Reporter. Their drag show, Glamrou: From Quran to Queen, will continue to tour when theatres reopen.
About Amani Saeed
Amani Saeed is an international spoken word artist and writer whose work brings the big issues to your kitchen table. She explores the crisis cultivated by living between sometimes (but not always) contradictory cultures, treading the line between masjid and mini skirt. A Barbican Young Poet and curator of spoken word nights Golden Tongue and The Hen-nah Party, she has worked with Richmix, Roundhouse, BBC, and Huffington Post, among others. Her debut collection, Split, was published with Burning Eye Books in 2018 and she is currently working on the short film, Queer Parivaar.
AS: Hello, and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. This is Inspired, a series where an artist invites someone who's influenced their creative life to share the story behind their connections. I'm Amani Saeed, a former Barbican Young Poet and current writer and spoken word artist. In this episode, I'm speaking to Amrou Al-Kadhi, AKA Glamrou, a writer performer, and filmmaker. Glamrou is the author of the multiple award winning book Life as a Unicorn, published by Harper Collins and their episode of Little America on Apple TV+ was recognized as one of the best ten episodes of television in 2020 by the Hollywood Reporter. Their drag show Glamrou: From Quran to Queen will continue to tour when theatres reopen. I chose to invite Glamrou because they're the first Muslim I've heard who brings together what I've always felt were contradictory identities through the art of drag. They've transformed that perceived clash into something conversant whole and beautiful. Every time I hear Glamrou speak, it's a light bulb moment. So I hope that this conversation is as illuminating for you as it was for me.
Hello! I'm so thrilled to be joined today by the luminous pastel-coloured, splendid, Amrou Al-Kadhi, AKA Glamrou So welcome, how you doing today?
AA: Hey, I'm good. Thank you. I'm just chilling at home. Like I have been for the past 10 months.
AS: So Glamrou, just for listeners who are new to your work and probably because it's better for you to describe your practice than to have someone fumble over it. How would you describe yourself and your artistic practice?
AA: I mean, I guess call myself a writer performer to kind of look for a title. I mean, you know, storytelling is my main goal and, you know, I'll jump around between various different mediums, whether it's, you know, doing a drag show or writing a book or writing screenplay for something, but I'm really interested in showing, you know, Arab identities and also queer identities in a kind of nuanced complicated way, whether that's, you know, through drag or through TV episodes that I get to write. I think I'm very interested in kind of storytelling, counter narratives, um, to ones that are kind of more culturally dominant. Um, so yeah, I guess a storyteller is, is how I would identify my work.
AS: I think that's a really beautiful way of sort of explaining an all encompassing practice. For those who don't know, you published a brilliant book last year that I think expertly, and in a very nuanced way, told your story and it's called Life as a Unicorn. And I was reading your book and I was really by this particular passage where you talk about visiting this tropical and marine shop for the first time. And you're looking at all of these, you know, fluid, gender fluid, beautiful aquatic creatures. And there's this quote that just really got me, which was, 'when I was gazing into the limitless ocean world, as a teenager, all I knew was that its boundlessness had an affinity with my gender'. And I think we talk a lot about the struggle of being. We talk about the struggle of having sort of an intersectional identity as you put it, but I was really touched by this moment of just delight and of almost coming home to yourself. And I'd love to know what being non-binary has taught you about joy?
AA: Well, that's a lovely question. I mean, my friend, Travis Alabanza often talks about gender nonconformity as a gift. That's how they put it. And I think for me, you know, kind of culturally, we're always sort of aspiring to kind of binary's or fixed binaries, whether it's being very masculine or very feminine or whatever, or, I mean, in my case, there was a lot of sort of racial aspiration to being white, just because of a lot of racism and some sort of complicated feelings I was having towards my Arab heritage because of homophobia. But something that I've come to realize is that non binary and being non binary is the sort of natural sort of state of the world scientifically. And so I think when you look at marine biology or you research quantum physics, or you look at a lot of biological or physical or even chemical, you know, the fact that the subatomic particles can exist in many places at once and that kind of stuff, you definitely realize that the world is not fixed in the way that, you know, really neither is the universe. You know, it's sort of ever expanding and there might be more than one, then it just never stops and there's always variation. And so I think as someone who was having a fallout from Allah, at the time I was looking for a new sort of spirituality and marine biology kind of was my first version of that in the sense that it was like a shrine, you know, all these tanks just, and they had a sort of religiosity to them.
