Image by Skeez. Creative Commons license.

On Tenacity and Heavy Metal in the Middle East and Africa

[Note: this is the introduction to my new mini-book, Tenacity: Heavy Metal in the Middle East and Africa, out next month.]

I didn’t set out to write about heavy metal in the Middle East and Africa. But when I was researching my last book, The Columbine Effect — particularly the parts about the Satanic Panic and heavy metal in the United States in the 1980s — I came across reports of bands in the Middle East experiencing a present-day Satanic Panic. I had lived through the U.S. version, and although there was a lot of fear and misinformation, no metal fans or musicians went to jail because of it. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest went on trial amid the chaos, and Slayer was nearly blamed for a girl’s murder, but the law was ultimately on their side.

That’s not the case in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where laws against Satanism and blasphemy sometimes become an excuse for police to harass, imprison or torture metalheads. In my research I learned about Bassem Deaïbess, frontman for Lebanon band Blaakyum and former frontman for The Hourglass, a Syrian band, who’d been arrested twice — and dodged police many other times — for his involvement in metal scenes. After I blogged about his ordeals, he reached out to me, and we struck up an ongoing dialogue. We turn out to have a lot in common, especially a frustration with moral panics and governments who use those panics to distract from more serious issues.

As I got to know Deaïbess, I connected with others in Lebanon, and then more broadly, including many who’d faced police abuses. I wrote about moral panics and the mistreatment of metalheads for PopMatters, interviewed Deaïbess in more depth for Invisible Oranges when Blaakyum released a new album in 2012, and wrote about a cluster of metal fans in Cairo who were falsely arrested and imprisoned for Invisible Oranges in 2013.

Tenacity: Heavy Metal in the Middle East and Africa — a playlist:

Connecting with these metalheads on a personal level was, in many ways, reassuring. No community is a monolith but, in general, I found that we had a lot in common. Music is a huge part of our lives, and lots of us are ambitious, creative types who’ve been marginalized by mainstream culture. Many have an activist streak, sparked by government corruption, environmental devastation, social injustice and/or ongoing violence. Because of metal’s ability to express and release negative emotions, it often becomes a kind of medicine for those who love it. It becomes easy to understand why folks living in war zones, or places where bombings and threats of violence are commonplace, would be drawn to heavy metal. And why they would refuse to give it up, even in the face of police harassment, or worse.

I wasn’t the only Western writer exploring these ideas. Banger Films’ Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen released their documentary Global Metal in 2007, and Mark Levine’s book Heavy Metal Islam came out in 2008. While watching Global Metal, I was struck by a conspicuous absence: it didn’t include any women musicians. I knew they had to be out there, so I started digging, particularly on a couple of Middle East metal websites, Metality and Jorzine. I reached out to dozens of bands, and began corresponding with several women musicians, hoping to write something about what it’s like making this music regions where the deck is seemingly so stacked against them. Ultimately, those conversations wound up in a piece for the New Yorker. It ran at a time when mainstream stereotypes about Middle Eastern and Muslim women were very specific and very narrow — and didn’t include, say, an Egyptian woman singing death growls or an Iranian woman fronting a metal band when it was illegal for women there to perform in public.

Learning about these bands can help us understand how the complicated, volatile political situations in the Middle East and North Africa affect everyday citizens, particularly young people — as well as how Western involvement has shaped those situations. I’ve stayed in touch with many of the musicians I’ve written about, sharing their horror at regional violence and Western xenophobia, including the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. I often wish I could go visit them and talk face to face, share a drink, or give them hugs, but these regions aren’t the safest places for a white, female journalist to travel alone.

When I decided I wanted to release this collection, I wanted to offer something that hadn’t been published anywhere else. I learned about filmmaker Monzer Darwish, a Syrian metalhead who’d made Syrian Metal is War, a documentary about his country’s metal scene and its efforts to hang on amid the civil war, and began talking with him online. Including him feels like coming full circle, especially since he interviewed Deaïbess for the film. As I’m putting the finishing touches on this book, the situation in Syria is getting worse — the U.S., U.K. and France are bombing targets in the region. Darwish left the country in 2014, but his family and many friends are still there.

I want to acknowledge that, as a white Westerner, I am writing about cultures and history that are not my own, and doing so from a perspective of safety and privilege. I am likely to have gotten things wrong, or omitted important details. For the most part, I have tried to be a conduit for these musicians and fans to tell their own stories. They deserve to have their voices and music heard, and they also deserve safety, prosperity and hope. I urge you to read more about them, buy their albums and, if you’re in a position to do so, give them a wider platform.

In addition, a portion of the proceeds from this book will go toward Syrian Eyes, a nonprofit in Lebanon that provides shelter and aid to Syrian refugees. Lebanon has taken in more than a million Syrian refugees since the war began, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Getting to know these metalheads has deepened my understanding of why this music is so important to so many of us around the world. And it has strengthened my anger and opposition to any government, law or morality group that seeks to separate metalheads from the music that helps them cope with their most difficult feelings and circumstances.

“You reign in terror, as the world around you falls, succumbing at your feet/But never again shall I surrender my will to the ignorant and meek/The path is laid and I am on my way/Across the line of fear.” — Blaakyum, 2016