In 2007, a small heavy metal show took place within sight of the pyramids in Giza, and under the red-eyed gaze of the 'mukhabarat', Hosni Mubarak’s hated secret police. It was called Egypt Music Gates, and it featured bands from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In many respects, this tentative show of love for metal hinted at the events that are ravaging the Arab world today. By RICHARD POPLAK.
On a humid August day in 2007, a heavy metal show took place in the neighbourhood that borders Giza. It was, in many respects, held in response to—and defiance of—a decade-old wound, inflicted on this small community by the mukhabarat. The organiser, an enormous 23-year-old named Karim, was arrested when he was 12 for … rocking out.
Those in the Egyptian heavy metal underground know 22 January 1997 as “the day the music died”. As some of those same few lay in their beds dreaming of dwarves running through Stonehenge dodging errant bursts of flame, a drama was playing out on their doorsteps. The dawn “fajr” is called, and machine-gun wielding Egyptian security forces in full body armour bust down the doors of some 70 middle-class homes, dragging the dreamers from their beds and locking them in squalid jail cells. According to the Guardian, the authorities amassed contraband ranging from CDs and cassettes (anything from Guns N Roses to Beethoven’s 5th), posters, and a black Bugs Bunny T-shirt.
There was official circumspection about the young convicts’ extracurricular pursuits: Questions ranged from the theological (“Do you participate in pagan rituals?”) to the morbid (“Do you spit on graves?”) to the veterinary (“Do you skin cats?”). It was two weeks before the public prosecutor, citing lack of evidence, ordered their release from jail.
Fourteen days in a Cairo jail is a lifetime. (Some were held for as long as 45 days). The press hysteria accompanying the arrests sent ripples through Egyptian middle-class society, stifling a number of then burgeoning music scenes, establishing a link between hard rock and Satanism in the popular imagination. The accused were reportedly strip-searched and afforded the same hospitality as Egypt’s criminal class. The raid was reminiscent of, and organised in the same manner as, routine dragnets that round up Islamist elements. This is neatly summed up by the (possibly apocryphal) story of a mother of two sons – one a metal head, the other a militant Islamist. When the cops knocked on the door that fateful January morning, the mother did what she could to clear up the misunderstanding: “No, no – Ahmed doesn’t wear a beard and he doesn’t go to the mosque! He has long hair, he wears black T-shirts with monsters on them and plays in a band called Scar Tissue. By God, you have the wrong son!”
The storm passed, as one poetic reporter put it, “like the coming and going of the khamssin” (the murder of 12 Coptic Christians by Islamic terrorists grabbed the national headlines directly thereafter). Nonetheless, the Satanic Panic was a shot across the heavy metal bows and young Egyptians have only recently dared pull their black T-shirts on again.
The Egyptian arrests were by no means an isolated case in the region. In nearby Morocco, on 14 March 2003, there was another assault on black-clad longhairs. Fourteen young men, all members of the country’s nascent metal scene, were arrested for a range of offenses including “possession of objects contrary to good morals” again, it was black T-shirts that seemed to cause the most offense. (“Normal people,” pronounced the judge in the case, “go to a concert in a shirt and tie.”) The Rabat arrests were met with a storm of protest – 500 supporters rallied for the metal heads’ release outside Rabat’s parliament building. In an appeals trial, 11 of the 14 were acquitted, which left three Moroccan metal heads successfully prosecuted for devil worship.
Watch: Music Gates promo
And so on. There are, of course, explanations for these government crackdowns that go beyond a mere distaste for thrash metal. As one Egyptian commentator put it, “[A] prominent Egyptian economist suggested that the government was using Satanism as a sop to keep radical Islamists harmlessly diverted while showing that the regime could be just as tough on more secularist threats.”
But perhaps the following explanation makes more sense: “Egypt was going through a particularly tough passage in its continuous struggle to come to terms with influences from the West, what the late longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer might call the ‘ordeal of change’. It’s not really the devil, or even the West with which Egypt is wrestling,” wrote the commentator. “It is wrestling with change.”
There must have been something in the pop-cultural water; there was a surge of interest in heavy metal from other cultures – and in particular Muslim cultures – while I was engaged in research for my book “The Sheikh’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culture in the Muslim World”. In 2008, two fine documentaries were released, both detailing aspects of heavy metal in the Muslim world. The first was a sequel of sorts to anthropologist/metalhead Sam Dunn and director Scott McFadyen’s “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey”, called “Global Metal”.