AS: Yeah. And I think it's really interesting this talk about what's natural and what's unnatural. And I love how you go to the quote natural world in order to sort of understand queerness in a different way. And it's almost like an unlearning, isn't it? Because if naturalness is the state into which we're all born, it's that there are these levels of rhetoric, dialogue, ideology, that builds up these notions of what we can be, that sort of escape from what we were sort of almost ask people to do. But I think the thing that interests me is, you know, this aspect of femininity and masculinity and how people can embody aspects, no matter their gender, you know, but I've always found this sounds really abstract because for example, you've got cis women giving birth, which requires a leonine amount of strength, I think, but we call strength as masculine. And so I'm interested in sort of how you understand these concepts as a non-binary drag performer?
AA: I mean, I think when we're talking about masculine and feminine or what we, we can talk about many different things. I mean, what you were talking about that is I think more kind of social aspects of almost ideological ideas of what's masculine and feminine and, you know, in terms of being non binary, I sort of see myself as, and lot of non binary people. Is extracting myself away from those ideas of what is masculine or feminine in kind of a social sense. There is then a more bodily and sort of... It's played out on the body idea of masculinity and femininity that is different to, you know, if I can lift weights, that's masculine or if I cry, that's feminine, you know, I don't ... that stuff I think is bullsh*t, but in terms of how I think how I relate to my own body and my own appearance and my own sense of self, that is where masculinity and femininity plays out in different ways.
But what's interesting about drag is, you know, I'm dressed quote unquote femininely in the fact that, you know, I'm using female signifies and dressing up as that, but arguably, you know, a drag queen is the strongest person in the room. When a drag queen sort of arrives, they have so much agency and autonomy and sort of emphasis in a room, especially in a room if there aren't many other drag queens and femininity in that instance is quote unquote the strongest thing in the room, or what you might say is the masculine position. So what I think is really interesting about drag and the way that a lot of queer, trans, non binary people relate to femininity is it usurps those ideas of femininity that we were just talking about about, you know, feminine equals passive or none of that because actually a relationship with femininity is that it exalts you.
AS: Yeah, I hear that. And it's interesting as well. How, how femininity in drag plays into sort of - I'm thinking of Paris is Burning - of sort of passing. Do you think power comes from the ability to, to be fish, to pass, or do you think it comes from just the ability of us to just mess with gender and be who we want and capitalize on whatever elements of femininity that feel, right?
AA: Yeah. I mean, like, it really depends. And you know, there are many trans people who where passing, it does really help them feel, you know, fully realized as who they are. And there is also the question of safety and passing. I think that's why It's really important for trans people to be able to have good healthcare if they don't have those things. And then they are unable to, you know, quote unquote pass for their own safety, but also for their own self actualization then that's a problem. Paris is Burning is quite interesting. And I think much more acutely American because it's so much more tied to kind of American capitalists aspiration. And, you know, you get the sense in Paris is Burning that when these people try and dress up like, you know, executives, and there is a sense of if I could be this, I would, and that is, I think probably the most complicated part of the film, but also the most honest cause like it's hard if you're queer and constantly rejected by society.
I see it in myself, if someone says, Oh, I didn't know you were gay? And you get this tiny little thrill and then you go, wait, why did I get that? It's because you've passed by the rules of the world. And in a way that's what's so honest about Paris is Burning when they do that, because they're saying we're people and we want to belong, but that's not what the whole thing's about. And that's just one part of what they do. I think it's also reclaiming that as well. It's also about wearing the costume of the social strata that is excluding you and drag in many ways is that you can dress up as the thing that you aren't allowed to be. I think the relationship between people and mass culture is very complicated, but ultimately it's about using the language of the masses and inserting ourselves into it on our own way. I mean, you don't only have to look at meme culture to look at how sophisticated queers are at doing that.
