Imagine you’re on a road trip with friends. After a long drive through a sweltering desert, your car is stopped at a police checkpoint. The authorities search everyone’s luggage for illegal items to confiscate. You feel a rush of dread, because this is no trip across the United States or a European vacation. It’s Saudi Arabia, where possessing contraband comes with much harsher penalties. Your thoughts turn to your newest heavy metal album, which contains political lyrics.
Luckily, the shipping was late, and there are no copies in the car – you’d certainly be arrested otherwise. The officers argue with you about some artwork displaying inverted crosses, but they let you drive onward, mistaking you for a group of proselytizing Christians.
Now imagine you’re in northeast Iran, the same country where an Iranian news site announced a $100k reward for the killing of an exiled Iranian rapper. You’ve been operating a recording studio for your heavy metal band and have been sentenced to 100 lashes for the crime of satanism. You refuse to show your pain as the prison officers administer the excruciating punishment, which only serves to anger the judge. He orders 30 more lashes.
For most Westerners, music functions largely as entertainment, even when the songs are politically charged. However, in the Middle East, just engaging with music, whether as a musician or as a fan, can come with severe costs. This is the subject of Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, a sober chronicling of music in some of the most conservative countries on the planet.
The author of many subjects in the Middle East, Orlando Crowcroft’s Rock in a Hard Place, follows numerous bands on the frontlines of the scenes in Lebanon, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. Crowcroft’s skills as a journalist give him access to a wide pool of interviewees who recount the difficulties in sustaining any livelihood due to their oppressive environments.
Though many forms of popular music are contentious in the Middle East, heavy metal, especially the sacrilegious forms of black and death metal, is the most problematic. To authoritarian regimes, the uniform of black clothes, makeup, piercings, tattoos, and long hair represents rebellion, is mistaken for a cult, or is outright blasphemous. Heavy metal bands and their fans are seen as guilty of apostasy, a serious crime that can be punishable by death.
To avoid these outcomes, some bands flee their countries, knowing they won’t be able to return. Others try to foster a musical culture in their mother country, usually with meager results. Each country’s political history is intimately tied to the bands, and as civilians, band members are often found in the crosshairs of active conflict zones. As musicians, they are subject to the full brunt of the restrictive rule of law.
The courage of these subcultures is admirable, and their struggle is palpable. One Saudi Arabian band, despite being active for a decade, has only performed once – outside their country. Lebanese heavy metal fans have risked kidnapping, snipers, car bombs, and certain death just to attend shows. Within these circumstances, the sense of community among fans is the glue that holds the scene together. Fans, fundamentally driven by a love for the music, care for each other and foster places where the bands can play live shows. Many feel as if they belong to no other group, which only strengthens their resolve.
Others carry on despite mental trauma from conflicts that have ravaged their families. Ayman Mghamis, for example, was only 16 during the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising against Israel. He decided to begin rapping after his father was killed and his house destroyed in the Gaza City bombing during Operation Cast Lead. In these instances, Crowcroft presents music as a life preserver, an outlet to make sense of these harrowing experiences.
However, the bands sometimes exacerbate the already adverse situation by releasing intentionally provocative material. One example is Lebanese band Filthy Fuck, who named the first track on their first album “All Hail Allah the Swine”. Melechesh, from Jerusalem, composed songs like “Desert Pentagram” and “As Jerusalem Burns”, which led to a newspaper interview branding the band a satanic cult. Another band, Nekhei Na’atza, released an EP called Renounce Judaism.
Other instances are considered an affront to the country’s preconceived gender roles; merely leading a band as a female singer is enough to spark outrage amongst the conservative public. These bands are educated enough to know what they can get away with, but their existing persecution also leads them to lash out at their oppressors intentionally.
Among such somber subject matter, there are also moments of triumph. The Palestinian hip-hop group DAM eventually garners wide fame, performing with such heavyweights as Wu-Tang Clan, Dead Prez, and Talib Kweli. The group is the first Palestinian band to ever rap in Arabic. Yasser, a Syrian musician, risks his life by riding his bike through the conflict zone to his studio to rescue his recording masters before they are destroyed. With a bit of luck, he succeeds, and today, he plays his songs for thousands of people in Europe. Ramy Essam’s Tahrir Square performance drew a crowd of 200,000 when he performed his protest song “Leave”. The video went viral and was ranked 3rd on Time Out London’s “100 Songs That Changed History”.
Rock in a Hard Place concludes with a chapter on Syria, tying the book to contemporary politics. Crowcroft begins with a rare moment of poetry, unfolding the story of a group of refugees on a boat. One of them begins humming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, a surreal yet unexpectedly beautiful moment.
Syria falls in line with Rock in a Hard Place‘s other events. During police raids beginning in 2006, for example, music stores and studios were shuttered, and their inventories were confiscated or burned in the street. Syria would not hold another heavy metal show until 2010. Though Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly hostile forces made it difficult for Syria’s metal scene to thrive, it nonetheless continued through the years of its most intense conflict.
One of the musicians, Bashar Haroun, contends the chaos actually gave people more freedom to do what they wanted since fewer authorities were bothering them. He organized a live event named “Life Under Siege” in a cafe without electricity or running water, where the bands relied on generators to power their sound equipment. The concert was held during Aleppo’s worst bombardment, just after Assad’s forces had dropped barrel bomb explosives on the city. The metal fans sequestered themselves in bedrooms, the sounds of nearby artillery heard clearly through the walls.
Even in a war zone, the musicians remained hopeful. “During these hard times, you will die on the inside if you stop doing what you love,” one said. “We lost our country, but to preserve our souls, we had to do what we loved.”
Devoting each Rock in a Hard Place‘s chapters to a different country makes organizational sense, especially since there are disparate allowances and restrictions in each region. However, some of the stories become somewhat of a retread, and the journalistic style is dry, perhaps a function of the drastic material. The tribulations each band and many of its fans endure are important stories to tell, but many are similar. There is also a sense of remove when the book’s subjects are reduced to a few choice quotes.
Aside from providing a discography and list for further reading materials, a number of video documentaries are referenced throughout Rock in a Hard Place, providing a breadcrumb trail for further consumption and serving to manifest the people in the book visually.
Crawcroft’s most curious point is that the rise of extreme metal and hip-hop in the Middle East coincided with the rise of extremist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Crawcroft contends that “extreme ideologies need enemies in order to survive… alternative music, with all its associations, has proved a useful enemy.”
Today, metal and punk can only be played in three Middle Eastern states: Israel, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates. Within these confines, Rock in a Hard Place tells the story of a ceaseless struggle for people to see art thrive in the least likely places, despite any and all odds.