In 2007, the documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad chronicled the trials of Acrassicauda, dubbed “Iraq’s only heavy metal band.” No doubt many did a double take at trying to reconcile visions of headbangers with environs like Iraq or Lebanon.
Part of that surprise comes from the tremendous heaping pile of bullshit out there about the Middle East. This is, in mass-media world, the land of They. Here is one teeming mass of zealots, driven as by incomprehensible creeds towards destroying you, dear viewer. Fear! Cower!
This is a lie. Growing from the very real repression and devastation faced in these lands, metal of all varieties is thriving from North Africa to Pakistan. As Moroccan metal founding father Reda Zine proclaimed: “we play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”
The resulting fusion sounds both old and new. Middle Eastern metalheads have gathered in the hundreds of thousands, rivaling the Islamist rallies that induce so much hand-wringing in the West. In defense of the most basic freedoms they’ve had showdowns with dictators and fundamentalists. Sometimes, they win.
Elgar, Pooyan and Fasrshid at the Desert Rock Festival. Photo by Megan Hirons.
In the West, critics and popular imagination have long dismissed metal as unserious, adolescent stuff. Across the ocean, forget it: this is one of the gutsiest musical movements in the world — and they mean every damn word.
And now, from Alexandria, Massive Scar Era…
For contrast, Lebanese band Oath to Vanquish…
…and lastly, yes, Acrassicauda.
“We need to have peace, even just to have these guys come over for a show in Tel Aviv.”
-Israeli music writer Alon Miasnikov, on Oath to Vanquish
“From a very early age we were taught to take sides, to differentiate between ourselves and the other sects and ethnicities. But at the same time I started to love rock n’ roll, I started to ask questions, such as ‘Why are we fighting?’ ‘Why would I hate a Christian?’ ‘What’s the difference between us?’ And this made me doubt everything and question everything, challenging everybody.”
-Moe Hamzeh, in Mark LeVine’s Heavy Metal Islam
Hamzeh was looking out over 1 million people — a mass that had, peacefully, finally gotten Syria to end its 30-year long occupation of Lebanon. In a meme-spreading effort, U.S. State Department types immediately dubbed it the Cedar Revolution. For the Lebanese it was the “Independence Uprising” or the “Cedar Spring.” He later recalled to LeVine that he felt “there was really a chance for a sincere change, the kind Bob Marley sang about in ‘Redemption Song.'”
The Kordz and Lebanese metal scene put fire in the Cedar Spring’s veins: their fans showing up in droves to the protests. They took the lead in part because the older generation, embittered by years of war and occupation, didn’t believe that sort of change was possible.
But, like the Prague Spring before it, for all that the Cedar protesters accomplished, they also saw their grandest dreams dashed by political infighting and the monumentally stupid July War.
Take that into account when you hear Hamzeh croon, almost cheerily “Don’t you know we’re gonna die/so stop counting the ways/Let us live while we’re alive” Consider where and of what he speaks. There’s blood in those words.
And not just in Lebanon. In Gaza, British reporter Johann Hari finds the kids not brainwashed Hamas-bots, but spouting Metallica (“I am dying to live/Cry out/I’m trapped under ice”) and stashing CDs and T-shirts away from Hamas’ fanatics.
LeVine’s book, while somewhat mistitled (Israeli musicians play an important role, as do Maronite and Coptic Christians) is the best chronicle out there on this movement. He goes doggedly from Morocco to Pakistan to make sense of it, providing a Rosetta Stone to an oft-ignored musical world in the process.
There’s a panoply of cultures in the Middle East, and their musical styles and ways of adapting to the repression they face vary accordingly. More than one country has had “Satanic Metal Affairs,” a diplomatic-sounding phrase that roughly translates to “the powers-that-be got scared of the metalheads and started beating the shit out of them.” In 1997, Egypt’s Grand Mufti called for the death penalty if the “metaliens” didn’t repent. The police promptly arrested over 100 of them, crushing the scene there for almost a decade.
But the bastards don’t always win. In 2003, Morocco’s government convicted 14 metal fans and musicians on charges like “shaking the foundations of Islam” and being “satanists who recruited for an international cult of devil-worship.” This time, however, the would-be victims fought back, staging massive rallies and concerts outside the court-house. The backlash got international media attention, and the prisoners went free.
The music seems to find a way to get out. Iran’s regime is among the most repressive, forcibly cutting metal fan’s hair and crushing concerts outright. So the bands take it online, like this particularly raw piece from Arthimoth:
It’s easy to see what they’re afraid of. If Egyptian metal musicians rave about Israeli band Orphaned Land, and Israelis about Lebanese metal, then the terminal dividing lines that benefit generals and dictators begin to blur. The fates of Eastern Europe’s tyrants are not that far away in history: often change is only an anthem away.
The dividing lines between styles have also blurred. Middle eastern metal overlaps considerably with the hip-hop and punk scenes, especially in Palestine and Israel, encompassing everything from Massive Scar Era’s symphonic rallying cries to Arthimoth’s primal growls. It was, after all, late Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti who coined the “music is the weapon of the future” slogan that’s become popular among Hamzeh and his friends.
There’s something refreshing, in a way, about these bands and artist’s faith in music to change even the worst kind of world. That’s a belief that seems long lost in the West, where music is too often viewed as niche or ironic, divorced from the tears and sweat of the world. It shouldn’t be so. The sheer courage required for Massive Scar Era or Sabreena Da Witch just to take the stage is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be.
It is also a reminder that alternative cultures have no borders, and that globalization doesn’t move in just one direction. Thirty years from now, metalheads worldwide may remember a day when a faltering genre was revived by powerful new influences. When it comes to the human need to be moved by song or cry out in rage, there is no They.