AS: Definitely. And I think this ties in nicely to my next question, which is about, I think the American capitalist version of drag, which is the show that we all know and love and sort of take issue with, which is RuPaul's Drag Race. And I think that drag, as you say, has long been known as a subculture where you pull in elements of the mainstream and, and be what you, you know, aren't typically allowed to. And the thing is about drag it's in the process of being, I guess, commercialized in the States. And now it's kind of coming here with RuPaul's Drag Race, being shown in the UK and in other countries and brought the mainstream. But to what extent do you think that that kind of thing brings, or hinders meaningful conversations about gender in the public consciousness?
AA: I mean, I don't actually think Drag Race has added much conversation about gender really, but I think it's added conversations about drag and about empowerment and, you know, people being empowered. I think, you know, ultimately it has done a lot of good and, you know, I always think, wow, God, if I knew that if there was that TV show and I was a kid, my God, how different my world might've been. And you know, the idea that this is sort of in the hearts of kind of even Red State America. And what I really like about Drag Race is that it sort of shows the scale of being a drag queen. I think people often think it's this quite, like low culture, basic thing that people who aren't talented have to do, they can't find anything else. And then, you know, when you watch Drag Race, you realize that everyone's a makeup artist, you know, a seamstress, a singer or an actor or a comedian, you know, you really, and a dancer and it's such a difficult form of art that doesn't get enough credit.
And definitely, I see that, you know, I mean, I do a lot of comedy in my sets. And you know, when you go on to the comedy circuit, people are like of we've got a drag queen on right at the end. You know, I think people have that assumption that it's this sort of this thing that crap performers do. Whereas I think to any, you know, stand up comedy like five minutes in drag and you'll realize like how easy you have it. And so I like that about Drag Race. I think what it has done is it's very much promoted a version of drag, which is firstly really cis and male. We all know that and it's made drag a competitive sport. And I think drag should be competitive at times. But like I started a drag family when I was at uni and for about, you know, seven, eight years drag for me was only about the five of us always looking after each other.
And, you know, if you're on the scene, that's what it's like. It's about safety. Sometimes I feel like a lot of the performances on Drag Race are quite apolitical, you know, lip synching to an Ariana Grande's song or whatever, because they're trying to make it as accessible. And so I always think my God, my set would never be able to go on Drag Race, you know, singing to Allah and doing all this stuff. And so I think people think that if you get a drag queen, they'll be able to do a snatch game and a lip sync, but there's also a hundred other things that you don't get to see on that show. So, and I definitely had that when people come to my show, they're like, Oh God, it's not like Drag Race. And I'm like, yeah, now you know, that's not what it's like.
AS: It's, it's funny that you say that RPDR has brought us to a place where we're talking about drag and how multifaceted that can be as you know, as someone who was a drag performer and who's known for sort of colourful looks, I think, as any drag performer would be. And just also as someone who is, do you feel a pressure to be fabulous?
AA: When I'm in drag?
AS: In and out.
AA: Yeah. I mean, I kind of write about this extensively in my book about sort of, you know, becoming a drag queen too early in a way, and sort of the illusion of empowerment that drag was for me. And the fact that, because I had the confidence to get up in front of hundreds of people dressed as Glamrou and that had such a kind of innate confidence and sort of queer self-assuredness that so many people just thought, Oh wow, like you've sorted yourself out because you kind of love who you are, which is great. But inside I had a kind of, lot of unresolved kind of queer shame and trauma truth be told, which in a way for a while,, people's perception of my fabulousness meant that I don't think, including myself, took my mental health that seriously, because I think people just thought, we'll come to you and we want some fun and you don't need to be asked how you are, because look at you, you know, you, you live for who you are.
