• Unicorn by Amrou Al-Kadhi is a memoir charting the author's experience from god-fearing Muslim boy, to a vocal, queer drag queen estranged from their family

  • Therapist Sue Cowan-Jenssen reviews this ultimately compassionate and hopeful work 

I came across Unicorn: The Memoir of a Muslim Drag Queen by Amrou Al-Kadhi by chance and I am so pleased I did. It is a devastatingly honest and beautifully written account of the journey of a young Muslim who is raised initially in Dubai and Bahrain and then latterly in the UK. In this review I use the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ since the author identifies as non-binary.

At a young age Amrou realises that they are gay, an unspeakable sin in the Muslim world. They are desperate to keep this terrible secret from their parents who find homosexuality utterly unacceptable. It is painful to read how much they don’t want to distress their parents especially a much-adored mother. The result is deep guilt, self-loathing and the development of a range of compulsions and obsessions designed to keep any apparent imperfection or flaw at bay. A misplaced comma in an essay could result in panic and terror. When they moved to London in their teen years, they encounter less overt homophobia but now increased racism and Islamophobia. So not only is their sexuality a source of terrible shame, they feel cursed by their colour, nationality and religion. The onslaught peaks during a two-year stint at Eton on a scholarship. There is a tsunami of rejections and hurts on all fronts, home and school. 

Cambridge and the discovery of drag, paired with a talent for performance, provided an outlet and expression for these hidden and forbidden facets of their life. It was a lifesaver. Of course, the years of rejection took their toll on their mental health and this book is a testament to their courage, their spirit and the obviously outstanding therapeutic help they received.  They write, ‘I was no longer willing to believe I was the cause of the world’s anger. 

I wanted to be able to enter a social situation without the paranoia that my merely being there might cause even a pint of beer to reject me. ‘

The book also shines a light on the gay world that finds the non-binary world deeply threatening. Having won some level of acceptance, the more ‘straight’ gay men sometimes meet notions of gender fluidity with hostility.

This book is quite an eye-opener and it is made all the more compelling by the compassion that weaves its way alongside the negativity throughout.

It is compassion, both for themselves and then ultimately for their parents, that makes this a truly hopeful book to read.

Sue Cowan-Jenssen is a verified welldoing.org therapist 

Unicorn Amrou Al-Kadhi

Further reading

Why it isn't as simple as 'coming out' for some in the LGBT community

Being an LGBTQ affirmative therapist

Mental health and coming out in 2019