Children of War: Kuwait By Fatima Al Qadiri & Khalid Al Gharaballi
Fatima Al Qadiri and Khalid Al Gharaballi were kids when Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990. In January 1991 an American-led coalition initiated Operation Desert Storm with airstrikes on Iraqi army positions in both countries. On February 26, after the arrival of coalition ground troops, Iraq retreated, setting fire to Kuwaiti oil fields on the way out.
Bidoun: Do you remember when the war started?
Fatima: Oh, I remember it perfectly, I remember the first day. That summer my little sister and I would wake up every morning and watch this Japanese cartoon that was dubbed in Arabic. We were addicted to it. It was the adventures of a talking seal, on an island with turtles. It was so beautiful. So one day we woke up, turned on the TV, and instead of our cartoon there is this black and white, mute broadcast of Saddam Hussein. And of course we’ve never seen him, we don’t know who the hell he is. And we ask our mom, where is our cartoon, who is this guy, why is it mute? Why is it black and white? What is this shit? We were so confused—it was confusing—and we just felt robbed of our cartoon. [Laughs.] She looked really bewildered, and she told us, “The country has been invaded by the Iraqi army. That is Saddam Hussein, he is the dictator of Iraq. And Iraqi soldiers are bathing naked in the streets.” Those were her words: We’ve been invaded. By the Iraqis. That’s Saddam Hussein. Iraqi soldiers are bathing naked in the streets. And we were like, what? We just wanted to know about our cartoon, what the fuck. We were such little kids. That was the first day of the invasion.
Bidoun: How old were you?
Fatima: Nine. And my sister was seven. And, we were just like, what? The rest of the day was a blur… I just remember thinking, does this mean there’s no school? This is so awesome. It was like… yay.
Bidoun: Did it mean that there was no school?
Fatima: Yeah, of course.
Bidoun: When did you go back to school?
Fatima: A year later. Everybody missed a grade. I skipped… fourth grade.
Bidoun: How did you know that school was going to be canceled?
Fatima: I mean, it was kind of obvious, because the first places that the Iraqis used the schools as barracks. All the schools in Kuwait were turned into barracks. They actually dug trenches in the playground at my school, you know.
Bidoun: What about you, Khalid? What do you remember about that day?
Khalid: We were at our beach house. It was the weekend—the weekend in Kuwait used to be Thursday—Friday. So it was Thursday, and my dad had flown out to Nice, where we were all supposed to go on Friday. The beach house was in the south of the country, almost along the Saudi Arabian border. And I just remember I woke up and the TV wasn’t working, and my nanny told me that the Iraqis had invaded, but I didn’t really know what that meant. What are Iraqis? I was really, like, secluded.
Bidoun: What did she say?
Khalid: She just laughed at me.
Bidoun: Were you nine also?
Khalid: Yeah. I was kind of retarded.
Fatima: No wait, babe, you were eight. Because your birthday’s in November.
Khalid: Oh yeah, I guess I was eight. So it was, like, complete panic… I went outside. Everybody was outside. A lot of my cousins had houses there, too. By the afternoon, we saw rockets flying over us and stuff. So we all got in a convoy of cars, went north to the city, and there were tanks everywhere. The Iraqis were taking the country going south, and we were going north.
Fatima: And they didn’t stop you? There weren’t any checkpoints yet?
Khalid: They were still, like, invading the country. [Laughs.] We were kind of going against the grain. We went to our house, and got all this crap, and went to Grandma’s house.
Bidoun: And you were basically at your grandmother’s the whole time during the war?
Khalid: Yeah. Though later, when the air strikes happened, in January, we went across the street to my great aunt’s house. She had a bigger place—that was like the bigger slumber party…
Fatima: A lot of the time, it was all just really fun.
Khalid: I was really excited. It was really a change of pace, you know?
Fatima: Mostly, it was no school—
Khalid: Yeah, there was no school, and it was just like—
Fatima: We’re going to play video games all day.
Bidoun: Were you stuck at home? Or could you leave the house?
Khalid: No, we could go out, except when they told us not to. I don’t know about Salwa, where she was staying, but Keifan, where my grandma’s house was, there was a lot of resistance stuff going on, so it was this really crazy area. At the same time there were a lot of Iraqis, people who had been living in Kuwait for a while, so you didn’t know where they stood. Like the kid who tricked me into giving him all my toys.
Bidoun: What sort of toys are we talking about?