And it took me a while to... But also that was partly my fault because I think some of the drag that I was doing was quite dishonest. And I think I was doing a lot of I'm free and I'm gay and I'm really quite superficial sort of platitudes of be who you are born this way, that kind of stuff. Although I do love Lady Gaga... But only sort of through being really honest in my drag and like, and saying things that are honest about my life has that been able to slightly go somehow that it's a lot more helpful. And I think people come to my drag shows and they're like, Oh damn, there's a lot behind the surface. And actually I sort of, in my shows, like to present the surface first, so people are lulled into a kind of sense of security only to be like, well, no, what do you think the cost of it has been to get here? But really all my friends are queer now. I'm probably a bit isolationist in that way, but I barely have straight friends. It's awful. There's just a shared understanding with other queer people isn't there? And a shared lexicon and a shared language and a shared trauma really.
AS: You touched a bit there on sort of how the practice of your drag has changed over time. I was wondering how you feel your style has evolved since you started doing drag, maybe perhaps aesthetically, have you gone maybe from sort of learning how to do makeup to something more snatch? Have you purposefully decided to play around with different kinds of aesthetic?
AA: Initially I was just bad. Like probably most drag queens are, I think it's actually changing now because lot of these new girls and boys and people on the scene, you know, they, they train sort of on Instagram before they ever make that first appearance. So like, I'm always like, wow, how the hell did you do that on your first go? But it's like, they've actually been doing it in the bedroom for so three years on makeup tutorials on Instagram, which, you know, my generation definitely didn't have. For me initially it was just really sloppy and bad and it was quite messy. Like, what was it like, I have OCD and I'm quite sort of compulsive. So drag for me was just like a sh*t show in a fun way. I just put whatever I wanted to on my head was always really crazy.
At first it was literally just about allowing myself to be messy and out there and to be things I wasn't allowed to be, to be sexualized. And I used to wear very revealing outfits and that kind of stuff, I'd say that early on in my career, I was definitely, um, more Western in my appearance. Definitely like dressing more like Gaga and that kind of stuff, and really enjoying that. And I think that is part of the dishonesty. You know, we're talking about like, I wasn't really, I was aspiring a bit to whiteness, I think white femininity and stuff that I was seeing in Vogue and that kind of stuff. And then the more I sort of started tapping my own vulnerability and my own sort of truth, I decided to look at images of my mum. And although, like we weren't that close at the time, there are bits about her. That really are part of who I am. Now I would definitely say my drag is a sort of version of the Middle East that I wasn't allowed to live, I suppose. And so it's definitely creating a world that is mine, but it's based on me rather than aspiring to something that has nothing to do with me, if that makes sense.
AS: It completely does. And that sounds so liberating. Looking back. Do you have a favorite drag look that you've done?
AA: I think probably the first time that I wore like a, it was a sapphire blue Islamic emerald nubia.
AA: It felt like, Oh my God, this is something that only the women in my community were allowed to wear. It's got a slightly traumatic association for me because it was about strictness and modesty. And I had a lot of negative experiences with Islam, but I also used to find them incredibly beautiful and sort of mesmerizing and feminine and flowy and just sort of, kind of mystical in a way. And so I suppose the first time I put that on and performed, it was very much like, Oh my God, I really have reclaimed that. And I think it felt really transgressive in a way that I enjoyed of like, I am inserting myself into this history as like a queer body.
AS: There's something really interesting that you're, and that I can relate to you as a queer Muslim as well. When we talk about traditional sort of niqab and what, you know, people, Muslim women who choose to practice in that way, what they wear. And I think personally just relating to that for a long time, I looked at those outfits and part of me thought, God, she's probably hot in that. And then, part of me thought, God, doesn't she feel trapped by that? And I had a conversation with more sort of Muslim women about that, to talk about the experience of wearing it as I'm, I'm not a I've sort of niqab wearing or hijab wearing, but still practicing Muslim. There's something really interesting that my friend said, which was, you're so empowered when you wear a niqab because no one can access your body except for the specific way in which you have allowed them to, but you can see everyone and everything else. And it really liberates you in that way. And then my aunt who lives in Abu Dhabi and she's kind of in and out of that dress, she sort of is like a part-time hijabi, I guess you could say, she said the same thing, which is that when you're wearing it, you can be wearing whatever you want underneath and you can know, and you can have a complete sense of your own self, but no one is allowed access to that except for the people that you choose.
