British-Iraqi drag performer, writer and London member Amrou Al-Kadhi on queer progress being as much about looking to the past, as the future
By Amrou Al-Kadhi Images by Vivek Vadoliya Thursday 25 June, 2020 Short read
For queer people, dreaming up societies that are more liveable is a daily exercise. It comes with furiously questioning everything around us and asking ourselves how we can do better. But this feverish chase for what’s beyond us has its downsides – we sometimes miss what is already there, or even yet, what has always been here.
I spent my childhood dreaming about the future. Living with Muslim parents who just couldn’t accept me for who I am was exhausting and painful, and so I wasted my days thinking about somewhere over the rainbow. Because I associated my Muslim heritage with homophobia and transphobia, the future I dreamed of was like a white Western wonderland; one that had absolutely nothing to do with my past. But the more I aspired to a place outside myself, the more fractured and unhappy I became. The thing that eventually healed me was not eradicating my past – it was reimagining it.
The Islam I was raised under was centred around self-punishment and the inevitability of hell, so I grew up to be extremely fearful of Allah. In my mind, he was a punitive dictator relishing in my misery. But this Islam is not reflective of the rich, and yes, very queer histories that have lurked within the faith for centuries. I was lucky enough to connect with a wonderful group called London Queer Muslims in my twenties, who opened me up to a well of possibilities that I never knew existed.
Prayer methods in Sufism can be wonderfully poetic, and also intrinsically queer. There is a glorious Sufi sect in which men dress in skirts, and spin around and dance as a way to fuse their souls with Allah (the infamous whirling dervishes). So, while I’d gone about believing that Allah and every relative of mine was prepared to have me burned for my gender identity, there were male Muslims wearing skirts and dancing with Allah. And they actually got rewarded for being pious. In pining so desperately for the future, for most of my life I missed the queer magic that had already been.
If you scratch the surface of any culture’s history, you’ll probably find queerness expressed in powerful and surprising ways. I often think about this within the context of Britain. While countless period dramas would have you think that the Britain of the past was a land of cobbled streets, top hats and binary sexuality, we’ve all but forgotten the thriving queer subcultures that have long existed there.
Eighteenth-century England, for instance, far from the aristocratic playground we’ve grown accustomed to exalting through films like The Duchess, was in fact home to queer countercultures. In the alleys behind the bricks and mortar law courts always on screen were molly houses – spaces frequented by queer men and trans people. What went down in them was, like, major. Drag shows, orgies, and even a practice known as ‘mock birth’. Mollies would dress up as pregnant women and midwifes, enacting a ceremony where they ‘gave birth’ as a way to relieve the stress of having to live in a society where homosexuality was illegal.
Not long ago, I went to The British Library in London to read historical accounts of these molly houses, and felt more at home in Britain doing that then I sometimes do right now. Then I read the homoerotic poems of 13th-century Sufist Muslims, and yet again felt more at home in Islam than I ever had growing up.
As a queer person of colour, I have achieved a sense of belonging by doing something that feels counterintuitive to a community forever looking to the future – by looking back into history and realising that I have always been here.