Jan 30th, 2012

Heavy Metal Islam

Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam
By Mark LeVine

We would like to make you guys aware of a very interesting book, "Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam" which has recently been published by Mark LeVine. It describes in great detail what is happening with Metal in the Muslim world, giving us the background and describing the difficulties, often highly dangerous, encountered by Metal fans and bands there and also what it means to them. If you are at all interested in Metal and its cultural significance to fans in unexpected areas of the planet it is well worth checking this out. (Details of how to purchase it are at the bottom of this introduction).

We first became aware of the burgeoning impact of Metal on the Islamic countries when Maiden played the excellent Desert Rock Festival in 2007 in Dubai. The night we played was sold out for the first time with some 15,000 Metal and Maiden fans, but this was not an audience of ex-pat Metal fans from the West who happened to be there, this was a largely an Arab audience who travelled in from throughout the Middle East and further afield -- of course from the United Arab Emirates but also from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Oman, Palestine, Turkey, Saudi, Lebanon, Kuwait, India, Armenia, Moldovia along with some fans from Canada, Japan, South America, South Africa, USA, UK, Sweden, Finland, Holland and probably many more ....amazing!!!! It was a real melting pot of many nations. The reaction was intense and there was a real feeling that the concert was so very significant to many of those who had travelled long distances to be there and who had never had the chance to see the band before.

However, even considering this, we didn't fully realize at the time the importance of the event to Metal fans there and it was not until a year later, meeting Mark LeVine and becoming acquainted with this recently published book that we began to understand the extent and importance of what was happening with Metal in the Muslim countries. Mark is a musician, author and professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and he contacted me a couple of weeks prior to our shows at Irvine Meadows, California on May 30 and 31 this year. He told us about his book and himself and asked if he could interview Bruce and myself for some documentary footage about the book. Impressed by his credentials and fascinated by what he was saying, we readily agreed and met up prior to the show on May 31. We chatted at length and he explained the growth and importance of Metal to many people in the Islamic countries. It quickly became clear how helpful this could be at a time of general misunderstandings between the Islam and the West and that any bridge could further a better mutual understanding and links between the cultures. Metal is very communal and can provide a basis of contact between people, but it was also staggering to learn from the book and from Mark what fans and musicians have to go through in some of these countries just to have the freedom to listen to and to play the music they prefer. This is currently being brought home most effectively with the current documentary "Heavy Metal in Baghdad" about the Iraqi band Acrassicauda and what they have to go through on a daily basis just to rehearse.

Rather than try to give you more of an insight into what is happening with Metal  in these regions myself, let Mark tell some of this fascinating story -

The Creation of a Middle Eastern Metal Community
by Mark LeVine

"Finally, a real metal community!"

It was a hot March afternoon, and my friend Marz, one of the premier metal guitarists in Egypt, had just spent several hours in the desert being interviewed for "Global Metal," the sequel to the documentary "Metal: A Headbanger's Journey" directed by the Canadian documentary film maker Sam Dunn. We caught sight of each other as he entered the field of the Dubai Desert Rock Festival, known as the Mecca of the Middle Eastern metal scene. Marz surveyed the crowd of 20,000 metalheads, most of them Arab kids, quite a few of the girls in the metal equivalent of what has come to be known as "muhajababe" outfits--head scarves over Iron Maiden and Metal T-shirts with tight jeans. He had trouble taking it all in.

Though exhausted from the heat, Marz had the wide-eyed, wondrous grin of a boy who'd suddenly walked into the world's biggest candy store. "I never thought I'd see something like this in the Middle East," he confessed later as we walked around the giant stage, chatting with members of the Atlanta-based group Mastodon while we all watched the Swedish death metal band In Flames run through a powerhouse set.

Already in its third year, Desert Rock's headliners included Incubus, Prodigy, Robert Plant and, in the biggest moment in Middle Eastern metal history, Iron Maiden. I have been a fan of Maiden since the 1980s, but -I must admit- as a guitarist I always paid more attention to the music than the lyrics or imagery that have so defined the band. But somehow, standing in an Arab country, only a few hundred miles from the ongoing Iraq war, Maiden's signature blend of cartoonish violence, humor, and powerful story-telling made more sense than it had ever done listening to the band as a kid in New Jersey and New York.

In fact, Maiden never seemed more relevant to me than standing amidst so many metalheads who've lived through the mindless violence caricatured on the band's A Matter of Life and Death album cover. Seeing Eddie in a tank in Dubai is quite a different experience than in London, Wacken or Irvine, CA, where I caught up with the band again this past spring.

