Heavy metal hit Egypt during the 90s. It started as a loose network of friends trading Black Sabbath and Metallica tapes smuggled in from the West, but within a few years, home-grown bands were playing for a burgeoning scene centered around Alexandria and Cairo's Heliopolis district.
Then, in 1997, the scene had grown too large for the powers that be to ignore. The strange, long-haired kids found themselves caught between religious leaders always on alert for moral corruption, a government terrified of any signs of dissent, and newspapers searching for the next scandal.
In Mark LeVine's Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Hossam El-Hamalaway, a metalhead old enough to remember those days, recounts, "All of a sudden I was seeing pictures in the newspapers of my friends, with captions under them describing them as the 'high council of Satan worship.' It was all quite frightening." The crackdown resulted in over a hundred arrests of musicians and fans, some as young a thirteen. More were simply attacked and beaten in the streets by the Mukhabarat, the secret police.
A decade later, plain clothes Mukhabarat agents still come to rock shows, snapping pictures of the bands and people in the audience. And there's still a pervasive sense of paranoia in Egypt's metal scene. The musicians LeVine spoke to were initially afraid to give a stranger tapes of their music or written copies of their lyrics, and most asked him not to use their real names in his book.
But LeVine spoke their language. Both literally--he's a professor of Middle Eastern studies who knows Arabic, Turkish, and Persian--and also in sense that he's a fellow musician who has played with Mick Jagger and Doctor John. Able to win the trust of musicians across the Middle East and North Africa, LeVine explored rock scenes festering below the surface of the most oppressive regimes in the Islamic world. In Heavy Metal Islam he writes about the harassment and frequent arrests they face, and tries to answer why, despite it all, these scenes continue to grow, attracting new fans and bands risking everything to get their music heard.
LeVine writes about Subliminal, a pro-Zionist Israeli rapper and also the mahajababes, young Islamic hipsters who combine their traditional veil (called a mahajabab) with Hamas jewelry and designer jeans, but his focus and heart are with the drop-outs--the "metaliens" as the call themselves--who use music to carve out small private spaces within a culture that often regards individualism as treason.
The lengths his metaliens go to are astonishing: secret shows, music recorded in underground studios and distributed across the internet. Almost none of the musicians LeVine interviews are able to make a living with their music; many have never even told their parents they play music. Why do they keep at it? Reda Zine, a founder of the Moroccan metal scene, explains simply, "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal."
A musical genre that emerged crumbling working class communities in England and America during the late 70s, heavy metal has always been the soundtrack of the young, angry, and dispossessed, words that could describe most of the population in places like Iran. LeVine writes:
Iran's mullahs have legitimate reasons to fear metal: it reflects the mood of a young generation (65 percent of the country's population) roiled by drug use, prostitution, increasing AIDS, and, most important, a nearly complete rejection of the values of the [previous generation's] Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps the best indication of how strongly the country's metal community--and, by extension, a large share of the rest of Iran's younger generation--oppose the ethos of the Revolution comes from the popularity of pioneering British metal band Iron Maiden... The images of war's violence and futility--particularly as embodied by the band's mascot, the skeleton-monster robot Freddy [actually Eddie], blundering across the stage pretending to shoot the crowd--served as the perfect rebuttal to Khomeini's valorization of war and martyrdom as the holiest acts within Islam.
As Ali pointed out afterward, "There are so many images of war and guns on the streets and buildings of Tehran, it's the same symbolism really," Except that the Revolution's martyrs died "in the path of God," while Iron Maiden's die for nothing.
A few of the bands in LeVine's book confront government and religious leaders directly through their lyrics. Most fear that becoming too "political" will result in even harsher oppression. But they all, on some level or another, are engaged in acts of culture jamming, taking the starkness and brutality imposed on them by others and making it their own. LeVine shows how heavy metal is the prefect engine for this sort of creative expression and how its creators won't be bullied into silence anytime soon.
LeVine has created a YouTube playlist featuring videos and concert footage from most of the bands he talks about in the book. Check it out.
Cross-posted on Kristopher's blog.