Khalid: I had, like, a lot of Thundercats things, you know. I had the castle and the car, and all the things…
Khalid: And I was just so sheltered. I was this clueless space cadet, you know? Because of the war, everything was different. I was taking out the garbage, all the maids were gone. Suddenly I was spending a lot of time outside, playing with kids who weren’t my cousins. It was really, like, sassiness lessons. Like playing with those Iraqi kids, who were these hustlers. I mean, not literally, but they were just street smart. They really fooled me.
Bidoun: How did they do it?
Khalid: They would say stuff like, I don’t have any toys, we’re poor. So I got this huge garbage bag and put all my toys in it and gave it to this one boy. And then my mom screamed at me. Those kids had a motorcycle and all this stuff. I had just never had any interactions with people like that, you know?
Fatima: That was the cool thing about the invasion—you were kind of forced to play with these children that were your neighbors on the block, not just your cousins or siblings, and you’re like, Oh hey, we’re both, like, nine, let’s play… And it was really crazy, because you went into their homes and saw how they lived. It totally took you out of your comfort zone. Your kinship zone.
Khalid: All of a sudden it was this really egalitarian situation where it was just, like, everybody’s game, you know.
Bidoun: Did you get any of those toys back?
Khalid: No. God knows where he is now. I also thought his brother was really hot.
Fatima: Oh, you thought he and his brother were hot?
Khalid: No, I thought his older brother was hot. He had this older brother, who had a dog, who had this really fabulous mullet.
Fatima: You already knew that you liked boys?
Khalid: Oh, yeah. He wore really tight jeans, baby tees, like muscle tees, you know. He was really cool.
Fatima: See for me, the war was how I got my toys. We’d never had that many, just a few teddy bears or whatever. My father was very strict with us. So when the invasion began and we were going from house to house—we were sort of on the run for a while—we were basically toy scavengers, you know, like, we went and picked up—
Khalid: Did you really do that?
Fatima: Oh my god, yeah. We were just going into houses…
Khalid: You went into people’s houses?
Fatima: Our relatives’ houses. Not just people’s houses. But we went to our relatives’ houses…
Bidoun: You were robbing people’s graves?
Fatima: Yeah, we stole Barbies from church steps. Basically our parents were taking us from one relative’s house to another. So the houses that were totally decimated, we just tried to scavenge whatever we could, also to keep it safe for them—
Bidoun: Yeah, right.
Fatima: We increased our toy holdings by, like, two hundred percent. You know, suddenly we had all the Barbie accessories and houses, and we found a Thundercats set, which we were freaking out about. That was our favorite thing.
Khalid: Those were a hot commodity.
Fatima: They really were. And we got my cousin’s Atari and all the games, and we were freaking out. It was really amazing. We were just, like, swimming in toys, we invented so many games. That’s what we did all day—draw, play video games, play with toys, and watch cartoons.
Bidoun: Were you supervised at all?
Khalid: There was almost no supervision. There’s a funny tableau—us playing at my uncle’s house. In the neighborhood where we were staying, there were all these houses belonging to family members, like a hamlet or whatever. And a lot of them were empty because people left and stuff, so we would go to my uncle’s, which was this really huge, really chic house—
Fatima: Oh my god, it is so cool. I have photographs of it.
Khalid: She has photographs of it. But, you know, with all of the rationing and the food panicking and all that, some people in the family bought, like, livestock. Just in case there’s an emergency or whatever. So we were in the middle of the city, in this really pretty townhouse basically in the middle of the city, and there were all these sheep. And we were, like, chasing the sheep, and riding them, taking them inside these beautiful salons…
Fatima: You took the sheep inside?
Fatima: Oh my god.
Khalid: You know, there was almost no supervision. My uncle’s house had all these really big halls, filled with tiger rugs and chandeliers, and we were just riding the sheep around, smacking them and stuff, pulling their hair, aggravating them…
Fatima: We had a sheep, too, actually. My father brought a sheep to my grandmother’s house while we were staying there, and we befriended it. My older sister loved it, we gave it a name and took care of it. We brushed its hair! We really loved it. And then one day of course it was, like, lying dead, and we were going to eat it, and it traumatized her so much—it made her a vegetarian for a little bit. My sister had a lot of trauma. At some point, one of my cousins who was still in Kuwait had gotten a hold of a Ouija board. Maybe she’d had it from before, I don’t know. But she brought it over to our house, and we played with it a lot. One night we used the Ouija board in my sister’s room. We were trying to channel Marilyn Monroe, but somehow we ended up with Khomeini.