AA: Yeah, totally. Yeah. Well, thanks for sharing that. And, and I've spoken to kind of feminist Islamic scholars myself, and it's a really sort of colonial idea to view Islamic dress sort of regressive by Western feminist standards, because I've spoken to a lot of Muslim women who say, yes, it's about denying access to the patriarchal gaze and just owning your own life, which is an amazingly transgressive idea, you know, by that logic, someone who was performing for the male gaze, you know, which is more liberated? Arguably both, you know, you never really know. And it's about individual autonomy. And, um, there are incredibly progressive aspects to the Quran and to Islamic principles that have been slowly misrepresented by the West. And also just erased whether ideologically, but also, you know, through genocide, of, you know, Sufists, for example, were really kind of progressive form of Islam and the men wear skirts when they pray. And it's very mystical, you know, Allah isn't sort of a ruler, but is more kind of a morphous body that changes according to every single Muslim in their own relationship that is quite queer and quite transgressive. And so I have also had to go through a process of unlearning both Western and Arab patriarchal narratives about Islam to realize stuff. And I think that's takes a long time actually.
AS: Yeah, I hear you. And I'm on that journey myself. I think there's so much unlearning to do. And so I think the more that I've come to study Islam on my own terms, the more I've kind of understood it in that way. I had like a very lovely Imam back in Princeton where I grew up, who kind of showed us that in Islam, there's no sort of like interlocutor between yourself and Allah, you've got that direct relationship with them. And, you know, there's no one to give you five hail Marys or whatever in case you've sort of transgressed.... And you also said something that I really liked and which you kind of mentioned in your book, which is that you've got to ask your own questions and develop your own understanding of the faith and that sort of, if you approach the Quran, looking for boundaries and sort of hardness, you'll find those, but if you're looking for understanding and you approach it with goodwill, you'll find what you need.
And something that really struck me in that I love is that you find those moments of inherent queerness in elements of Islamic practice. So you mentioned sort of seeing whirling dervishes and that there are men in skirts, whirling to music, and it's Islamic drag. And I just, I love that so much. In your upcoming show or like currently going show because I think you did a couple of scratches, didn't you? Quran to Queen, you serenade your lover Allah with love songs. And I was wondering whether the tradition of the qawwali and the guzzle informed that kind of work?
AA: Well. Yeah. I mean, I know I've been working with a queer Muslim director on it as well, and a queer Muslim VFX designer as well. I think people hear the show sort of take of a drag queen singing to Allah and think, Oh my God, this is really blasphemous, and I'm sure a lot of conservative Muslims would think that, but actually it's quite faithful to the Quran, actually the show it's not blasphemous. It seems that way just because of what people think, you know, Islam is like, but you know, essentially the show is a sort of narration of one Muslim's relationship with Allah, which you were just saying is in the Quaran, this idea that Allah is you, it's your inner partnership. And so in a way, you know, there's no voice of Allah in the show, nothing like that.
You don't see them, nothing like that. It's really just me on stage. And there's five songs kind of like the prayers and then comedy around that. But you know, it goes from genuine fury and anger of, I want to break up with you because of all this stuff and hell, and is this abusive that you're making me think these things? To, I love you. And Oh, actually there's all this amazing stuff, as well as, you know, there's Bad Romance by Lady Gaga lyrics in there because the lyrics - it holds both. It's like, I want your love and I want your revenge. And it's like that push and pull thing, especially as queer Muslims are, you're like, you've really hurt me, but you've also been really great to me. And I don't really know. And a lot of the negative things that I've inherited from Islam have also served me very well in life.
You know, counting sins, for instance, on your left shoulder and good deeds on your right, that has led to OCD, which has not been so great. But also it means that I am always conscious that I'm doing more good deeds than bad deeds and helping other people and not just myself and, and you know, giving to charity and that kind of stuff. And I, and I think that is ultimately good. And actually like in the UK, there's a lot of Muslim socialists. And I think that faith does help inform that practice because Islam really at its core is about generosity. It's, don't be a bad person, which really works for my politics.
