Soundtracks for Virtual War

image by imp kerr

An interview with the Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri, who composes possible themes for the Gulf War video game of her childhood

In 1992 Fatima Al Qadiri bought a copy of Desert Strike, the Sega Megadrive game based on the invasion of Kuwait a year earlier. Any 10-year-old would probably be a little unsettled by the virtual reality of bombs dropping and watching soldiers being lowered into cauldrons, but for Al Qadiri, these horrors were also a recent reality. She and her younger sister lived through the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the occupation — all the apocalyptic surrealities of bombs and rockets — by playing video games endlessly in their basement. She’s been making work about it as an artist, musician, and composer ever since, but her most powerful piece to date is Desert Strike EP, which was released last year on Fade to Mind. It’s a mesmerizing record: insular yet anaesthetizing, built from synthetic sounds that feel removed from time.

You experienced the Gulf War really young ...

I was nine. It was actually five days after my ninth birthday. And if you see an image of me on my birthday and an image of me a year later, it’s a completely different person. I went through a gender dysmorphia. I had long hair, a really prissy dress, really girly. As soon as the war happened, my mom cut our hair short, just to make us less attractive to soldiers. I’ve never actually directly asked my mother that, it’s too deep to ask her! — but I’m assuming that’s what she did. She wanted to camouflage us. Two years later I started exhibiting signs of manic depression and was almost expelled because I just couldn’t deal with school. I couldn’t deal with reality, you know? Because reality was so skewed for a year.

Can you describe that reality?

The thing that’s most skewed is time. Time warps. The clock doesn’t make sense anymore because there’s no working week, no hospitals, no police. Nothing, all the normal facets of society gone. It’s like living in a sci-fi movie. Hence my obsession with science fiction after the war — I felt like I lived in a post-apocalyptic landscape. A year after the invasion I bought a high quality Chinese pirate version of Desert Strike — ­Kuwait was a nexus for piracy. They didn’t say “Saddam” and “Iraq” and “Kuwait” because they wanted to make it acceptable or marketable or whatever, but it was very obvious what they were talking about. The thing that struck me immediately and made me realize this wasn’t a game for children was that there was no soundtrack. It was very clear to me: This is not made for children, this is a thinly veiled training game for the American military. I was repulsed by it and I played it out of compulsion — this video was made out of my experience — but it was very, very disturbing and very surreal. I just felt reality collapse into my head and I was in the grid.

But in retrospect, does the lack of soundtrack make it any less queasy, in that the presence of music would have made it more like a game, more like entertainment? In other words, perhaps having no soundtrack is sort of grimly honest in a way?

I mean, this is the thing, it had the so-called reality aspect of it, because you were in a chopper above the desert bombing things, but it was still sick. It was being made to profit off something I’d experienced. Since then I actually haven’t been able to play video games. Every time I attempt it, I am overcome with depression. Immediate depression. Whenever I try, my skin starts to crawl, I just put it down immediately.

It’s interesting that you say it felt like a training video because, of course, there are game manufacturers who also explicitly do that — Bohemia Interactive, for example, makes military simulation programs that have been used by the U.S. Marine Corps.

I think this was the first, the first game based on real conflict made for the military. That’s my theory.

Obviously it was disturbing playing it, but was there anything psychologically appealing about being in control?

It’s funny you talk about control, because during the entire span of the occupation, which was seven months, me and my sister became addicted to video games, and that was the only real control we had. The adult reality was just too revolting and we didn’t understand it. We were imprisoned in our house and we played them endlessly — as soon as we woke up in the morning until we passed out at night. It’s weird because we also invented this game a year before the war, teams of boys and girls and if you were tagged you had to be a POW and someone had to get you out. There was a really surreal foreshadowing of POWS and war games, a year prior to the invasion, which is so chilling.

I guess the central fucked-up thing is that the games kids play, they play to learn how to be in the world, but games like Desert Strike seem devoid of either playfulness or constructiveness.

I mean if you look at games now — Call of Duty, games like that — they’re so advanced, they’re so obviously for the military. There’s more than 700 U.S. military bases around the world — most of them have teenage soldiers and so many of them play Call of Duty and other sick games that are based on real conflict. Now it’s all about “real”, true experiences of real conflict. Playing as close to approximate environments as possible — all the Iraq war video games that came out in 2003, the Afghanistan video games. The fact that any children are playing these games is so disturbing.

And I guess the extra dimension of ... disturbia is that warfare itself is now is gamelike. It’s pressing buttons and watching things happen on screens.

The first Gulf War was unprecedented in world history — it was a virtual war. It was conducted by text, there wasn’t that much hand-to-hand combat. And now, with the drone situation, it’s becoming more and more removed from reality, as much removed from reality as possible, in order for them to swallow their reality.

I feel like I’ve basically been making soundtracks for my childhood prior to the invasion and during the occupation.

And tell me about your personal distinction between “soundtrack” and just “song” or “track”?

I believe in the purposefulness of music, you know? I believe in its ability to form context, or create context, and that’s why everything to me is a soundtrack. As a teenager, my top two obsessions were gangsta rap and Euro dance. Which are not complimentary at all! I loved gangsta rap because it sounded so dangerous. It was like listening to pornography, it was so obscene from every angle. It had a darkness that I was craving. Sonically — the minor chords. It just felt very transgressive. And then Euro dance was so operatic, so theatrical, and so ... it was just like a Benetton ad, so pan-racial — white people sounding like black singers. It felt like it was a really exciting new form of music.

I’d assumed that lots of the sounds on Desert Strike EP are taken from the game itself, but in fact you use very few samples. Why is that?

Before I started making electronic music, my goal as a child was to be a classical composer, so the idea of using something that exists seems like cheating.

Now I’ve gotten over that, but I still try to limit myself. You know every single video game I’d played, even something very functional, they all had soundtracks, extremely fluffy soundtracks. All two-­dimensional games with penguins in them, or really cute warriors fighting bubbly ghosts. Stuff like that. Adorable, cute games, but their soundtracks were addictive. I was very sensitive to soundtracks, and I played so many games because I wanted to hear the soundtrack on Level 3.

The thing with video games is you cannot overstate the impact they had on artists and musicians who were teenagers in the ’90s. I’ve met so many producers and artists of my generation that were video-game fanatics. And only now are art institutions starting to understand the value of video games. They’re cultural objects, you know? Calling something “art” is problematic, to say the least, so I feel like the easiest way to discuss video games is that they are impactful cultural objects. You can see the direct and indirect influence on swathes of musicians and artists around the globe.

I love the video for “Vatican Vibes.” It’s an incredibly elegant piece of satire. How did you and artist Tabor Robak set about ­making it?

I told him, “You absolutely have to reference the Vatican.” I said, “Tabor, you need to dig into the deepest recesses of your Catholic soul — find the imagery and find the iconography!” I was like, this video has to be overflowing with Catholic iconography, overflowing with Vatican symbolism. And he really nailed it.

He did. It’s blackly funny. Did you think of it explicitly as a critique of power?

Of course. A lot of my work deals with some kind of hegemony. Military hegemony, male hegemony — even form hegemony. [UK producer] Scratcha DVA recently tweeted that genre should be scrapped, like racism, and I agree. A lot of my work is a reinterpretation of hegemonic practices, whether it’s religious singing, or music marketing, or military virtual reality. It’s a quiet rebellion, an abstract rebellion.