Bidoun: The Ayatollah?
Fatima: And my sister was so freaked out that she could no longer sleep in her own room. It’s so absurd to think that there’s this war happening, and this occupation, and my sister is freaking out because she thought the ghost of Khomeini was, like, living in her room. I mean, this was when I first developed my obsession with jinn and evil spirits and hauntings and stuff. This was about the same time that we took a trip to Baghdad.
Bidoun: You went to Baghdad?
Fatima: Yeah. Someone was chartering buses to go there, since we were now de facto citizens of Iraq. So there were two buses of parents and their kids. We went to buy stuff and make phone calls—you couldn’t make any international calls from Kuwait that whole time—and also my mom had to pick up some paintings from the Saddam Art Center, as she had been in the Baghdad Biennial. Anyway, it was a crazy long journey, like twenty-four hours. It was rough. You know, peeing and doing your ca-ca in the desert? It’s fine if you’re a nine-year-old, okay, but my sister was twelve going on thirteen. That age? It’s like, god, no. And being female?
Khalid: How did you feel, going to Baghdad?
Fatima: It just felt so wild… Basrah looked like a no man’s land. It was just like swamps, you know, and everything was destroyed.
Khalid: That’s so awful, because Basrah is one of the most beautiful cities.
Fatima: It was just a really bleak journey, you know. Finally, when we made it to Baghdad… actually I have no recollections whatsoever of the city of Baghdad. I only remember the Hotel Al-Rashid. Because that hotel was a city unto itself. It was a huge compound, fortified, with this wall, and lookout points at every corner. Huge gates. And the garden just stretching out as far as you could see, to the horizon. It was really crazy.
Bidoun: How long were you there?
Fatima: I don’t know. Ten days? And of course me and all the children were so happy to get out. The garden was just such a maze. There were all these corners, and enclaves, and there were all these lovers making out. We had never seen two people kissing each other before. Live, I mean—like, never. And we were horrified by the sight. So we… totally disrupted them. We would run up and scream at them, you know. And then the lobby of the restaurant at the Hotel Al-Rashid—we would come in, and there’s this floor-to-ceiling portrait, maybe thirty feet high, of Saddam. And there was Muhammad Ali—
Fatima: Muhammad Ali was just sitting in the lobby, hanging out, saying hello to the kids, you know. We were like, What are you doing here?
Bidoun: Did you ask him?
Fatima: No. I think one of the kids asked for his autograph, but we were just kind of pissed off that he was there. It was some kind of pro-Saddam thing organized by the Nation of Islam, I guess. Anyway, the restaurant felt like a movie set, it was this fancy hall—you know, it was so fancy, Christiane Amanpour was there, all these reporters, CNN… and then this table of five children. There was not an adult at our table. And we were just like, Charge it to the room. I don’t know how my parents paid for it all. My father told me there were flea markets during the invasion, and people would go there and sell all their possessions to the Iraqi army to make money. However else were they able to survive? You know, there was no money—bank accounts were frozen, so you were just selling jewelry, furniture, whatever, you know. Or buying it. I think my father sold his car—we had two, we just kept one. In any case, I ordered steak every day, Steak Café de Paris, and that Steak Café de Paris at Hotel Al-Rashid changed my life. I became addicted to steak for the rest of my life because of that.
Khalid: I can confirm that. I’ve witnessed it.
Fatima: So what I was saying before about being into jinn and spirits and stuff…there were, like, twenty kids between the ages of five and fourteen at the hotel with us, part of the convoy from Kuwait. And me and this boy who was my accomplice tricked all the kids into believing that there was this evil old lady who was an evil spirit that was haunting the garden of the Al-Rashid. And she had a beard—er, no, it was an old man—he had a beard made of dates. So I covered myself in a white sheet, and I had this date beard, and I went inside this enclave. We told the kids that if you walked around that garden at this certain hour in the afternoon, at dusk, you know, you might see him.
Bidoun: Were you wearing a beard full of dates?
Fatima: I was. I took a sheet from the hotel, and then I found these dates and I stuck them to my face, and I just covered my face with the sheet, the dates kind of haphazardly sticking out of the sheet.
Bidoun: How long did you succeed in haunting the other kids?
Fatima: I think… one day? I can’t keep secrets.
