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July 15, 2008

Book Notes - Mark LeVine ("Heavy Metal Islam")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

In Heavy Metal Islam, Mark LeVine examines the subculture that surrounds Western music in the Middle East. Though the book focuses on heavy metal, rap, trip hop, and other genres are also explored as LeVine talks to the musicians and fans, all the while painting a vision of the Arab world that is rarely seen. Through the eyes of these music lovers we see rebellion and hope, and a similarity to young people everywhere.

In its review of the book, New York Times wrote:

"LeVine manages to unpack enough cross-cultural incongruities to mount his own most informative, valuable and moderately mad book... This conscientious anti-imperialist has written a swell tract in favor of a... Marshall Amps Plan... and his program is undoubtedly the first to enlist death metal as the spearhead of a new Peace Corps."

In his own words, here is Mark LeVine's Book Notes essay for his book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam:

I was not a metalhead growing up. To be sure, I loved Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Rainbow, and other first generation heavy metal bands, and even more metal's immediate progenitors: Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. But I came of age with the birth of MTV and its demon seed, "hair metal" (otherwise known as "glam metal"). For me bands like Ratt, Poison, Warrant, Quiet Riot, Motley Crüe, and other MTV hair bands signified everything that could go wrong with rock 'n roll: Instead of rebellion, commodification; in place of-what as a kid seemed like-deep lyrics, and blues-inspired virtuosity spinning at 33 rpm, came "music videos" celebrating overly-teased hair, spandex, bimbos and musical mediocrity.

Growing up in an inner city during the ascendence of hard-core rap, I missed out on the emergence of death, doom and other forms of extreme metal that exploded out of the underground in the 1990s. But while I was listening to Eric B and Rakim, KRS-1, Public Enemy and NWA, alienated young people across the Muslim world were discovering metal at its hardest and-seemingly-most violent and nihilistic: not just Iron Maiden and Metallica, but bands like Cannibal Corpse, Deicide, Morbid Angel and Death.

These groups, dominated by brutal vocals, blast beats, and incredibly complex guitar-bass riffs, found a devoted following across the region precisely because they perfectly fit the mood of Islam's generations X, Y, and millennial Muslims. Traveling around the region during the last five years doing research for my new book, Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, the reason for metal's appeal became clear: As one of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene put it me: "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal." Fulfilling the same role metal, punk and rap played in the deindustrializing cities of the UK and US beginning in the early 1970s, metal was a natural sound track for lives that held little hope for economic, political or social development in the countries as diverse as Morocco, Egypt, Indonesia, Israel and Iran.

Paradoxically, what made hardcore metal increasing popular in the Muslim world was that its messages of nihilistic violence, political corruption, and war without reason, purpose or victory, was an ideal platform for alienated young people in the region to criticize governments and societies that seemed to resemble the landscapes depicted in the lyrics of the bands they were listening to. "It might seem strange to you, but a music about death actually affirms life for us," was how one fan put it to me. An Iranian metalhead explained that when metal arrived in the country around the time Khomeini died, "it was like a flower growing in the desert" of the culturally repressive Islamic Republic

Wherever I've gone, from Morocco to Pakistan, I've met metalheads willing to risk ridicule, harassment, violence and even jail-"Satanic metal affairs" have seen scores of musicians and fans arrested and tried in Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Lebanon and other countries in the last decade. All live in countries where authoritarianism and corruption reign; what's more, for many the horrors of war, whether civil wars or foreign invasions, that are the centerpiece of so many great Maiden lyrics defined their childhoods. As a Lebanese friend explained to me, "If Iron Maiden's album covers are powerful to a kid growing up in middle America, imagine how they feel to someone who's grown up in the middle of the Lebanese civil war."

The following are just a few of the songs that inspired me as I researched and wrote the book. The original music is available on Flowers in the Desert, a compilation album of the best rock, metal, rap and punk across the Muslim world being released by EMI later this summer. For more information about the book, album and heavy metal in the Muslim world, please visit

Black Sabbath, "Lord of this World"

This song, from the early metal masterpiece Master of Reality, is one of the first examples of how heavy metal often raises issues that are the opposite of its hedonistic, anti-religious caricatures. I listened to Master of Reality endlessly as a kid, and the lyrics to this and other tracks from the album were the perfect antidote to the hyperconsumerist, amoral Reagan 1980s, where "greed [wa]s good" and cheesy rock even better. When Ozzy sang "Your soul is ill but you will not find a cure," he was, as far as I was concerned, singing to the "evil possessors" who ran the world. Little did I know that kids across the Muslim world would have the same feeling when Sabbath made it there a decade later.