The tagline screams “7 Countries, 3 Continents, 1 Tribe,”, and it is Dunn and McFadyen’s contention that this most maligned form of western music has been adopted, transformed and absorbed into the cultures of embattled societies the world over. The film was an attempt to understand the nuances of cultural globalisation, rather than the mechanics of globalisation itself. The message was warm and fuzzy: “We are all one, united in metal.”
The second film was something of a revelation. “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” is the tragic story of an (or rather, the only) Iraqi heavy metal group called Accrasicauda, the film a means of understanding the Iraq war and its bloody aftermath through the eyes of four young metal heads. The film articulated just how high the stakes are for teenagers in countries like Iraq and Egypt – especially when they decide to hitch their identity to a pop cultural black sheep like metal.
To many, heavy metal is incomprehensible noise. I’ve always sat uneasily on the fence. That said, I’ve always understood the impulse behind metal, the rage, the noise, the power, the hair, the leather. The more dense and unlistenable the music, the more it is owned by a particular sub-culture. Hardcore music is not meant to adhere to any established sense of aesthetics – your Aunt Ethna is not supposed to get off on Rancid Animal’s “Scrotum Death Machine”. This sort of music is meant to be exclusionary. And in many countries in the Muslim world, that exclusion doesn’t merely result in arguments with one’s parents. It results in a fundamental argument with one’s culture.
Watch: Heavy Metal in Baghdad trailer
For Accrasicauda in Iraq, as it was for many in Egypt, metal is the only outlet available, and it becomes the only thing worth fighting for. These kids take serious personal risks in trying to put on shows, in identifying with anything “American”, in growing their hair. In his manifesto “The Psychic Soviet”, punker/professional cynic Ian Svenonius wrote, “this voice of rebellion, alienation, and entitlement has become the national paradigm. It’s the narrative of [American] culture. Everyone is an outsider (even the President), and everyone is proud of it.” What he’s saying is that in western cultures, we cultivate a sense of being outside the mainstream that buys into the very mainstream idea of portraying ourselves as outsiders. We’ve tamed the notion of being an “outsider”, because all of us are outsiders. This is how we’ve managed to subvert, own and “commodify” rebellion.
“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” reminds us there are still real outsiders in the big wide world, and it is not an easy position to stake. The documentary depicts, among other things, Accrasicauda’s last Iraqi show in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel – played to intermittent blackouts and the background accompaniment of gunfire – and how much the success of the show means to the participants. “If we cannot find some fun here,” asks one audience member, almost begging the camera, “then where?” It is the same question that could be asked wherever there is a metal scene in the Muslim world: Iran, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. It was the same question asked by many I met with in Egypt, hounded as they were by the authorities for their activities with Egypt Metal Gates, the small show I had travelled to Egypt to attend.
On a very basic level, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” warns us not to dismiss the appeal of junk-culture, and shows us how important a bridge between so-called “opposing civilizations” it can be. “There is a kind of universality with youth culture, a lexicon of common cultural references that can act as a dialogue. This stuff touches young people at a time when their lives are open, and it can be kind of revolutionary in that respect,” said the film’s director.
“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” has depicted the plight of ordinary Iraqis through a strange pop-cultural idiom. I recognized the adult weariness, the sheer exhaustion in the eyes of Accrasicauda’s members. I had seen it before in so many Egyptian metal heads, permanently damaged by their teenage brush with the Egyptian legal system. I remember one saying to me, looking at his feet, partly chastened and partly defiant: “We do love this music. We do love it. But we know the music is weak. It doesn’t have the answers that the great religions do. But we do love this music. And we will not give up.”
Misguided courage? A quixotic tilt at a windmill with a V-neck guitar? Why risk pulling that black T-shirt on, I wondered, when all it can lead to is more heavy metal, this time administered to the ribcage by one of those young men in the crisp, belted uniforms?
At the Egypt Music Gates show—a relative success with bands from Saudi Arabia and Egypt joining forces to bring the metal—I spoke to Sameh Sabry, a big, bald sumo wrestler of a guy, and the scene’s unofficial archivist. He told me, “basically, any society is made on human power. And for me, I consider this as emotional music – with emotional words, painful words. It touches my soul.
