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The Evil That Men Play: Heavy Metal in Baghdad and Mideast Metal

Faisal, lead singer of Acrassicauda, performing their original song “Underworld”

Faisal, lead singer of Acrassicauda, performing their original song “Underworld”

This fall, the night before the anniversary of September 11, local Middle Eastern arts organization the Levantine Cultural Center hosted a talk between authors Mark LeVine and Reza Aslan at the King King club in Hollywood. The conversation, however, wasn’t a political discourse, and the pictures projected on the wall above the stage weren’t images of war. Instead, the audience saw face-painted, punked-out kids and a girl in hijab and an Iron Maiden T-shirt at the 2006 Dubai Desert Rock Festival, illustrating what, according to LeVine and Aslan, is really shaking up in the Arab world: metal.

This year saw the rise of Arab metal madness. Both LeVine’s book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, and Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi’s documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdadcapture a secret musical culture whose proponents take real-life risks every time they attempt to perform, all for the love of the devil horns (praise Allah). The former is a map across the Middle East’s musical underground, the latter, a poignant story of one band’s personal journey. If what LeVine said is true that night about having more “uncomfortably in common” with Muslims than we think, and if heavy metal is no longer white-man’s trash but belongs to the universe, then Iron Maiden is the world’s savior, and the band’s mascot, Eddie, is the new peace symbol.

In 2002, LeVine, a UC Irvine professor and musician, traveled to several Arab countries in search of metalheads: cosmopolitan, cedar country Lebanon; conservative Iran; and the breeding ground for the Taliban, Pakistan. LeVine says he was in Iraq when he decided to write the book. “I was sitting in a relatively calm day in this very nice little café somewhere in Baghdad. I was talking with this young, brilliant hard-rock-blues guitarist, and well-known filmmaker, Uday Rasheed.” LeVine learned more in an hour than he had in the previous two weeks chasing jihadis. “If you start talking to artists, all these contradictions start coming through — and all these different perceptions about the Muslim world. Good artists are always able to see through their societies.”

That rock & roll sprouts in the unlikeliest of places is never a surprise; music always finds its way, be it via old music magazines, bootlegged tapes or the Internet. What is unexpected, though, is why these kids feel an affinity for metal and not the more dominant genre of hip-hop or pop. Surely, Celine Dion sells more records than Sepultura. And has anyone ever gotten rich (or died trying) wanting to be the next Ozzy? Perhaps not, but as one Moroccan musician tells LeVine, “We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal.”

“The mullahs celebrate violence; the metalheads critique it,” LeVine says.

Still, it’s not easy being a headbanger in the Muslim world. If it’s not war, occupation, religion or government, it’s the general disapproval of music that’s associated with Satanism and regarded as too Western (or, worse, pro-Zionist). Long hair and piercings get you harassment, and there’s industry censorship nearly everywhere. In Iran, the ever-changing laws regarding women still forbid them from performing in public without male accompaniment. Western music is banned from TV and radio. And if artists want to play legally, they must seek approval from the country’s Culture Ministry, which deems whether they are “Islamically acceptable.”

Maybe that’s what fuels the fire? LeVine meets bands with names like Hate Suffocation, Oath to Vanquish and an all-female symphonic metal group called Massive Scar Era (a kickass twist on mascara). Some play to piss off their parents or the government, some play to be left alone. But as LeVine learns, it’s possible to be a good Muslim or Jew and still be a metalhead. He sees kids wrapped in prayer shawls at a concert by an Israeli band aptly titled Orphaned Land, which also has an Arab fan base, while another Israeli band, Dir Yassin uses music as a unifying force with lyrics that “question the legitimacy of Zionism itself,” according to LeVine.

It should be no surprise that these fans bow to the classic metal gods: Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, Judas Priest and the world’s biggest metal ambassador, Iron Maiden. “It’s the iconography of Maiden,” LeVine says. “You know, Eddie and death and the warriors. When you have kids in the region, wearing a Maiden T-shirt with all the blood and gore, it’s an absolute critique of the official discourse in these countries of celebrating martyrdom, dying for the country, glorifying war. When you wear a Maiden T-shirt, you’re saying the opposite of all those. Maiden is a community. Fans can meet from anywhere in the world, and they’re bonded. When you hear ‘The Trooper’ or ‘Run to the Hills’ or any of their classic hits there, they mean something far more relevant to these kids’ lives than they do in Irvine. Kids in Irvine haven’t been to war, haven’t suffered occupation, haven’t had to put on Maiden to drown out the sound of bombs at night. As much as they’re huge here, imagine how much more meaningful they are to someone from Beirut or Iran, who grew up with bombs going off.”

While LeVine’s book is an academic study of a little-known, foreign subculture, the four kids in Heavy Metal in Baghdad put a face on the true meaning of metal. Counterculture artists in the West consider themselves revolutionaries if they smoke pot and wear a keffiyeh scarf. The film’s aspiring quartet are not only trying to keep their music but also themselves alive.

After a 2003 Vice magazine article, Moretti and Vice co-founder Alvi traveled to Iraq in 2005 in search of the only heavy-metal band in Baghdad, Acrassicauda (that’s unpronounceable Latin for “black scorpion native to Iraq”). What unfolds is a story of living in displacement across three countries, bookended by American troops and terrorists on one side, and immigration bureaucrats on the other. Armed with flak jackets, a bulletproof SUV and a small army of gun-toting security forces, the filmmakers followed the band, all affable, early 20somethings: singer Faisal, guitarist Tony, bassist Firas and drummer Marwan. They learned English by watching American movies and listening to bootleg copies of Metallica, Slayer and Mayhem. “If you wanna know where’s the attraction,” Marwan explains, “look around. We are living in a heavy-metal world.”

They carried guns to their practice space and powered their amps with gas generators. Goatees get you harassed as well, and headbanging is frowned upon because it too closely mimics Jewish prayer. The band only played a handful of shows during its entire existence, including one Vice-sponsored gig in front of a small, all-male audience in a hotel banquet hall, where the electricity kept cutting off, and the band had to pack up before the 7 p.m. curfew. Both the hotel and their practice were eventually bombed, and their instruments were destroyed.

The story gets worse: Without their families, the four relocated to Damascus, Syria, which borders Iraq and is home to more than a million Iraqi refugees. The band manages to make it into a studio to record a few tracks, which are available on their MySpace page (www.myspace.com/wwwacrassicaudas5com). But due to their refugee status, they live as second-class citizens, are unable to work legally and forced to sell their equipment.

After the Syrian government threatened to deport them, the band relocated again, in 2007, this time to Istanbul, where they are allowed to perform. After reading about the documentary, Metallica contacted the filmmakers in hopes of having Acrassicauda open for them at this year's Ozzfest. The Turkish government denied them their Visas. Despite more setbacks, the band carries on; the film’s Web site continues to take donations.

As for LeVine, his work is not finished. In 2009, EMI will release his compilation of Arab metal bands, called, Flowers in the Desert. An accompanying documentary will feature interviews with Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson and Anthrax’s Scott Ian.

Heavy Metal Islam |Mark LeVine | Three Rivers Press

Heavy Metal in Baghdad | Vice Films