"My method of music making is narrative," Fatima Al Qadiri told The FADER in a 2014 interview about her debut album Asiatisch. "It has to be something that is grounded in some kind of idea or a real life event or memory." On her second album, Brute, the Berlin-based artist meets the gaze of the global police state with gut-churning synths and her signature celestial choir, raining down judgement on the self-serving systems that govern us today. "Power," for example, contains the voice of retired LAPD Sargent Cheryl Dorsey, sampled from an interview about the lack of accountability and unchecked power within the American policing system. While the album's setting is fiercely contemporary, its roots stretch back to Al Qadiri's childhood growing up in Kuwait during its hostile occupation by Iraqi forces in the early '90s. Here, in her own words, Al Qadiri shares her story of that time, detailing how such an intense formative experience has shaped her approach to music to this day.
FATIMA AL QADIRI: When I was a little kid in Kuwait, there was a vicious rumor going around the kindergarten playground that if you drank Sunkist, the only beverage served at lunch break, you would turn to stone on Judgement Day. I found the rumor so devastatingly convincing, I began to have a recurring nightmare of standing in a long line on Judgement Day, waiting for my turn to be judged. At some point in the dream, I would realize I had drunk Sunkist in my youth and immediately transform into a marble statue. Every morning I bolted out of bed terrified, and stopped eating anything at lunch for fear of accidentally consuming anything else that could damn me for eternity. Then, when I was five, my grandmother told my sister Monira and I that listening to music was haram, which means it’s forbidden in Islam, and if we indulged it would result in us going to Hell. We were horrified: "But how do we avoid music, grandma?" Her instructions were as follows: stick your fingers in your ears and repeat the phrase "A'udhu billahi min al shaytan al rajeem (I seek Allah's protection from Satan the accursed.)"
The problem was our parents hated silence. My father played music or news radio from morning to night. You could tell he was in the house by following the trail of fuzzy frequency and the exceptionally baritone newscaster voice so beloved by Arab stations. His record collection, which included Cerrone's Supernature and Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, animated the house at night. And neither parent could drive a car without music radio on. Silence, they believed, was exclusively for sleeping. We were doomed. So, following grandmother’s revelation, Monira and I went on an undercover mission: whenever we were in listening range of music, we secretly stuffed our fingers in our ears and cursed Satan. One day while my mom was driving, she finally caught us in the act: "What the hell are you doing?" We confessed that her mother had instructed us in this exhausting practice. "Don't listen to anything your grandma says about religion!" Despite feeling relieved, both of us continued to view music suspiciously for several years after, even though we secretly loved it. Music was tainted; unclean.
“When I was five, my grandmother told my sister Monira and I that listening to music was haram, which means it’s forbidden in Islam, and if we indulged it would result in us going to Hell.”—Fatima Al Qadiri
Then in 1990, when I was nine, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and altered my reality of everything. I've been asked questions about the Occupation of Kuwait and the First Gulf War that followed in countless interviews. My response has always been to frame it as witnessing and surviving an apocalypse. The destruction of buildings and the widespread degradation of the environment were so severe that Kuwait briefly looked like Hell or Mars, depending on your optimism.
It was around this time that I started making music, with Monira. We made our first melody together on a keyboard we found in our grandma's house. It probably belonged to a cousin and grandma was unaware of its devious existence. The day before we made it, I remember climbing to the top of a trash heap behind our house and staring up at the sunless sky, black with oil fire smoke yet illuminated by daylight; I wondered if this would be my last day on earth.
When we weren’t making music, I played video games persistently with Monira. I was desperately seeking an alternative reality and found it in games. It was a reality I controlled, one that was simple and non-adult. Inside it, I could regenerate my life infinitely and play in a closed loop, cushioned by 8-bit melodies. I still secretly thought of music as unclean, but video game music was somehow removed from that judgement. It sounded like distorted nuggets of classical melodies, chopped for children, and it had an opiate-like effect on me. It allowed me to ignore the adult reality happening outside our front door: the relentless machine gun fire and towards the end, aerial bombing.
“Any kid growing up next to an oil refinery will tell you they look like futuristic cities at night. But burning, they looked primordial, like machines committing mass suicide.”—Fatima Al Qadiri
After seven months of occupation, Kuwait was finally liberated on February 26, 1991. In the weeks that followed, my older cousin Dawood came to visit us. He’d been a college freshman in the States when the invasion happened, and when the U.S. military was gearing up for war, they allowed Kuwaiti men like my cousin to enlist. Dawood brought us NASA food packets that contained a powder that was supposed to taste like strawberries once you mixed it with water. It was gross and wonderful. My family had subsisted on rice and tomato paste for months and tasting this space food made me feel even more like we were being rescued from Mars.
While the country was liberated, it was also in ruins, and so my mom decided we should reunite with her family in Cyprus. They were out of the country when the invasion happened and had been stranded, finally ending up in Cyprus. The airport in Kuwait was destroyed so my cousin drove my mom, sisters and I to Bahrain, the nearest functioning airport. It was a six hour journey driving through oil wells on fire in the desert. Any kid growing up next to an oil refinery will tell you they look like futuristic cities at night. But burning, they looked primordial, like machines committing mass suicide. Bubbling, gurgling, blackening the earth with tar and fire. Dawood played one cassette tape throughout the journey, the album MCMXC a.D. by Enigma. No one spoke a word. I remember my ears zeroing in on the Gregorian chant on this record. I'd never heard singing like that—I was enraptured. The Wrath of God scenery, the devotional singing to the Creator; nothing could have made the journey out of burning Kuwait more mythical.
I've been consciously and unconsciously writing an internal soundtrack for that car journey ever since, attempting to capture the range of emotions I felt. Something about Gregorian chant and 8-bit video game choirs converged in me in that moment. An epiphany that the human choir is the greatest sound on earth, and all its manifestations—real, artificial, and distorted—are all equally beautiful, illuminating every edge of our past and current realities. A fragile reality that could be extinguished at any moment. In the years that followed, I’ve attempted to recreate choral music, using an array of virtual instrument choir pads or my own voice. For during that car journey out of Hell, my grandmother's spell was finally broken. My love of music was fully restored.