Interview: Fatima Al Qadiri

November 12, 2012

For New York composer Fatima Al Qadiri, making an album about videogames is about as personal as you can get. Around the time when most children are learning how to read at school, she and her little sister were hiding out in the basement of their suburban, Kuwait home, clicking away in front of the television screen as Iraqi soldiers menaced the streets. Sometimes, over the 7-month duration of the Gulf War, the 8-bit soundtracks of their favorite games of strategy would mix with the apocalyptic rumblings of area bombings nearby.

A year later, when she was ten, Al Qadiri and her sister purchased a Sega Mega Drive game called "Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf," incarnating the enemy perspective of a helicopter operator aiming missiles and machine-gun fire at the weapons and military bases of the American forces that interceded after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. It also gives the name of Al Qadiri’s excellent new EP on Fade to Mind, which stems from the artist’s tragi-comic realization that the traumatic experience of war and the games that helped her cope with it are inextricably bound up with her first musical inklings. We visited her in her Williamsburg apartment to talk about her memories from that time and why grime’s ice-slick sound pallette seemed so appropriate for the album.

Tell me about what your family was doing around the time of the war. My parents were members of the resistance, and they printed a newspaper. They printed and disseminated and co-wrote it with several other members, and they were on a hit list, basically. My father escaped death so many times during the invasion and during the war. Once, by being late to a meeting: he arrived, and they had already killed everyone in the house. It was really dark shit. But yeah, they survived. My mother pretended to be pregnant wearing the abaya but her belly was just newsletters she was distributing. If you had a gun, any kind of weaponry or a camera, they’d shoot you on the spot; those were [the Iraqi government's] orders. My parents had all those things, and a printing press and newsletters. Iraqi soldiers would go into the house often and check and recheck. We would basically go from house to house, because a lot of our family members had been vacationing in Europe, so they were stuck outside. And we were there, so we used our relatives’ houses as safe houses to go around so they wouldn’t be able to track my parents down and kill them.

And you were going to school? We were about to go to school, and this is what I say to a lot of people: war at this age, and also in this context, is not so black and white. It was intensely terrifying, but it was also intensely surreal, because time stops. There was no work week. There was no nine-to-five. Hospitals didn’t work. Banks didn’t work. No normal facets of society functioned. You just had the façade of a normal society. People were bartering things. It went back to using pre-currency methods. Everybody’s bank account was frozen. You couldn’t wire money to Kuwait. You couldn’t wire money out of Kuwait. People had to sell things inside their houses. They became scavengers in abandoned houses. It just felt like a really post-apocalyptic situation, because there was also this very wealthy façade. Imagine if New Jersey was invaded, or something along those lines. We had malls, and we had McDonald’s, and we had every trapping of a Western nation, façade-wise.

Were you kept inside a lot? For sure. It was very dangerous. We would try to meet all the kids on the block that we moved to, which is unusual because society is so hierarchical and so segregated but also a melting pot at the same time. There are so many similarities between American and Kuwaiti culture. Obesity, the car culture. Kuwait and L.A. are very, very similar as far as urban planning. You can’t get out of your house without getting into a car to go somewhere, or get on a highway. But at the same time, it was being overrun by the Iraqi military. There were checkpoints every ten blocks. My school had trenches dug into the playground. They went around the country spray painting different names [on the signs]. We used their currency. It was really surreal.

In your house, what kind of books were you reading, or what kind of ideas were floating around? We weren’t reading much. I think at the time were just playing videogames really solidly. That’s the thing that really inspired me—just listening to videogame soundtracks. [Video games] really kept me going. It was such a repetitive activity, and just a really numbing state to be in because of this whole reality that was happening outside. All these Iraqi soldiers, who were mostly kids recruited against their will, they were just given an AK-47, and crossed over with their tanks, and now they’re the kings of the country. Some troll on the internet said that playing video games because I liked the soundtracks was art school bullshit, and I was just laughing. I was like, ‘Wait. Why does everyone have to have the same experience with whatever it is?’ I didn’t even go to art school. I wish I did. I have a degree in Linguistics, for fuck’s sake. I wanted to go to art school.

Did playing video games give you a feeling of greater control over the situation you were in? Yeah, I feel we wanted to participate in the adult reality, because we were not part of it. We were observers, not participants. We created so many war games. Whether it was Thundercats or Legos, they all had prison systems. They all had leaders. They all had prisoners. It was us creating our own personal wars.