I have been to some amazing shows in my life: the first Zeppelin reunion at Live Aid, Santana playing in honor of Hendrix at Woodstock '94, Rage Against the Machine playing through the haze of tear gas outside the Democratic Convention in 2000. But few crowds have erupted with more energy than did the fans at Desert Rock when Maiden, with its full twenty-ton stage show, hit the stage. And I don't think I've witnessed a more poignant moment at a concert than when the crowd sang Maiden's anthem, "Fear of the Dark" in unison with Bruce Dickinson, lighters aloft in one hand, cell phones in the other to record the moment for You Tube posterity.

Audience members were literally in tears. One girl, in a muhajababe outfit, told me that she'd been waiting her whole life for this moment. Dickinson was also blown away. "This is our first time playing in an Arab country." he told the audience, visibly taken aback by the crowd's reaction to the previous song. "I know Dubai is the melting pot. Everybody is here. We have people from Saudi, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Lebanon, Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, Australian, Wales, Americans, Canadians, Kuwait. We have the whole world, just about, here tonight... And we'll be back."

Hearing all those fans sing most every word of every Maiden song in Dubai, coupled with Marz's feeling of "community" with his fellow metaliens (as metalheads often call themselves in Egypt), that led me to understand finally what it is that makes Maiden unique among the great hard rock and metal bands of the last two generations: stories and community.

Both Bruce Dickinson and manager Rod Smallwood agreed when I interviewed them before the May 31 Irvine show. "It's the stories that no doubt make us so popular in the Arab world," Dickinson explained. "People can relate to the themes, like war, violence, the futility as much as glory. And people understand the colonial imagery deployed in songs like "Run to the Hills" and "Trooper."

"It's also the sense of community," Smallwood added. "Maiden concerts are a real place of community. Any two Maiden fans can meet anywhere, and there's an immediate connection. People at shows treat each other like friends even when they don't know one another before hand."

I could attest to this first hand, as almost everyone in the crowd surrounding my seats, was super nice to my six-year old son, Alessandro, offering him ear plugs, and shirts and jackets towards the end of the show when it became a bit cold outside at the Verizon Amphitheatre.

It's hard to overstate how important stories and community are for metalheads living in authoritarian countries, such as most of the Middle East and North Africa--where becoming a metalhead is an act of defiance against a closed and often brutal political system, and a conservative and intolerant culture. There have been several "Satanic metal scares" across the region during the last decade or more; where the Parents' Music Resource Center demanded "Explicit Lyrics" stickers on some metal albums, in Egypt, the Grand Mufti demanded the death penalty for metalheads if they didn't repent of their "apostasy" during the country's 1997 Satanic Metal affair, which saw over 100 fans and musicians arrested.

It took a decade for the Egyptian metal scene to recover. What kept it alive on the underground level was the sense of community metaliens felt with each other. As so many fans and musicians across the region have explained, in becoming real fans--as opposed to mere "poseurs," who are universally reviled--they join a community where they feel safe to be themselves and express themselves. While the music the bands in the Middle East write and play is rarely overtly political, in a country like Egypt or Iran merely walking down the street in a metal t-shirt with long hair and carrying a guitar invites dirty looks, insults, and occasionally forced hair cuts in jail (as happened to several of my friends in the Iranian scene, http://youtube.com/watch?v=oUpwDJQodhM).

Given such treatment, it's not surprising that most metal heads in the region "play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal," as one of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene explained it to me. What other kind of music are you going to play when you live in a country governed by corrupt and authoritarian rulers, with little economic or political opportunity or hope for the future, and where the dominant culture thinks you are a Satan-worshipper because of the music you listen to?

Metal fans and musicians around the Muslim world are truly challenging their political systems, and their society, by their choice of music, clothes, and friends--and most of all, by creating a community that can't be controlled or easily policed by the state or religious leaders. That's why the fans at Maiden's first show in Dubai were so stoked. For the first time, they could look around and see tens of thousands of people who looked and thought like them, whom they could be themselves with and with whom they could forge instant friendships. The feeling of freedom and community was hard to contain.

But ultimately it's more than just community that has made the metal scenes so important and popular across the Muslim world. As one of the pioneers of the Iranian metal scene put it to me, when the music of Iron Maiden and other classic metal groups first arrived in his country in the 1980s, "it was like a flower growing in the Desert." Another Iranian metal pioneer added, "It's hard for people who aren't into metal to understand how a music about death can actually affirm life, and be so positive, but that's what metal means to us."