What became ironic as I was writing Heavy Metal Islam was that far from inspiring Satanism, the songs' lyrics, like those of so many other Sabbath songs, actually affirmed traditional Judaio-Christian, and Muslim, notions of a God who punishes the powerful who use their power to harm others. But like Tipper Gore, the political and religious leaders of the Middle East never took the time actually to listen to Ozzy before condemning him. Of course, his antics in the 1980s didn't help matters very much.

Arthimoth, "Baptize"

This song and video, by the Iranian group Arthimoth, has come to define death metal in the Muslim world for me. Its driving riff and brutal vocals can stand with the best death metal ever produced in Orlando or Gothenburg. But it's the song's lyrics and video that really make it stand out, as they depict a young Iranian man being, quite literally, lobotomized as part of a dark, Satanic ritual that in the mind of Arthimoth lead singer Ali Azhari, is what's necessary to get young people to conform, or at least acquiesce to the values and politics of the Islamic Republic. Ali has been arrested several times for being a metal head, had his fair forcibly cut in the police station and jailed for making this video.

Hoba Hoba Spirit, "El Caid Motorhead"

Hoba Hoba Spirit is Morocco's biggest rock band. The group features a signature sound is equally inspired by indie rock, punk, and Ganwa-the Sufi music of Morocco brought to the country by slaves from Mali and other West African country over many centuries. Morocco has one of the most developed metal scenes in the Muslim world, and along with Pakistan, on the other side of the region, its music is incredibly rich, diverse and complex, featuring lyrics in at least three languages, and a blend of western rock and traditional Arab, Berber and African sounds. The hook of "El Caid Motorhead"--"This is Marockan roll, my rock 'n roll," pretty much sums up the uniqueness of metal across the region and the desire by musicians to claim it as their own.

Lazywall, "Cold Enemy"

Lazywall is a rising young based based in both Tangier and Reading, UK. For the last few years the group has been at the forefront of a movement blending together post-grunge, metal and traditional Moroccan sounds. When I first saw Lazywall at the Boulevard of Young Musicians festival in Casablanca in 2006 (the biggest festival in the Arab/Muslim world featuring metal and hiphop), they literally blew the headlining act off the stage. I was lucky enough to perform with them this past June at the 10th anniversary of the festival, and the 15,000 fans were even more enthusiastic about the band's new material, to be released on their next album later this year. This song, "Cold Enemy," is from their new album, and the riff, along with a middle section featuring oud and darbuka (which is not in this video, from this year's l'Boulevard festival), is a great example of how seemlessly metal and traditional melodies and instruments can be woven together to make a kick-ass song.

Orphaned Land, "Ocean Land"

Who says there can't be peace between Israelis and Arabs? Orphaned Land proves the nay-sayers wrong. The band is from Israel but it is one of the most influential in the Arab/Muslim metal scene. Go to the myspace page of most Arab metal bands and you'll see Orphaned Land listed as a friend. More important, the group, whose lead singer group up next to a mosque in Jaffa (the erstwhile capital of Arab Palestine and now Tel Aviv's chic neighborhood) and whose guitarist's family immigrated from Libya and Iraq, is considered to be the founder of "oriental death metal," a subgenre of death metal that explicitly weaves Arabic melodies, rhythms and instruments into hardcore grooves. So devoted is its following in the Arab/Muslim world that fans regularly travel to Europe or Turkey to see Orphaned Land play live, and a few-including at least one Saudi fan-have even had the band's logo tattooed on their bodies. Orphaned Land's message, that the "Holy Land" has been orphaned by the way Jews and Muslims in Israel/Palestine have desecrated it in the name of God, speaks to young metalheads across the Muslim world who feel orphaned by their societies.

"Ocean Land" epitomizes the group's signature blend of brutal vocals, hard riffs, and "oriental" sounds and melodies.

The Kordz, "Last Call"

The Kordz are one of the most powerful rock bands anywhere, thanks to vocalist Moe Hamzeh's incredible voice and guitarist Nadim Sioufi's creative and spiritually infused style of playing. Both grew up during the Lebanese civil war, and for them like tens of thousands of other young Lebanese, the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and other heavy rock and metal bands were the only sounds that could drown out the mortars, bombs and gunfire that dominated the soundscape of Beirut. Out of the ashes of the civil war-and through the violence that periodically rocks the country-the band has crafted a sound that evokes the suffering of war and hopeful fragility of peace.

"Last Call," The Kordz's first major hit in Lebanon and abroad, is one of the seminal examples of the blending of Eastern and Western sounds that defines Arab metal at its best.