What about "Desert Strike: Return To The Gulf" stood out to you in particular? I didn’t play that game during the war. It came out a year after, but it’s the most sinister videogame I’ve ever played. I’m sure every kid who lived through some kind of military conflict and had that conflict turned into a videogame is deeply disturbed by it. There’s so many Iraq War videogames. I think the First Gulf War was the first one. And it’s something to glamorize war and make [people] desensitized [to it]. It was thinly veiled. [With the one I played], they didn’t go so far as to call the videogame “Desert Storm,” which is the name of the operation. They called it “Desert Strike.” And the intro of the videogame is basically the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and there is a scene where the soldier is lowering a man into a boiling cauldron. Mind you, this is in really bad, 16bit. It’s just so fucking disturbing. I mean, I was old enough. I was ten, and I had just lived through an apocalypse. At the end of the invasion, at the end of the liberation, Kuwait was leveled. It was flattened. It was charred. It was raped. That’s what happened to my country. They completely destroyed the shit out of it, and it took a long time to rebuild it. It’s really dark, but at the same time, I wanted there to be this innocence, or the sound of innocence—like [on] the track “War Games.” It really makes me feel like I’m playing a game of strategy with my sister while there’s area bombing happening outside, which happened several times. We would play war with each other during an air raid. We were hyperactive. We were little kids. That’s the age when kids are just bouncing off the walls. And you’re stuck in a dusty-ass basement. There’s like mothballs and roaches, and you’re like, ‘Ew! Get me out of this dusty hell!’ It’s so gross, but it’s the safest place in the world right now.

How did you come up with the idea of doing this project? The specificities of naming it after the game, etc.—that was fairly recent, within the last two years or so. I wanted to make it a written work, but I’m no good as a writer. Actually, the first melody I ever made was right after the liberation of Kuwait. I made a melody on the keyboard, and I memorized it and played it to myself every single day. So it’s like going back to my roots as a musician.

Were you always drawn to an electronic palette? Because I started making music on electronic keyboards, I never knew anything else. Only later was I messing with real pianos. I would always touch a real piano whenever I was in the presence of one. We never had one in our house. I just had a keyboard. And I bought some bigger keyboards as I got older. I wanted to get more profesh.

Your last album, Genre-Specific Xperience, explored five separate genres: juke, hip hop, dubstep, electro-tropicalia, and ’90s Gregorian trance. Are you a music junkie across the board? I see myself as a composer. It can sound really pretentious, but it doesn’t matter because this is the thing: there’s some kind of divorce between contemporary composition and contemporary music. There’s such a crazy void, but the funny thing is that in contemporary composition, music is never an issue, whereas in contemporary music, it is. Anybody who is kind of shape-shifting is accused of something. For instance, a handful of people accused me of making another conceptual record, and I was like, Wait, are you deaf, dumb, or blind? This is the most autobiographical thing I could do, but you think it’s conceptual. How is it conceptual? This is music therapy for me.

Would you say that there’s a conceptual through-line that connects all your albums, though? It’s style. I’m obsessed with it. Deconstructing style, reinterpreting style, identifying genres, deconstructing genres. Refashioning, readapting, just making it my own. It’s just fun. It’s a challenge, but I also think [I gravitate toward] genres that are personally inspirational. You could say that of all the genres I was touching on [with Genre-Specific Xperience], which are Gregorian trance, juke, dubstep, hip-hop, and electro-tropicalia. I’m an outsider to all those genres; I don’t belong to any nations or peoples that have made any of these genres, hence the absolute need to reinterpret that, to divorce that as much as I can from the source, you know? So you can see the influence of the source; you can see that this sound has touched me, and I’m paying homage to it, you know? But it’s also autobiographical because I’ve been going to London every summer since I was a kid, so all these UK genres are very meaningful to me. I don’t know, I’ve been consuming World culture and World music for a really long time.

And grime, more recently, with this album? Well no, I’ve been listening to grime since 2003, since it started to get popular. It felt really appropriate [for Desert Strike] because the sound of grime is so icy cold and it’s so full of threats. It’s the music of revenge, but it also sounds so innocent because it’s encased in all this effusive video game effects and synths. It sounds like the music of boys, and boys fighting with each other, but their fights are really serious and their mocking can be really deadly, you know? It’s a different context but the sound is so appropriate. I just feel like, if you are inspired by music, that you need to credit that music really outwardly, very overtly. You need to say that you’re inspired by it, and that you’re not actually making it up, you know? Someone said [that this album] has nothing to do with grime, and I said, “This is not grime, this is an influence, this is inspired by, this is an homage to.”

Posted: November 12, 2012
Interview: Fatima Al Qadiri