Sometimes, however, affirming life demands political action. This is precisely what happened in Morocco during the country's Satanic Metal affair in 2003, when fourteen metal fans and musicians were arrested, charged and convicted of the absurd crime of being "satanists who recruited for an international cult of devil-worship," and of "shaking the foundations of Islam," "infringing upon public morals," "undermining the faith of a Muslim," and "attempting to convert a Muslim to another faith"--as if rock-'n-roll were a religion on par with Islam.

But unlike in Egypt, and countries like Iran and Lebanon that also had Satanic metal affairs, the strategy of scaring musicians into silence did not work in Morocco. In one of the only events of its kind in the history of the modern Arab/Muslim world, the kids--the metalheads--fought back, joined by a large swath of civil society. They fought the verdicts, staged metal concerts outside the court house, got the international (and especially French) press involved, and ultimately managed to force the overturning of the verdicts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7q_krGuvrlA).

Naturally, the metal scene grew even more after this. The Boulevard des jeunes musiciens (Boulevard of young musicians, boulevard.ma), the grass roots rock, metal and hiphop festival started by the founders of the metal scene in 1999, became an international event each year, attracting tens of thousands of fans a day and acts such as Moonspell and Kreator. As important, up and coming Moroccan bands such as Lazywall, Syncopea, Despotism, and Reborn, were able to hold their own--and even outshine--the veteran foreign acts (http://youtube.com/watch?v=jFtsoLYaI_o).

On top of that, many of the bands are blending together death metal and other hard-core styles, with local instruments and genres of music (especially various forms of Sufi-inspired "roots" music), and lyrics sung and rapped in Arabic (and in the native languages of other countries of the region), in ways that are creating new and innovative styles that could well redefine rock as much as the pioneering Euro-American groups of the last forty years did before them. And the coming together of musicians from countries like Morocco, Iran, the UK, the US, Algeria, France and other countries who are officially supposed to be adversaries, if not enemies, is a great example of how music helps create new stories and new communities that challenges the over-hyped idea of a "clash of civilizations and the endless wars it demand.

As many a Middle Eastern metal fan has explained to me, for governments or extremist groups bent on violence soldiers are told they are dying for a cause. But we know better. At least with Eddie or the imagery of groups like Cannibal Corpse and Napalm Death it's clear that we're dying for nothing.

Last week (June 18-22) the 10th anniversary of the Boulevard Festival was held in Casablanca. The organizers now have so many Moroccan groups to choose from, they didn't feel the need to invite any big name foreign artists. As I performed with the group Lazywall during its hour long powerhouse set (http://youtube.com/watch?v=mT6W9KkZTsU), the reactions of the sea of fans before us validated that strategy. Whether they had green spiked hair or were wearing hejabs, fans were headbanging, moshing, and screaming with the same abandon you see at any other great metal show. Moroccan metal, and Middle East rock more broadly, has arrived, and in the coming years there's not doubt it will change the face, and sound, of rock 'n roll.

Mark LeVine is a musician, author and professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. This article is drawn from his book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, being published by Three Rivers Press/Random House on July 8, 2008, with an accompanying compilation album, Flowers in the Desert, due out on EMI later this summer. For more information about the book, album, documentary or any of the bands discussed in this article, go to heavymetalislam.net


I hope that this has piqued your interest and you will go on to read the book. No one is saying that Metal will prove to be the saviour of World Peace and salvage the many inhererent differences and misunderstandings dating back a thousand years, going both ways, none of us are that naïve. However it is worth remembering in this context a quote from a remarkable speech by John F Kennedy in Cape Town in 1966 -

"The road is strewn with many dangers....First is the danger of futility; the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the World's ills...Yet...each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, these ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest of walls of oppression and resistance"

Metal musicians and fans across Islam are, by their actions, sending out some ripples and they are growing and if we can amplify those with support and assistance we should. It can only bring people closer together with more mutual understanding which is a start at least and worth a bit of effort!

If you wish to learn more, you can purchase the book at the following websites, something which I would definitely recommend - Amazon.com or in Europe Amazon.co.uk

Also check out the following links for pics and more info:
 - thenational.ae
 - heavymetalislam.net

Rod Smallwood, Manager Iron Maiden