If you think the people around you don’t quite get your taste in music, just be glad you’re not a heavy-metal freak in Morocco. In 2003, 14 Casablanca metalheads, musicians and fans, were jailed for disturbing the public order and for possessing CDs and T-shirts that were supposedly anti-Islamic. For many westerners, the surprising part of this story is not that the rockers’ tastes were considered subversive by their elders (that scenario should be familiar to anyone who has ever been a teenager), but that Morocco has a thriving heavy-metal scene.
According to Mark LeVine, a history professor at the University of California at Irvine, the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa are full of such underground cultural movements, which go against western perceptions of the region. LeVine has spent much of the past 15 years travelling in the Middle East. He told the Georgia Straight that the Muslim world is not cemented in some medieval state beyond the reach of modernity. Nor is it a culturally and politically homogenous milieu dedicated to the destruction of all that we in the West hold dear. LeVine’s 2005 book, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil, touched on the influence of rock ’n’ roll in the Middle East and North Africa. It’s a topic that the author, himself a guitarist of some note, was inevitably drawn to, and one that he deals with extensively in his forthcoming book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.
“As a musician, I would just naturally start running into musicians and artists, and I started discovering this whole scene of rock music all over the Muslim world that just blew my mind, because it totally broke down all these barriers that one would imagine separate us from them,” he said, reached at home via telephone. “To see death metal being played by religious Muslims in Cairo just doesn’t make sense, even to me. And the most important thing was that, in starting to follow these scenes and travelling to places—whether it was Iraq or Iran or Pakistan, or even the North-West Frontier Province [of Pakistan], which is the home of the Taliban—you see that people are much more alike than we tend to think or even want to admit.”
Not that being a Middle Eastern metalhead is easy. In fact, it’s often seen as a rebellion against the very foundations of society. This is where heavy metal’s long and proudly upheld reputation as the devil’s music becomes problematic. “There have been what’s known as Satanic-metal scares across the Middle East, where the government has arrested people in Egypt and Lebanon and Morocco and Iran and accused them of being Satanists,” LeVine said. “Of course, they weren’t. Some of it is stupid. Like in Morocco, they were arresting kids because they had ashtrays that looked like pentagrams, even though the Moroccan flag has a pentagram on it. In Egypt, they would ask kids if they strangled cats for their Satanic rituals. It’s just nonsense. What it’s about is governments who are threatened by these groups of young people who are not under their control.”
As the crusading Dee Snider once said, however, you can’t stop rock ’n’ roll, and even under the most repressive regimes, fans find ways to get the music they’re after. “A lot of countries, like Iran, try to block MySpace or YouTube completely, but they can’t do it,” LeVine said. “The kids are too smart; they know how to use proxy servers and get around it, and eventually stuff circulates. It’s pretty much impossible to stop it.”
If the kids want it badly enough, they’ll find a way to get it. Here’s hoping that principle applies not just to abrasive rock music, but to harmonious relations between the Middle East’s many conflicting factions. According to LeVine, the fraternity of metal has little use for the divisions that keep the region from achieving a true and lasting peace.
“One of the bands that almost every Middle Eastern metal fan loves the best is an Israeli metal band called Orphaned Land, which is the founder of what’s become known as oriental metal, in that they were one of the first bands anywhere in the region to mix oriental, Arabic sounds into metal, and to not sing in English—they sing in Hebrew,” LeVine said. “There are Saudi guys who are walking around with Orphaned Land tattoos on their arms. Think about that one. You can’t even have tattoos in Islam, let alone in Saudi Arabia. And to have an Israeli band’s logo? That says something.”
Mark LeVine will give a lecture at SFU Harbour Centre next Friday (February 29). Call 778-782-5100 to reserve a seat.