When Brooklyn-based Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri began recording her new EP, Desert Strike, the artist turned to an unlikely source of inspiration: an early '90s video game. That game (whose title she borrowed for her EP and which is based on Desert Storm) was in many ways a virtual-reality counterpoint to Al Qadiri's experiences growing up in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation and the eventual U.S. liberation. Al Qadiri refers to those experiences in her music by merging a video game's surreality with the reality of warfare, combining spacey synths and ethereal chanting with jarring gunshots and the pinging sound of bullet casings falling to the ground. Here, we talk to the artist about growing up in Kuwait, recording the new EP and why she never liked playing the Desert Strike video game as a kid.
Tell me about your background and growing up in Kuwait.
My father did his graduate degree in History in Russia and immediately got hired and was made an ambassador at a very young age -- not that many young men could speak important languages -- or strategic languages, let's put it this way. [He was the ambassador] to Zaire first but Zaire was so dangerous. Then he became ambassador to Senegal, where I was born but then we moved back to Kuwait. He resigned from the foreign ministry and went from being very right-wing to being very left-wing. He was an activist. [He and my mother] were leading members of the Kuwaiti resistance and we moved around from house to house.
What do you remember of that period?
It wasn't safe to stay in one house for very long because the Iraqi military was constantly going through houses to see if there were any inhabitants and if there were, you were basically at their will. Some of the [Iraqi soldiers] were teenagers with machine guns. They were recruited against their will in Iraq and it was just a really crazy situation. The thing with war and occupation is that it's not black and white, it's a human disaster for everybody.
[Once] my mom pretended to be pregnant, wearing an abaya -- the black cover -- but under her fake belly was a newsletter that [my parents] had printed and were disseminating. All of their actions were punishable by death and they wouldn't have just killed them, they would've killed the entire family. They put our lives at risk. Thank god nothing happened and that we survived.
When did you start becoming interested in music?
When I was five, I remember my conservative grandmother told me that if I heard music that was not religious music, I should cover my ears and say "God forgive me," over and over again. And I remember doing it. [But] my parents loved the radio and my father has a huge record collection. I owe a lot of my musical taste to his taste in music because he collected records like Grace Jones records, and records by this French disco producer Cerrone whose productions are orchestrally unbelievable.That was one of my earliest memories of hearing [my dad] play it over and over again.
When did you start making your own music?
I started making music when I was nine, immediately after the liberation of Kuwait. I started making music on this little keyboard and then the keyboards just got bigger from there and the recording techniques got more sophisticated.
What kind of music were you making when you were that age?
The [songs] were really dismal, wretched, depressing sounds and melodies. I was just so taken aback by the apocalypse that I had seen -- seeing your country burn to a crisp is something that can only be experienced [first-hand].
And it was those experiences that inspired you to make Desert Strike? Did you play the video game as a kid?
I absolutely hated that game. I never played it. I only watched the introduction over and over again because the introduction was so disturbing. It was based on the conflict. They don't mention Kuwait, they don't mention Iraq, they gave Saddam a slightly different face -- call him 'The Leader.' It's all so vague the language.
I don't believe that the game was made for children. There was no soundtrack. It was just the sound of evil, high-pitched chopper blades [going] at an incessant frequency. And bombs. And just going around from a birds-eye view in a helicopter bombing things. I believe it was the first commercial and contemporary game that was really designed for the military. There have been many since then.
What made you decide to revisit the game now?
It took me a long, long time to become sophisticated enough to write music using music software because I've always just played music on the piano or keyboard and recorded it on audio cassette. I come from a completely different background than these young producers these days that have been on the Internet all their life. It's taken me eleven years to get to the skill level that I am today but [I'm] by no means done improving. There's so much more need for improvement.
Did you always want to produce a record inspired by the game?
I felt [the sound of the game] was the sound that best represented how I felt at the time. I've always wanted to make a work about that period of my life because it was the most surreal, the most sci-fi [experiences] and it's definitely given me a buffet of psychological problems. You don't go through that unharmed or unscathed. It's something that's haunted me my entire life and I needed to make a mature work about it. I didn't have the skill level at 25, I didn't have the skill level at 28, I had the skill level [to do it] at 31.
Last October, I started writing the material for the record right before the launch of the previous record, Genre-Specific Xperience, so I started working on it then. It took about a year and I finished it in September. I'm a slow worker but I'm not in a rush. I never made music to achieve anything but to heal myself.
Can you expand on that?
A lot of the conditions that I've made my records under have been [times] of extreme depression.
Was that the case for this one?
Yeah. [My depression has] been around since after the liberation of Kuwait. This is why I'm really going back to my roots. This is the genesis of my career as a musician, going back to that time. I suffer from bouts of manic depression and that is when I write a lot of music, usually. [The music is] all a soundtrack for the apocalypse or living past the apocalypse. I always feel like I narrowly escaped it, [like] I should have died. Saddam was pretty close to fulfilling his plans to extinguish the Kuwaiti population. Part A [of his plan] was to capture all of the men and boys and take them to prisons in Iraq. They were almost finished doing that. My father was taken -- he was a POW. It was crazy because my mom and my sister were visiting someone and I had gone next door. It was just me and my dad in the house and I went down four doors to my neighbor's house to play the video game Castlevania because I was so addicted to the soundtrack and that was when the Iraqi soldiers came and took my dad. That game spared me from seeing my father being dragged out of the house and taken to a prison camp. I just came back and he was gone. I can't even play video games anymore -- I avoid them at all cost. I associate them with deep manic depression.
It must have been difficult to revisit those memories while working on the album.
It was really, really hard. It's annoying for me when a commentator says, "Oh, she's made another conceptual record." This is so far from conceptual. This is deeply personal -- this is a naked record and an autobiographical sentiment. [It's] deeply sentimental and has nothing to do with concept. If I was able to write a memoir, this would be it.
Desert Strike is out now via Fade to Mind