Rap and Metal on Planet Islam

The booming voice of pent-up Middle Eastern anger

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In a 1997 crackdown that put its stamp on much of the heavy metal scene in the Middle East and North Africa, police in Cairo arrested 100 heavy metal fans. The arrests followed publication of a photo from a metal concert allegedly showing someone carrying an upside-down cross. One newspaper reported that the house raided by the police was “filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.”

Muslim and Christian clerics were up in arms. Cartoons in newspapers depicted scruffy, marijuana-smoking musicians with T-shirts emblazed with the Star of David who play guitar while being seduced by scantily dressed blond women. The musicians’ critics portrayed them as Zionist agents subverting Muslim society and blamed their emergence on a government that, in their view, was in cahoots with the Zionists in allowing Western culture to undermine Egypt’s social and religious values. Interestingly, this criticism was expressed by many in the underground music community as well. A broad segment of Egyptians, cutting across political, ideological, religious, and social fault lines, accuses the government of failing to effectively support the Palestinians, acquiescing in the Israeli control of Palestinian territories, and supporting unpopular U.S. policies in the region.

Emotions peaked when Sheikh Nasr Farid, Egypt’s mufti at the time, demanded that those arrested repent or face the death penalty for apostasy. In response, intimidated musicians and fans destroyed their guitars and shaved off their beards to avoid the worst. A decade later, many Egyptian musicians remain reluctant to publicly discuss their music or lyrics, even though government policy has become somewhat more relaxed. (The regime of President Hosni Mubarak is currently more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and dissident bloggers than it is about underground music.)

“You can’t get arrested for being a metalhead so easily now,” an Egyptian heavy metal fan tells me. “They can still stop you in the streets, or stop your car if you listen to very loud heavy music. But when it comes to arresting they can’t now unless you have some sort of drugs on you. It’s not that the law is more liberal now. Rather, it’s because the whole media is not so interested to know about us anymore.” 

Morocco’s bow to popular pressure and Egypt’s recent shift of focus highlight a lesson most Arab regimes have yet to learn: The velvet glove is often more effective than the baton. The more mainstream underground music becomes and the less censorship it endures, the less socially and politically potent it may become.

But as long as there is discontent to be expressed, there will be musicians eager to channel it. Even if metal and hip-hop lose their bite, LeVine predicts, the “cultural avant-garde of youth culture will naturally search for other genres of music to express the anger, anxieties, and despair that originally made the music so powerful.” 

James M. Dorsey (jmdorsey@questfze.com), a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, writes about social trends in the Muslim world as well as ethnic and religious conflict.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Warty||

  • Amakudari||

    Man, IMO that Scarab song owns Nile's. I was disappointed to find out that was Derek Roddy doing session drums for the song, too.

  • Warty||

    I once saw Nile. It was overwhelming.

  • buy rap beats||

    Yes sir.. Nile is nasty

  • ||

    Melechesh is better than either of them.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    The Mecca of Metal in the Islamic world is actually Iran. (Pun intended).

    Even though the Iranian religious and state authorities hate headbangers with dark passion of insulted Inquisition.

    There is a vibrant metal underground scene in Iran, and Iranian expatriates in Sweden etc. do have some good bands as well.

  • ||

    By Muhammed, they better stay off my lawn. Maryjane butts and beer cans everywhere...
    Also, you can't tell the boys from the girls.
    and finally, we need to ship some of our ?best? southern prosecutors to help out those judges, because if there is one thing us old farts agree on, we gotta keep the youngsters from enjoying themselves.

  • We can send....||

    Tipper Gore, who can teach them a thing or two.

  • Steve||

    I'm pretty sure Iron Maiden brought down the Berlin Wall. Maybe it'll work here too...

  • Amakudari||

  • Warty||

    Orphaned Land is awesome.

  • Warty||

    2 months ago 5
    why is this israeli band singing about iraq in 2 of it's songs?

    its creepy.....i may be off topic saying this, but just cause babylon was built by jewish slaves doesnt mean it belongs to them jewish ppl r more than welcome to stay in the land of mesopotamia, but not take over it .....

    Youtube: where Edward is an intellectual giant.

  • Amakudari||

    Gave that comment a thumbs up.

    But seriously, expand the comments and just look for the word Jew. It's a dog-whistle word for NSBM mouthbreathers in the metal scene.

    IsraeliMetalhead: You mean better than chuck schulilinder R.I.P which they obviously got influenced by him is worse than them and sucks because he is a Jew?