AS: Yeah. I really hear that. And not that I'm about to turn this into a whole little like circle on queer interpretations of the Quran, but this is, this is really fun for me at the same time, because I just haven't had these conversations before. I really remember my imam talking about the concept of taqwa and he defined it as God consciousness. And some people translate it as fear of God. Right. But the way he described it was also if, when you love someone so much, you're scared of hurting them or letting them down. And that's all that really revised the concept for me of sort of sin and good and what that looks like, but I'm totally with you. I really believe doing as much good in the limited time that we've got,
AA: I don't want to dismiss because there are a lot of people who have had very negative experiences with Islam, because I think that the sort of 'you are constantly sinning' angle has served them badly, but it's important to connect the dots with colonialism there and to understand that a lot of things that people think are in the Quran is actually not, and it's actually more legal stuff that is sort of residual from Western colonialism. And so a lot of the negative things I have from Islam are not actually in the Quran, which is important distinction. You know, it doesn't actually say in the Quran, you can't be gay. And also the Quran doesn't talk about men and women, as much as it talks about masculine and feminine, which I think is really interesting. You know, everyone is on their own journey with their God or with no God. And I think everyone is allowed to be, and I know some ex Muslims who are like, they just really did not work from them, Islam. And I hear that too,
AS: For me. I like, I have a friend who's going through that at the minute, he's gay and Muslim, and it's kind of the way that he was taught Islam by other Muslims has really pushed him from it. And I just think when the faith is so I guess, inclusive and progressive and so on, and I like, it's, I agree. It's, it's definitely down to colonization and the legacy of colonialism, but also I guess the gatekeepers of who gets to interpret and decide what these books mean.
AA: Yeah. Right. Exactly.
AS: Anyway. Moving back to sort of you and your practice, I think the media, and hopefully you will agree with this, loves to fetishize people with intersectional identities. And I feel as though people have had a field day with you being queer and Muslim and, you know, telling stories about being and Muslim serves as another way to pedal, you know, these stories that Islam is homophobic and at odds with Western values, when you and I are exploring how that's not the case and so are others. But my question is how has knowing that and knowing sort of how people are viewing your story affect, how has that affected your practice and the way you speak publicly about these aspects of your identity?
AA: Back in the day, I used to write a lot more sort of opinion pieces, particularly for The Independent where I was doing like two a month for a couple of years. I've actually really pulled away from that, partly because of, what you were just saying about it being fetishized or being drawn into a culture war, which is what happens when you only get to write 600 words, which is sort of really ratified and just telling one side of the story. I was really resenting that because it was like, I was always called up to write something very specific about a homophobic attack or this, and it's really, and part of the reason of writing a book, there was a real political intention to write a memoir, which is not what the book was originally when I pitched it to my agent. It was a lot more essays about identity.
And they were saying, well, you could actually, if you're trying, if you're sick of arguing your case, why Islam is not inherently homophobic or whatever, instead of doing it as argumentative essays, why don't you just tell your story? And I found that really liberating because it was like, Oh, I'm not engaging in the polemic or the argument. I'm just, I'm just narrating my own experiences. And I think there was a real politics in that, because if you read the humanity in something and understand the emotional nature of it, you can connect. And I think that's why I've really gone away from writing articles and that kind of stuff. And all my stuff is much more longer form, you know, writing TV episodes like I did from Little America, which had queer Arabs in it and that kind of stuff. And I just think within the quote unquote fictional or, or, or narrated story, empathy is the main thing that you're trying to get.
And so the hope is, is that rather than engaging in an argument that might fetishize or3Dreduce your identity, you're presenting a 3D story where, you know, the Arab characters are wonderful, but awful sometimes, and some are conservative, but some are not and all that stuff. And that complexity is all that I'm interested in. So I've definitely retreated a little bit from the public sphere in terms of, here's my thoughts on this. And it's much more, I'm now sort of just putting out content in a, in a more narrated way. Cause I think that stops the kind of concern of being fetishized.
