Palestinian Rappers to Iranian Metalheads: Music as a Refuge in the Middle East

Orlando Crowcroft's 'Rock in a Hard Place' is compelling because you’re reading about people so passionate about their music, they’re willing to go to jail or risk a beating for it

Palestinian rappers DAM
Palestinian rappers DAM, pictured in 2012. From left: Suheil and Tamer Nafer and Mahmoud Jreri. David Bachar

“Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East,” by Orlando Crowcroft, Zed Books, 292 pp., $16.95

Saudi Arabia has a severe shortage of drummers. The Israeli hip-hop band System Ali has yet to find a fan who can speak all four languages it performs in (Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English). Iran is a prolific producer of black metal groups. And extreme metal bands have the very worst names imaginable, no matter what part of the world they come from. All of this and more can be found in British writer Orlando Crowcroft’s fascinating look at extreme metal and hip-hop in the Middle East.

Most of the countries he writes about loom large in headlines the world over, but not for their musical prowess. These include Syria, Iran, Israel/Palestine (his grouping), Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Crowcroft chose to focus on what he calls “two very different but equally controversial genres that would both go on to have a significant influence in the Middle East.” His book doesn’t really back that statement up, though – instead showing how both operate in the margins of every country mentioned here.

The book’s roots lie in a hot October night in 2011, when the writer attended a Metallica gig in Abu Dhabi and was bowled over by the passion the crowd – displaying flags from all over the Middle East – had for the music. It’s a passion the writer himself channels throughout the chapters.

Kirk Hammett, left, and James Hetfield of Metallica perform during the band's concert at The Rose Bowl on Saturday, July 29, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif.
Chris Pizzello/AP

Before reading the book, the only connection I made between extreme metal and the Arab world was detainees at Guantanamo Bay being subjected to the music at brain-rattling volumes. Now, though, at least I can also imagine Arabs voluntarily listening to the music at brain-rattling volumes in some dive in Alexandria or Beirut. To be honest, reading the descriptions of the extreme metal music didn’t make me want to hear any of it, but it did remind me of the sounds I used to hear when I lived above a dental surgery.

By the way, “extreme” metal is a very broad church, if its fans will forgive such a word. It comprises various subforms, including black metal (big in Iran, as noted), doom metal (big in Saudi Arabia) and death metal (big across all of the Middle East). All I can tell you is that most readers won’t be whistling a tune after hearing them.

If this book were recounting the history of extreme metal and hip-hop in, say, Scandinavia, I would have put it down after 10 pages. But this is a compelling read because you’re hearing about people who are so passionate about their music, they’re willing to go to jail or risk a beating for it. People like Pouria Kamali, lead singer in Iranian band Dawn of Rage, who was thrown in jail along with the other band members for trying to stage a gig in the country. After being released a few days later, he took the hint and was soon headed for the border, in search of a more tolerant state. As Crowcroft points out, there are only three countries in the region where metal and punk bands are free to perform today: Israel, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.

What shines through is that these artists take their music very seriously indeed, even if they only ever play in front of 50 people (and half of them are plainclothes police officers). Don’t turn up at a gig by Jerusalem black metal band Melechesh expecting to hear “Oud (Looks Like a Lady),” ney flute solos on Jethro Tull covers or that the support act will be called Adam and the Levants. These musicians are inspired by the likes of Tupac Shakur and Sepultura, not Snoop Dogg and David Lee Roth.

Cover of Orlando Crowcroft's 'Rock in a Hard Place'
Courtesy Zed Books

Given Crowcroft’s self-confessed love of heavy metal, the book does gravitate more toward extreme metal than hip-hop. While the latter was a genre that emerged from the street (like in the West), metal was always a middle-class movement in the Middle East. “The ferocity and irreverence of extreme metal appealed to young men and women cloistered in religiously conservative towns and cities,” writes Crowcroft. “Like everywhere else in the world, it brought young people together in basements and bedrooms.”

Each chapter focuses on a different country, and some have more amazing tales to reveal than others. The chapter on Iran, for example, is particularly fascinating, chiefly because we still know so little about what life is really like there, especially in the more liberal, urban areas.

Blaakyum’s frontman Bassem grew up in Beirut in the 1990s and was arrested during the regular crackdowns by the Lebanese authorities on heavy metal musicians.
Courtesy Zed Books

Explaining the strong link between Iranians and black metal, Crowcroft writes: “What has tended to attract Iranian metalheads to heavy metal’s most extreme incarnation has not been its opposition to or denigration of religion, but rather its obsession with nature and ancient history. When Norway’s Immortal sing about mythical worlds, frozen wastelands and endless, snow-covered forests, Iranians recognize the epic landscapes of their own homeland.”