Farzad Golpayegani, "33"

In Iran, just listening to metal is a potentially jailable offense. One of the few ways around the prohibition against hard rock is to record and perform it without vocals. This is not always an easy task, especially if the musicians are not that good. Luckily for Iranians, Farzad Golpayegani is a master shredder, along with Arthimoth's Ali Azhari (a good friend), the crème of Iran's rock guitar crop (he's also one of the best graphic artists in the country). Hearing dozens of his songs and performing some of them with him before a huge crowd at the Barisa Rock for Peace festival in Istanbul last year, it's clear that neither I nor anyone else misses the vocals in his tightly yet complexly arranged songs.

I first met Farzad at his parents' apartment in a Northern Tehran. As we sat chatting in his bedroom studio (where he records his albums, playing all the instruments himself), Ali Azhari and several other Iranian rock gods wandered in and out, stopping to say hi, chat, and swap stories and their latest songs.

I first heard "33" at Farzad's house (he uses numbers to name most of his songs since he can't release them with words). It's no longer one of Farzad's favorites because it's off his first album, but it's one of mine precisely because of how the song moves from intense shredding to a mid-section that evokes one of my heroes, Carlos Santana. I often listened to this song as I wrote my Iran chapter for Heavy Metal Islam, and performing it with him live was one of the highlights of my musical career.

Sajid and Zeeshan, "Free Style Dive" and "Have to Let Go Sometime"

Of all the musical "discoveries" during almost two dozen trips to the Muslim world to research the book, none were more surprising than meeting the duo Sajid and Zeeshan in the middle of Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provence and home of the Taliban-inspired insurgency. In fact, the idea of their being rock music didn't just surprise me; the day I first met them Pakistan's leading English-language paper Dawn ran a story about the group with the headline "Peshawar is not a place known for being very music savvy, and the idea of a band coming from there was surprising for many music enthusiasts." But Sajid & Zeeshan's improbably beautiful album One Light Year at Snail Speed is in my mind one of the most original sounding albums of the 2000s, filled with songs driven by acoustic guitars and vintage keyboards, recorded almost entirely in the home studio of the band's keyboard player, Zeeshan Parwez, using old synthesizers and guitars bought for a song at the smugglers' bazaar.

The duo's music, which features lush vocals that flow over techno and house beats, acoustic guitars, and vintage synth sounds, is far from the heaviest in Pakistani rock, but it symbolizes the the contradictions of living on the frontier of Pakistani society and identity, which produced both the Taliban and what according to Sajid-who like many Middle Eastern metal artists is extremely well educated, teaching environmental and human rights law at the Prestigious Peshawar University when he's not on tour-was the best record store in all of Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s. These two songs, "Free Style Dive" and "Have to Let Go Sometime" were among the biggest hits in Pakistan when I visited the duo in the late winter of 2007.

Iron Maiden, "Fear of the Dark"

It is impossible to imagine heavy metal in the Middle East without two groups, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. I always appreciated Maiden, but I didn't really understand the power of the band until I was lucky enough to see them perform live in Dubai at the Desert Rock Festival in 2007, just days after leaving violence-ridden Pakistan. Watching frontman Bruce Dickinson run across the stage in a colonial army uniform waving the Union Jack while the band blasted through their classic song "Trooper"--this in a Middle Eastern country once under British imperial control and today only a few hundred miles from the battlefields of Iraq, revealed just just how powerful a critique of war and violence Maiden's music offers. The setting couldn't have been better: 20,000 metalheads from every corner of the Muslim world coming together in what one described as the new "Mecca for Middle Eastern metal." A good friend of mine from Egypt who met me at the festival and is one of his country's leading shredders exclaimed upon entering the festival site, "Finally, a real metal community!"

So powerful was the show-people were literally crying when Maiden hit the stage-that I found the "cover girl" for my book, a Kuwaiti-born, American-raised college student wearing a head scarf and a Maiden sweatshirt there, and also experienced close up why Eddie, Maiden's demon-soldier mascot, is so revered across the region. When the band broke into one of their biggest hits, "Fear of the Dark," and 10,000 lighters flickered as pretty much every fan there sang along with the words, I knew I had reached the perfect end of a long and moving journey. See:

Mark LeVine and Heavy Metal Islam links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
author bio
author faculty bio
the book's website
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Library Journal review
Publishers Weekly review
Slate review

Beliefnet interview with the author
Boston Globe article by the author, "Led Zep, a Force for Peace"
Boston Globe article by the author, "Moderation Rocks in Pakistan"
Connie Martinson Talks Books video interview with the author
Freemuse video interview with the author
Huffington Post article by the author, "Shotguns and Munaqababes along the Arabian Sea"
Instep interview with the author
NPR Talk of the Nation interview with the author
Radio Pacifica podcast about the book

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)