AS: I find that so interesting, especially sort of, and I'll use the word that you did, which is talking about your own humanity. I think you've really generously shared a lot of your lived experience publicly, especially in the case of your book and other and other sort of longer-form works that you've done that you've touched on. I wonder how you tread the line between that visibility and that personalness, which is really important actually to see, and for others to see as a queer sort of non-binary Muslim, but also having to prove your humanity. I mean, you talk about writing about your experiences in that way as opposed to essays, but it almost makes me feel as though the cases is your life and your experience.
AA: Yeah. I mean, I feel like I have a set amount of privilege and the fact that like, you know, I live in the UK, I'm safe. I have a platform and that kind of stuff. And so I don't mind being generous with all that stuff because I think if that helps anyone sort of feel represented or educates, anyone, then that to me is a good bargain. I love to tell stories, but, but mine hasn't really ever been told properly. And so, you know, a lot of people have the privilege of writing about other people or whatever, like, I don't know, I just feel like, well, I, no one else is going to tell me this story. So I might as well tell it myself. And I do love telling other people's stories and other stories and, you know, and I do frequently when it comes to TV, especially. It is a bit scary and exposing, but I suppose I just kind of, it's also quite cathartic of just getting it out there and having someone connect with it also is part of the healing. And it's opened up a lot of wonderful relationships and opportunities for me. I have more boundaries now about like privacy and stuff, just because it's also quite crazy world out there right now. And people, you know, don't like anyone like me.
AS: It kind of cycles back to what you were telling me at the beginning about your practice as a storyteller and who better to tell your own story than yourself. And just on a personal note, every time I hear you speak or read something, you write it resonates and it helps me.
AA: Well, I'm happy to hear that. Thank you. Thanks so much
AS: So just shifting tack a little bits, you've talked a lot about embracing contradictions as well as sort of looking at intersections. And I think you've literally done the TED talk on emracing that.
AA: Haha, yes!
AS: Is there anything that you haven't yet squared about your identity or you're still figuring out how the parts go together?
AA: I think probably, the one thing that I keep coming back to is the relationship between my broader politics, which are very left in terms of economics and, and you know, when I make money, I'm happy to pay high taxes on it. And I have done like with the book deal and that kind of stuff and, and, you know, the kind of socialist part of my brain, which is very about equity and that kind of stuff, but also, my queer love for kind of individualism. I do think there is a kind of capitalism of the 'just be you first' and not, not always, I've seen it more out in America.It's very much like you help yourself with the oxygen mask before you help anybody else. And so that is the thing that I just think is interesting that a lot of queer people who are obsessed with realizing who they are, are also very left economically. And I don't know if are contradictions as such, but, but I think it is an interesting dialectic that I think a lot of queer discourse does borrow from capitalism in terms of the self first and self-actualization, but I think that is much more to do with emotions and healing, but it's just something that I kind of have been thinking about recently. Because there's so much of that at the moment. Just take care of you right now, but actually there's also a pandemic and that's not what we really should be doing.
AS: That is really interesting. And I think it brings me back to like different understandings of sort of Western versus quote Eastern culture and sort of how those two dynamics fit together. I mean, for what it's worth you being yourself has helped me in others very often they'd be ourselves. So I think there's an element of, you know...
AA: I think you're right. I think, I think you are right. Munroe Bergdorf being such a visible, you know, trans woman of colour is about so much more than herself.
AS: And that element of just, I suppose when you are queer and you are in a minority in a country, then by nature, your community just becomes really important. And they're your lifeline to everything. And you in a way are never entirely individualistic.
AA: Yeah, you're not.
AS: Both in a good and bad way, right? Because on the one hand, what you do is kind of a representation of your entire group, which is just not fair. But on the other hand, you've always got that community to lean on and that family to be around you,
AA: I have had a queer Muslim say to me, your work doesn't represent all queer Muslims. And I felt, and I was like, well, I can only talk from my experience. And therefore there definitely needs to be more of us than anything because like, you feel mad that you saw my show and you thought, Hmm, that's not how it is for me. But you know, unfortunately like mine is the only show doing that, the moment. But I love, and I actually, I think post-pandemic really want to start a kind of queer Muslim performance night for newcomers and that kind of stuff, which I think would be really cool.
