When I first met Qatar’s iconic singer Fatima Shaddad, I knew I was in the presence of a queen in her own right, writes Hamida Issa.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the women wearing batoolas and colourful jalabiyahs in the alleyways of Souq Waqif.
They were beating their drums and singing folkloric songs of old. I jumped up from my table like a little child bubbling with exhilaration.
It transported me to the time that I have yearned for from the stories of my grandmother and jeel altayibeen, the generation of the kind. I felt like they had emerged from a magical portal from the past and sang to the cultural DNA encoded in my genetics.
It was difficult not to be in awe of these women but even more difficult not to be moved spiritually and physically by the beat of the drums and the melody of their songs.
Their music was the soul of the souq. I did not know where they came from, but every time I heard that beat I would run towards these women who kept our intangible cultural heritage alive.
On a fine winter day, I found myself strolling through one of my favourite parts of the souq. I heard that beat again. It was calling me. The women’s singing invited me into a building that I learned was Fatima Shaddad’s female musical dance group for folkloric traditional arts.
I remember being moved by the portrait of this woman in the foyer. I had never heard of her before, but her picture spoke volumes of strength and I just knew she was the boss.
The ladies were very welcoming and I soon discovered that it was their rehearsal day. They would gather on weekends to practice their dances and songs in their communal space. Strangely enough, I would hear a commanding voice on the microphone, correcting the ladies whenever they would make a mistake, but I could not see anyone standing with a microphone.
When I asked who the woman behind the mysterious voice was, I was quickly taken into her office. I was so excited to see it was the woman in the portrait sitting behind that desk, the incomparable Fatima Shaddad.
I knew I was in the presence of a queen in her own right. She took her craft very seriously and was tough like a mother who loved deeply. She never had children, but the 40 women under her wing were like her daughters. They all called her Mama Fatima. After years of friendship, I began calling her Mama Fatima.
We spoke of her journey, of the trials and tribulations along her path to succeeding as a Qatari woman in the realm of music. She spoke with passion, strength and humour. She had the kind of laugh that would force you to smile and giggle along with her, it was highly and beautifully contagious. We exchanged numbers and promised to keep in touch.
Two years later, I was working on a short narrative film that had a dream sequence. I instinctually wrote Mama Fatima and her women into it and wanted to collaborate with her artistically. What an honour it would have been to feature her in my humble short film.
What she represented to me was the last hope of preservation for the dying culture of our forefathers; she kept the light alive that was handed down for generations. Who would continue carrying the dances, songs and that beautiful beat? To me, her work represented a dream, a fantasy of keeping our traditions alive.
Unfortunately, we did not get the permission for her to feature in my film and a part of me will regret it for the rest of my life.
During the pre-production of my film I had the honour of visiting Mama Fatima at her house. I spent many hours with her and core members of her team who worked in theatre, music and folklore. She had built a tribe of like minded individuals who were dedicated to protecting what could so easily be lost.
I’ll never forget how she showed me DVDs of music videos she had filmed in the souq, one of which is still etched in my mind, sitting on the back of a vintage convertible car like she was a rapper from California. It was hard not to laugh yourself to tears when you were around her.
She had an infectious spirit, one that had seen many dark days in her life, but she never succumbed to the darkness. She always had the strength to supply her own light, no matter what. She had the gift of loving unconditionally and that was her saviour. She knew that as an artist, we feel deeply, and if we surrender then all is lost.
That was the last time I saw her. I remember kissing her head and holding her longer than I should have. There was something about her energy, she had a depth because of the pain she had experienced. Her jovial laughter did not cover the hurt.
She had to struggle and fight for her dreams.
We kept in touch over the phone for the years following our last encounter. I remember she called me absolutely distraught that they had shut down what she had spent her entire life building – the group of women who were the soul of the souq. This was a year before her passing. It was the only time I ever heard her cry.
I promised I would help her and the ladies that mesmerised me. Their work fed my soul and nobody else was doing this in the entire country. By shutting them down, it was the death of female folkloric arts. I feel a part of her died then, but she did not give up hope. She was stronger than that.
She spent the majority of her last year in this world being treated in Germany for her arm. Nothing serious, she would tell me on our weekly phone calls. She was happy that she was getting natural treatment. I kept asking her if she was lonely in that hospital room, but in her typical fashion, she would always respond with a giggle and “of course not”.
“The people of Doha have lost a legend. A light has been extinguished.”
Her soul had the power to transcend our physical surroundings and see the beauty and brightness in any situation.
When I was in the car on the way to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in March this year, only one person called me. It was Mama Fatima. I was surprised when I saw her name on my phone, I did not tell her about my trip. She was deeply connected and I felt that she sensed I was on my way to one of the most difficult and life-changing adventures in my life.
“Mama Fatima, I am in the middle of a rainforest about to climb the highest mountain in Africa.”
Her laughter filled my heart with strength. She found it very amusing that I would purposefully choose to undertake such an arduous journey.
“What are you doing there, my daughter?”
“It’s to heal my soul Mama Fatima.”
“You don’t need to climb the highest mountain in Africa to heal your soul, my dear.”
The last time I spoke to her was a month before she died. I called her and she answered in an unusual tone, she was sad.
“I am at the airport leaving Germany, I will call you when I am back in Doha.”
It is fitting that this was my last conversation with her. The woman who famously sang of her wounded pain about leaving Doha and how she couldn’t live without it, was coming home to leave this world.
They say 40 days before you die, your soul knows. I spoke to her 40 days before she died and looking back, I feel like a part of her already knew.
Her passing has taught me one of the hardest lessons that anyone could ever learn. That more often than not, we take life and those we love for granted. We delay reaching out to people because we assume tomorrow is a given. When my friend showed me the news of Mama Fatima’s passing on social media, I refused to believe it. I thought it was a hoax.
I called her phone in a desperate attempt to prove that this was a rumour. It could not be true, she was fine. The national day song as her ringing tone had a haunting feeling this time. When she did not answer her phone, the reality descended upon my heart.
Her last seen on WhatsApp was 3am. Why didn’t I call her the day before to tell her that I love her? Why didn’t I go and visit her when she arrived safely from Germany? Why didn’t I insist on making a film about her when she was still with us? These questions are haunting me in my grief.
The people of Doha have lost a legend. A light has been extinguished. Who will keep our folkloric traditions alive? Her legacy taught me that with love comes honesty for growth, and I find it difficult to imagine who will continue her life’s work.
Fatima Shaddad was one of the strongest and most resilient women I have ever met in my life. Her song will be sung for generations to come because it was written by the most genuine and loving artist that Doha was gifted with.
You have travelled far from us now Mama Fatima, and I find myself wounded.
Your maternal heart showed me that there is always a silver lining in life’s sadness.
You are gone now, but you will be closer to my heart than ever before.
I will be singing your song to my children.
I will tell them magical stories of Doha’s authentic musical legend.
You live on in the beating hearts of those who remember.
Hamida Issa is a Qatari writer, film director and producer based in Doha.