As in the 2010 film “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” Crowcroft paints a portrait of a country in which religious conservatism is constantly trying to keep a lid on a youth culture that inevitably looks to the West for inspiration. Hip-hop is unofficially banned in the country because of its Western roots, and – like many of the Middle Eastern musicians appearing in this book – anyone who wants to make a living playing “Western” music must flee their homeland and head to Europe or the United States.

That’s what Iranian Sina Winter – who founded a one-man (!) black metal group, From the Vastland – did, for example, after receiving death threats in his native Tehran and finding himself increasingly scrutinized by the Iranian authorities and religious zealots. He now lives in Norway and has no plans to return home while the ayatollahs are still calling the shots. He complains that Iranians see his songs as “satanic,” even though they’re really just about “darkness, forests, nature.”

It’s a common refrain from artists across the region, who must operate under the radar in order to survive – no easy task when your music doesn’t really lend itself to acoustic sessions around the campfire.

One name that, unsurprisingly, keeps cropping up in the chapters is Israel. In the 1990s, for example, an Egyptian newspaper claimed that the Mossad was organizing “satanic orgies” in Egypt based around the death metal scene, reporting that Israeli girls had “flirted with Egyptian men” and coerced them into joining their satanic group. Even funnier is that various Arab countries have claimed metal fans were really Israeli spies – because their “headbanging” was just like that of Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall.

Master of Persia is an Iranian thrash metal band founded by Meraj and Anahid, friends from Mashhad – a deeply conservative city in the northeast of Iran.
Courtesy Zed Books

In many ways, the chapter on Israel/Palestine is the book’s least interesting – certainly the stories from old Israeli punk bands like Useless ID and Nekhei Na’atza, and hip-hop act System Ali, which, with their more conventional musical issues, feel like they belong in another book entirely.

What is interesting in this chapter, though, is the interview with Palestinian rapper Tamer Nafar, whose band DAM is straight outta Lod (a mixed city in central Israel) and is perhaps the biggest non-American inspiration for other rappers in the Middle East. Nafar relates how when he started listening to Tupac back in the 1990s, he would go up to Israelis of Ethiopian descent and ask them to explain the meaning of words like “homie” and “Gs.”

While Nafar’s career is well-documented – including a recent spat with Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev, who accused him of promoting terrorism – rather less covered is the rap scene in Gaza, which is led by Ayman Mghamis. He formed the Strip’s first hip-hop crew, Palestinian Rapperz, during the second intifada in the early 2000s, and soon had to also contend with the ultra-conservative Hamas movement: Fight the powers, to paraphrase Public Enemy.

Bashar Haroun
Courtesy Zed Books

“It wasn’t easy to start rap music in Gaza because it’s a closed community and considered a conservative one,” Mghamis tells Crowcroft. “We faced all kinds of criticism at the beginning. But we continued because we believe in music as a positive weapon that we can reach the universe through.” Whenever he has been able to get out of Gaza since 2008, he has always tried to perform overseas – bringing his rap to places as diverse as Dubai and Dublin. 

It’s a fascinating insight into a desperate place, but even that pales when compared to the chapter on Syria, which is the book’s crowning glory. It’s ironic that while some of the other chapters sometimes feel like the writer is assembling his information from the other end of a telephone rather than the actual clubs, recording studios and bars where the music is played (even though he has traveled extensively around the Middle East), the one place he can’t access really leaps off the page.

It’s a haunting read – both because of the horrors of the civil war and the harsh realities even before the war began. Although there were music scenes in cities like Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo, Crowcroft reports, musicians in the pre-war years would often face hostility not so much from the authorities as the conservative public.

But, of course, the six-year civil war casts the longest shadow. Musicians like the Refugees of Rap – a hip-hop act from the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk, south of Damascus – detail the grimness of life in the war zone, even as they still try to make music. One of the group’s rappers, Syrian-Palestinian Yasser Jamous, recounts how all the equipment the band had saved for months to buy had been destroyed in the bombing, but at least they saved all the hard drives with their music on them.

Then there are the fraught tales of musicians desperately fleeing Syria, taking the perilous crossing from Izmir to the Greek island of Samos and clinging to song melodies just as tightly as their rapidly deflating rubber dinghies.

Heartbreaking stuff, just like their subsequent attempts to adjust to a new life in Western Europe, all the time pining for home. Just like the chords of a Metallica song, these stories reverberate in your head and refuse to leave.

This is an eye-opening but ultimately disheartening look at what happened when two Western musical cultures hit conservative, religious lands. Many of the artists featured here are now exiles, dreaming of the day when they can return home and live without fear, and perform without fear of being called Satanists (or, worse, Mossad agents). It certainly makes you admire the artists.