Published on January 6th, 2014 | by Josh Hafner
YP spotlight: Abdullah Alaliwi, 26, is rebuilding his life and DJ career in the U.S. from Kuwait
Two feet brush across golden sand in an online video for Abood Seven, a DJ whose real name is Abdullah Alaliwi.
The voice of Fairuz, a famous Arab world singer, croons in the background while words flash on-screen: “He came here from the barren desert of the Middle East. His music spread across airwaves in Kuwait.” Alaliwi, youthful and lean in a cutoff denim vest, performs at a Des Moines street party. Crowds press against a metal barrier. A woman dances in a bikini bottom. More words: “His sound arrives in America.”
Like any trailer, it’s the highlights but not the full plot. It wasn’t music that let Alaliwi, a refugee of Iraqi descent, come to America. It was war. The 26-year-old immigrated to Iowa in 2012 with help from the U.N. Now he’s finding his way into Des Moines’ music scene and picking up a career he left in Kuwait, where a major radio station broadcast his DJ sets to a city of millions.
“I believe I can do that again,” he said. “I just need to wait and work harder.”
If you saw a photo of Alaliwi DJing at the Garden Nightclub downtown last week, it might be tough to tell just which decade it was taken in.
First there would be Alaliwi in a trim blazer and awash in blue lights, his hair slicked back in a new wave-ish style. Then there would be the Garden, a nightclub with disco balls. The room wouldn’t look out of place in a Blondie video.
Alaliwi landed a residency at the Garden that began in October. He spins weekly from a booth high above the dance floor, which he likes — no one can spill drinks on his gear. He’s performed at other spots since coming to Des Moines. He’s played Court District bars, warehouse parties and the 515 Alive Music Festival. But he’s capable of more.
“It’s like still, I didn’t do anything yet,” he said.
Des Moines is nothing like Kuwait, and Alaliwi’s career in Des Moines is, thus far, nothing like it was in Kuwait City.
There, in the capital city, he had a weekend radio show from midnight to 2 a.m. on the nation’s first private station. He spun underground electronic dance music, or EDM, that kids would listen to in their cars as they hopped party to party, he said. Talal Malik presided as music director at Marina FM, the station that broadcast Alaliwi’s radio show and averaged 800,000 listeners, he said.
“He introduced Kuwait and the region to the sounds of EDM, and mainly the underground side of it,” Malik wrote in an email. “As an artist, his love for change and discovery lead him to be one of the few in Kuwait’s list of most wanted private DJs.”
Alaliwi recalls a packed calendar in Kuwait performing at a Red Bull racing event, H&M store openings and beach house parties packed by the hundreds.
There aren’t any real beach houses in Iowa.
“It’s a smaller city, so you can’t be busy all the time,” said Alaliwi, who now spends a lot of his week in a Wells Fargo office in West Des Moines.
Alaliwi’s DJ name, Abood Seven, is a tribute to his mother. He grew up with her and her father and siblings in a number-seven apartment in Kuwait City. Seven is a lucky number, she had said, her favorite.
His mother discovered she had leukemia, in 2007, and died a year later. She called him Abood, short for Abdullah. Everyone did.
Alaliwi first came to music as a child, at age eight, on the accordion. A teacher needed someone to play it for class, so he obliged. He still has a photo of himself as a boy, a candy apple red accordion on his lap. He moved to the piano at a later age. Then, after that, he saw DJs on television.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is interesting,’” he said.
He started making lists of songs he liked. He handled music at family parties, shuffling cassette tapes at their stereo. He marks his first gig as his little sister’s birthday party in 2004, he said, where he mixed music on an actual laptop.
“It was supposed to be only for college,” he said of the computer. “But I used it for music.”
From there, during his years at the local Australian College of Kuwait, Alaliwi moved to the party scene. DJs work differently in Kuwait, a conservative Muslim state with laws seeped in generations of tradition. Alcohol is prohibited. To find the real parties, the real nightlife, the real culture, Alaliwi said, you have to go underground.
“There is a lot of young people there,” he said. “They want to live their lives.”
That meant the transformation of Persian Gulf beach houses in Kuwait, a nation of tremendous oil wealth, into makeshift nightclubs with black-market booze. It’s at these events that Alaliwi cut his DJ teeth, he said.
“They really change the basement to a nightclub: lights, DJ booth, speakers, VIP, bar — every single thing,” Alaliwi said. “And they invite 300 to 400 people.”
But Kuwaiti culture provided bigger problems for Alaliwi than the outlawing of parties.
His father, Abdul Kareem, was born in Iraq, Alaliwi said. As a young boy, he came to Kuwait with his family for a more peaceful life. He grew up knowing Kuwait as home, even fighting for the Kuwaiti army against Iraq in the Gulf War. But the stigma of animosity between his old country and his new one stuck to him, and his family.
Alaliwi was born in Kuwait. He’s never been to Iraq and speaks Arabic with a Kuwaiti accent. But Kuwaiti law considers him an Iraqi citizen, he said. Even as a boy, fellow students treated him differently, too, he said: “That was so hard on me when I was a kid.” Becoming a citizen, especially as a Kuwaiti, was next to impossible, he said.
The second-class stigma, both culturally and politically, became too much. Unwilling to move to Iraq, where relatives have died in conflicts, the father filed with the U.N. to relocate his family to central Iowa, where his mother moved earlier.
Alaliwi decided to join. He saw little future for himself as an Iraqi DJ in Kuwait, where his status made it difficult for him to leave to perform in neighboring nations. If he ever had kids there, they’d get the same stamp.
Alaliwi arrived with his family in Iowa in September 2012 and doesn’t regret the decision. He’s since fallen into the small but supportive electronic music community here, which led to his gig at the Garden. He wants to keep playing, to get on the radio again and maybe even visit California. But for now, Des Moines is home.
“I have a lot of plans for 2014,” he said.