“My question to you is: Would you stop listening to the music you loved if someone was going to throw you in jail for it? If the answer is yes, then you don’t love the music enough. I have been charged for Satanism; I have been called a devil worshipper. Many times. My name has been in print – with my age, my school – in the paper. I was waiting for them to come for me. I did not change. I did not hide. You want a piece of me – come get it. But others are in to it for fashion – but I really believe. For me, I think the music we do is preaching community. There’s this community – and it’s powerful.
“I love the American spirit,” continued Sabry, “because it encourages you to be a hero. They make you feel big even when you are doing something small. And the reason why I love America is that I see the differences and I like the differences.”
Later that night, I sat under the awning of the adjacent patio, fluorescent lights flickering under a dirty Cairene night sky, flies buzzing everywhere, and considered that it was the same in Egypt as it is everywhere – a small gathering of Facebook friends, a social network bonded by a love of some esoteric form of popular culture, united in a makeshift community for however brief or long a period of their lives. There, in that roar of sound, were 200 young Egyptians trying to find their identity, trying on an Iron Maiden T-shirt to see if it fitted. Through fashion and music, they were able to assert some kind of difference – not from their immediate peers, who they resemble exactly – but from the “crowd”. This had been the essential impulse of the western childhood since the 1950s. It couldn’t be a bad thing. After all, where would all this aggression otherwise have gone?
Watch: Global Metal trailer
Outside, I met Ahmed, who had accompanied his sister, a reporter for the magazine Al-shebab – The Youth. His sister wore a hijab, and she stood out painfully at the show, wincing at every guitar lick, while Ahmed look heavenwards, praying for the experience to end. “What this is?” asked Ahmed, who is a biochemist. “This is so strange to me. The music’s sounds should be pleasant. It must be about the refinedness of the melody. It must connect to your heart. It must connect to your soul. Please Mr. Richard – I wish for you to think of Umm Khoultoum. Where is here the melody? There is no melody. How many people liking this music. This does not represent! There is perhaps – perhaps – 7,000 [fans.] And this in a country of 80 million. And half of this is youths!” His sister looked into the middle distance and spat something out in Arabic.
“I didn’t catch that,” I said.
“She says,” Ahmed told me, “that this is not Egypt.”
What, then, is Egypt? How, I wondered, are Egyptians supposed to reconcile the past and the manic present – how are we meant to make sense of the two – without bowing to some profound lunacy. And how were they – or Saudi Arabians or Iraqis for that matter – supposed to square their forbidden passions like metal with the religion and the regime that fills every cranny of everyday life? What I had seen that night was on some small level a revolution, or at least a concentrated act of defiance, played out to the fuzz and wail of heavy metal music. I had seen a small gathering of kids assert their right to rock out, but I had also heard from the other side: “This is not Egypt.”
No, it wasn’t. But then, what exactly was Egypt after all? Bent, poverty-stricken workers farming patches along the Nile? Aggressive touts peddling camel rides at the Pyramids? Men on their knees on astro-turf listening to the wail of the mullah? Sharp-suited ex-military politicos doing deals with the infidel west? Or metal heads and their love for a form of music that has few friends outside its network of passionate devotees?
The answer is, of course, all of the above. I recalled standing on the top floor of a skyscraper in Cairo’s Mohendessin district some weeks earlier. The view from the 25th floor of the Nahadet Misr building confirmed Cairo was more than a city, but an entity, carpeting the earth to the horizon, fading into a soft focus strip of pollution along the edge of the world, spilling off into the south, into Africa. It was an exceptionally clear day by Cairo standards, and as I waited, I amused myself by looking down at an argument playing out between a driver and a pedestrian 25 floors below me, then panning my eyes up and looking at the vast world in which this argument took place. The context – Cairo – closed around the arguers like a fist.
The context took my breath away. “Cairo,” said a voice behind me, “is Egypt.”
But by then, I knew that Egypt, like so many places defined by a profusion of definitions, is no one thing.
The revolution had begun. I watched it start. It was noisy, and it would continue to be. DM
Further reading: The Heavy Metal in Baghdad website, with clips.
Photo or Pyramid: Nir Nissbaum.