Bidoun: That’s a great story. I guess I was wondering, back in Kuwait—did you guys have a curfew or anything?
Khalid: Oh yeah.
Fatima: Well, I mean, we’d never stay out at night. But, like, during the day, as soon as we woke up, we could literally just go to some other house or play outside—we were just playing, indefinitely, without any restrictions. I don’t remember our parents ever telling us, like, You have to be home. Though there was a little bit of order, in that my father insisted on giving us Arabic lessons every day, which was really annoying. A whole hour of reading and dictation. And actually, the one thing that was actively supervised in our house was the drawing. My sister and I would draw stuff every day, and my mother would just stand over us, waiting. We didn’t know why, and we didn’t ask her why, but she would just be standing over us. And as soon as we finished a drawing that had anything to do with the invasion—that had an Iraqi soldier in it, you know—she would just quietly snatch it and stick it in the AC vent. She had a hiding place for all of them. Thankfully they didn’t find any of them.
Bidoun: Did you see soldiers?
Fatima: I saw soldiers on a daily basis. I mean, every time we left the house. Every ten blocks there was a checkpoint. Every time you went to a supermarket you were stopped, like, twice, at least, if not three times, and then on the way back as well…
Bidoun: Did you see any dead bodies?
Fatima: I never saw one, thankfully.
Khalid: I had a corpse sighting. We went back to our house one time to get stuff, and there was this dead guy right in front of our house. It was the summer, so it was really hot. And the thing was just really bloated and gray… and it was really shocking.
Bidoun: Wait, so how were you watching all these cartoons, Fatima? Were they broadcasting cartoons during the occupation?
Fatima: No, no, the cartoons were in my grandmother’s house, she had a huge stash of VHS tapes. She routinely recorded TV, whether Iranian or Iraqi. She had this gigantic VHS archive. She still does—it’s, like, taking over her bedroom. You know the Hizbullah TV station, Al-Manar? She records it, like, twenty-four hours a day. If their archive ever gets lost, they should just contact my grandmother. Seriously. Anyway, for whatever reason, she had all these videotapes of Kuwaiti cartoons. They were Japanese cartoons from the 70s, dubbed in Arabic. Grendizer. Tokimeki Tonight, which was about this girl that takes the being of others when she bites them. So if she bites a bird, she’ll turn into that bird, until she sneezes, and then she reverts back to herself. And her father is a vampire.
Bidoun: Oh my god, that’s awesome.
Khalid: That cartoon is insane.
Fatima: Yeah. Her father is a vampire and her mother is a werewolf, and they live in the normal world, and they have this secret door that takes them to the world of ghosts.
Khalid: Yeah, they go downstairs, and there’s, like, the closet, and then there’s the vortex that takes them somewhere else.
Fatima: That takes them home.
Bidoun: So awesome.
Fatima: And there was one other one called Kabamaru, about this ninja who’s in love with chow mein, who just eats chow mein all the time, and it just has really awesome music. All these cartoons really influenced my visual and musical taste. The video games, too. One kid we played with was this Iraqi boy who had a new video game—I think it was the original Castlevania. I was so addicted to the music. I would make any excuse to go to his house and play and listen to the video game music…
Bidoun: So there was never any problem with the electricity or anything?
Fatima: Not really.
Khalid: Not until the air strikes, which was later.
Bidoun: What were you guys eating that whole time?
Khalid: White rice.
Fatima: White rice. We made bread.
Khalid: Canned tuna.
Fatima: Anything in cans, we were eating.
Khalid: Disaster food, you know?
Bidoun: Was stuff still coming in?
Fatima: It was just the surplus inside the supermarkets. Every time you went, there was less and less and less food on the shelves, until there was just, like, Cool Whip. I remember being addicted to Cool Whip. Nobody would eat it, so I developed this crazy addiction to it. I was a Cool Whip connoisseur.
Bidoun: How bad did it get?
Fatima: Well, by the end, there was nothing. Even after liberation, which was the 26th of February, stuff didn’t start coming back in for months. For my sister’s birthday in March, we had a little loaf of bread for a cake. We dyed it blue to make it festive. Smurf bread! But we couldn’t even eat it, because the flour had weevils. We left in April sometime and didn’t come back until September for school. By which time, they had paved over the trenches on the playground…
Fatima Al Qadiri is a photographer and musician and Khalid Al Gharaballi is a stylist and artist. Both live in New York.