    Blackened666Death: i admit chuck was great i bet he was a self loathing jew.

    Also I envy that you saw Nile live.

  • waffles||

    I learned from a movie that jew is the only word that doesn't lose it's meaning when repeated over and over and over again.

  • ||

    You are a fucking fag. Abraham didn't exist.

  • Shep||

    Kalameh's a chick. Nice research.

  • ||

    Just out of curiosity, why is the kid in the gray striped hoodie wearing rollerblades? Do they get a lot of roller hockey on the beautifully-paved and immaculately maintained streets of Gaza? Or does it help in the getaway from the tank you just threw a rock at?

  • Observer||

    Put a sari on that kid and you're got a real story.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    Oh, well lah-dee-dah. I guess the sari is too frivolous a subject for a serious thinker like you. [eye roll]

  • BakedPenguin||

    What about the Four Loko?

  • ||

    I suspect hating on one's parents may be the beginning of all anti-authoritarianism.

    I think that's why I distrust all generations after X, at least in this country anyway...

    Don't trust anyone under 30!

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    History repeats itself. It's not the first time that music has symbolized protest in Casablanca. Plus, Claude Rains' line at the 2:45 mark may be the most ironically libertarian bit of dialogue in the history of cinema.

  • Predicador||

    Except for mentions of the king Mohammad and religion, the whole story sounds like it's about Soviet Union in 80ies.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Precisely! Same with Czechoslovakia. The campaign in 1980-1985 was particularly vicious.

    When I read the excerpt about a house "filled with tattooed, devil-worshiping youths holding orgies, skinning cats, and writing their names in rats’ blood on the palace’s walls.", I thought: My God, this guy must have majored in Marxist-Leninist Journalism in Cold-War Prague! (We had a fair share of "progressive" Arab students, so this is actually a plausible theory).

    Totalitarian movements and regimes everywhere are mightily afraid of poetry and music, if it does not appropriately lick their jackboots.

  • Robert Gagnon||

    Even music I don't see the point of can have a beneficial effect in the Muslim world. GO FOR IT!

  • ||

    James Dorsey, drop me a line in Panama, saludos, cabal tcabal@cwpanama.net

  • ||

    I guess Tipper Gore and the PMRC can start outsourcing to the Middle East.

  • ||

    It looks like some of the bands they're into are from that era too.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Your source for underground music from the Middle east...


  • Cytotoxic||

    I'm curious, how did dissidents get their hands on the equipment for producing music in the USSR? The Soviet was not very good at pretty such goods in terms of quality or quantity but was very good at not distributing them. Bribes?

  • Predicador||

    In Baltic states (then 'republics') some equipment came from relatives abroad. Authorities disliked that, but to my knowledge after Helsinki there were no efforts to stop even pretty expensive gifts coming in. In 1987, I knew a 17yo guy who got a spot with one of top bands because he had the first Roland D-50 within ~300 km radius. :)

    As for speaker systems, some Soviet produce was actually quite good. On the nets, you can still find people trading 25 year old Radiotehnika S-90's.

    A lot of amplifiers were home-built.

  • Marian Kechlibar||

    Czechoslovakia produced some fine audiosystems and they could be bought by Soviets visiting the country. We also had "temporarily visiting" occupation army of 200 thousand since 1968, and the officers and their wives (not the grunts) would typically buy everything they could before moving back to the "worker's paradise", where even toiler paper was scarce.

  • Quiet Desperation||

    They made amps from tubes they built from scratch! In the snow! Uphill! Both ways!

    Stoli bottles made the best pentodes, although Zyr bottles gave a mellower sound favored by Russkie hippies.

  • DLM||

    What gets me are the idiots (mostly lefties) who decry Israel as 'fascist', then turn a blind ey to real fascism.

  • Quiet Desperation||

    Kids these days. Whaddya gonna do? They got their Obama and their rock music pods and their X-Box live ranked multiplayer matches. Feh...

  • Quiet Desperation||

    I vote "Islamist police" as the most depressing phrase of the day. Can you imagine doing stand up to a room full of those guys?

    "Oy vey! This room is tougher than Chuck Norris in combat armor!"

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  • رش مبيدات||

    I'm curious, how did dissidents get their hands on the equipment for producing music in the USSR? The Soviet was not very good at pretty such goods in terms of quality or quantity but was very good at not distributing them. شركة تنظيف فلل بالرياض


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