AA: I'm all about the next generation, to be honest. And I've seen it happen, like at Cambridge, I started a drag night and it was at the first night there and now there's so many drag nights and it's not because of me because I was obviously inherited something from before me, which is inheriting something reforming. So we're really just building the tracks for the next generation, I think.
AS: Absolutely. And that's, that's definitely a nice way to think about it. I guess my final question for you comes from my just obsessive stalking of your Twitter feed.
AS: So, you had, I think a couple of, maybe it was longer than a couple of months ago, but time just doesn't exist right now. But, there was a point where you took your dog for a walk and your dog bumped into another dog. And when you looked up, the owner happened to be a particular man who will not be named. You, from what I understood from the tweets - and you can please correct me if I'm wrong - he asked, or you asked to have sort of an open conversation about...
AA: He, he asked...
AS: Okay, so he asked you to have this open conversation about racism and you both recommended books to each other. And he asked you to read a book that basically undermined your existence and your humanity. And I mean, in the first place, I really admire that you even took the time to have that conversation with him. And I was actually really disappointed in how he dropped the ball. How do you think that we can reach people who are homophobic, transphobic, racist when they're, so firmly entrenched in their beliefs? Because I think as you say it that's part and parcel of paving, a better future.
AA: I mean, I did genuinely go thinking, Hey, if I can make this guy who's quite racist and causes a lot of grief to people online a little bit less racist than great. But it was a bad faith thing on his part because he was using a lot of what I said on various podcasts, TV shows and was making me out into a villain for refusing to read this book by Douglas Murray who doesn't believe in Islamophobia and thinks trans people is a thing that needs to stop. But then, you know, he was calling me out for like, you know, breaking free speech or whatever, but it was bad faith. And I don't think trans people need to go on the BBC and argue a transphobe about why it's okay to be trans because those things are usually set up for them to win. So that's why storytelling for me on my own terms, without someone to argue back with is my way of, of trying to do that.
So it's like, I don't want to get in a shouting match with a racist. And I think what the right in this country have done is basically said that, um, minorities are shutting down free speech by not wanting to engage in debates about being a minority, which is not... No one has to justify their right to exist. So, I think we can not play the game on their terms. A lot of people I know now we're all just saying no to all these invites and eventually, like they can't find any trans people to go on the BBC to have a really awful debate. But then, you know, if you look at what's happening, you know, Travis Alabanza has a show out at the Bush at the moment. You know, people are really writing books. Munroe has a huge book coming out. I think people have just realized, you know, screw that format. Let's just tell out own stories. And I actually think art and storytelling will be a much more enduring mechanism by which to kind of educate rather than, you know, a walk with a racist, which I shouldn't have done really. But I just was, it was during BLM. And I think I just was like, Oh, maybe he wants to learn, but that was not the case.
AS: I really like what you say about changing the terms of the game and just almost playing one that's a bit more clever and a bit more on your own terms. And I really love sort of all of the references you make to other individuals who are doing just the same and it gives me a little more hope, I think.
AA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that has to be. Also, we should be able to enjoy it. Like it's not fun saying it's okay to be trans - because that's not a discussion. I'd much rather say, show the joy of the trans experience rather than sitting on discussing why it's okay to have a they pronoun. It's not fun or it's not showing you at your best. And I think the thing that threatens the haters the most is queer joy. And so that's what I want to have lots of.
AS: Amen to that. And Āmīn to that at the same time. Amrou, I=it's been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for generous as usual with your time and your words and your experience. And I can't wait to see what you put out next.
AS: That was my conversation with Amrou Al-Kadhi for this episode of Inspired on the Barbican podcast, Nothing Concrete. Next week, you can expect sound artist, composer and researcher, Rebekah Alero, who speaks to vocal and movement artist, Elaine Mitchener about improvisation and using your voice as a vessel for storytelling.
EM: As a sound artist, are you dealing with the substance of sound? Are you shaping it? What is it you're hoping listeners pick up?
AS: stay tuned for more inspiring conversations by subscribing to Nothing Concrete on a Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. Thanks for listening.