Heavy metal and Egypt, hand in hand.
Even though plenty of Americans see heavy metal music as immoral, dangerous, violent music, there are are limits to what can happen to its listeners in this country. When Tipper Gore was waving her “filthy fifteen” flag at bands like Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P., and Venom, the worst would be that your parents might take your records away and break them or burn them.
Not so in Egypt. In 1997, police broke down the doors of some 70 homes and arrested the young men inside. Their crime? Being heavy metal fans. Some were released after two weeks. Others remained in jail in Cairo for a month and a half. The same happened in Morocco in 2003 — where 11 metalheads were acquitted and three were convicted of devil worship.
It was black T-shirts that seemed to cause the most offense. (“Normal people,” pronounced the judge in the case, “go to a concert in a shirt and tie.”)
Acrassicauda, the Iraqi band featured in Heavy Metal in Baghdad, was perhaps the only such band in that city — and ultimately fled, because their lives were in danger for playing and celebrating the music they loved.
It’s one thing to listen to this music in America, where doing so is an act of individualism, of rebellion. It’s another when you can be jailed or killed for it. Why would young men risk their lives just for a few heavy guitar riffs?
For Accrasicauda in Iraq, as it was for many in Egypt, metal is the only outlet available, and it becomes the only thing worth fighting for. These kids take serious personal risks in trying to put on shows, in identifying with anything “American”, in growing their hair.
“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” reminds us there are still real outsiders in the big wide world, and it is not an easy position to stake. The documentary depicts, among other things, Accrasicauda’s last Iraqi show in Baghdad’s Al Fanar Hotel – played to intermittent blackouts and the background accompaniment of gunfire – and how much the success of the show means to the participants. “If we cannot find some fun here,” asks one audience member, almost begging the camera, “then where?”
The devotion to metal in Muslim countries, where it is dangerous to listen or perform this music, can tell us something about why anyone, in any country, would do so. It’s more than just entertainment. Kids who listen to metal feel as though they’re part of a tribe, as though they’ve found kinship with music and musicians who understand how they truly feel inside. Taking the music away doesn’t kill those feelings. It makes them more painful.
Muslim countries aren’t the only place where rebellious music is suspect. In Uzbekistan, a state television documentary warned citizens that such music is “evil” and “Satanic.”
“This satanic music was created by evil forces to bring youth in Western countries to total moral degradation,” according to the documentary.
Thankfully, America left that sentiment behind (mostly) in the 1980s, though it still lingers in some parts of the country. It still brings doubt to parents’ minds when they see kids listening to, say, Slipknot or Dir En Grey.
However, this music doesn’t mean anything less to American fans than it does to Egyptian, Moroccan, Iraqi, or Uzbek fans. It’s a powerful outlet, one that many kids need. The fact that some fans are willing to endanger their lives for it only shows how important heavy metal is to all its listeners, in Cleveland and in Cairo.
What if your favorite music could send you to jail — or worse? Would you still listen to it?