While metalheads are generally doomed to feel a bit out of place outside of our own communities, when we're communing with our own kind, it tends to be on our terms. We gravitate to shows, to record shops, and, if not to metal pubs, then at least to the kind of dives that might have Creedence on the jukebox and staff who won't sneer if you've got a flame-belching goat on your T-shirt. Accordingly, the event at which I found myself on April 5—a panel discussion entitled 'Art as Defiance in the Middle East'—ranked pretty highly on the fish-out-of-water scale, taking me to London's impossibly-exclusive St James's Square, a locale once populated by prime ministers, bishops and baronets and now the domain of oil companies and private gentlemen's clubs. The venue, Chatham House—more formally known as the Royal Institute of International Relations—is a respected foreign policy think tank which frequently hosts world leaders, business moguls and leading academics. That day, then, they were slumming it, because alongside a selection of well-attired, well-spoken gentlefolk they had me, decked out in grubby jeans and a Burning Witch shirt, along with a handful of other (admittedly better turned-out) rock types.
The discussion focused on politics and art in the Middle East, and how the former can serve as a means with engaging with the latter. Speaking were Bassem Deaibes, a heavy metal lifer, socio-political commentator and frontman of Lebanese thrash act Blaakyum; Palestinian visual artist Larissa Sansour and Dr. Bashar Farhat, a Syrian pediatrician, poet, writer and, as of late, refugee. The day's topic seemed sadly apt, taking place in the aftermath of a chemical attack on Syrian civilians that would, two days later, result in Trump putting his little orange finger on the big red button and sending cruise missiles hurtling into Syrian airspace. While the panelists were under no illusion that their respective crafts could avert such terrible events, there was a shared sense that what they're doing can at least make some sense of them and help to raise awareness.
Farhat, detained for 11 months by the Assad regime he protested against as part of the Arab Spring, has since worked with refugee children, helping them find a voice in a brutal and largely uncaring world. Sansour—frank when she describes the humiliation of being a second-class citizen in Israel and the hurdles it placed in her way—creates vivid, exploratory short films and is working on her first feature-length production.
"I worked with documentary before starting to work with fantasy and science fiction," she said. "Somehow reality is much more surreal than fiction. It became much harder for me to document the Palestinian condition using documentary, and I'd often have to defend [my work] because people simply didn't believe that Israel, which is considered the only democracy in the Middle East, could be violating human rights to such an extent." While the conversation was thoughtful and necessarily heavy, it is not without its moments of levity. "I can tell you with confidence that this is probably the first time Chatham House has ever played a heavy metal song," said Dr Lina Khatib, Head of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa Programme, the panel's chair and also Blaakyum's manager. She played a riff-heavy clip of the band performing live in Lebanon, and the polite laughter reverberating around the conference room following her comment suggests the kind of benign, largely-feigned interest most metalheads encounter after an unfamiliar family friend asks them about their musical preferences. "Metal has always been a political genre of music," said Deaibes. "It was born because of global political crisis, the child of the Cold War. Whenever there's conflict, it's a very fertile time for metal. Just as Larissa says, reality is more devastating than any fiction. You don't need to write about fantasy—write music about what's going on and it'll be heavy enough."
Later, once we've decamped to the slightly less auspicious environs of a nearby coffee shop, Deaibes and I mull over something raised by a member of the audience: the question of mobilization, and how art—be it poetry, film or music—can have a role in bringing about political change. After all, if recent events—Brexit in the UK, Trump in the States, the rise of the far right in parts of Europe—are anything to go by, there's a universe-sized gulf between the rarefied world of high art and the people who have voted in some of the most dramatic changes in a generation—a point archly made by English artist Grayson Perry to a roomful of establishment darlings late last year. "I don't believe that any art by itself has any potential to create a revolution," the frontman to me. "That just doesn't happen anymore. We're not trying to bring about a revolution—we're defying a system, a status quo."
The system Deaibes spoke of encompasses government, religious institutions and a national mindset with which he frequently finds himself at odds. Still, the country's history of civil war, occupation, and division is very much part of his genetic make-up. "I come from a family where one uncle was member of the Phalanges Party [a right-wing, nationalist paramilitary organization] and another was a communist," he said. "I was part of the conflict, and this conflict shaped me. I grew up to be politicized because of it, I learned how to use weapons when I was young because we were in a state of civil war. To live in this environment that is schizophrenic—very open and Western, yet very conservative and very religious—shaped who I am."
This latter point—political and religious conservatism—was instrumental in ushering in a strange, dark period in Lebanon's musical history: a series of witch hunts targeting heavy metal fans during the mid-90s and early 00s. The first crackdown followed the suicide of a teenage boy, echoing – albeit in magnified, distorted form – the civil suit mounted against Judas Priest after two young men shot themselves after getting stoned and listening to Stained Class. While Deaibes laughed off the first wave of witch hunts as comically inept—clueless customs officials looking for illicit hard rock CDs while blithely waving through blasphemous black metal ones – the second round was better informed and more serious in its consequences.
"The second wave drove fans away," he explained. "Certain bands were cracked down on. The cops would literally go into a club while the band was performing, drag them offstage, cover their heads, bundle them into cars and investigate them for eight or nine days with no one knowing where they are." Sensing a common enemy, politicians and religious leaders united against the evils of heavy metal while the frenzy was whipped along by a media only too happy to oblige. "There were crazy stories about metalheads butchering children and people bought it," Deaibes says. With the looming threat of arrest – Deaibes himself was detained twice, and asked endless surreal questions about black cats and whether he pissed on communion wafers—it was inevitable that bands fell apart and metalheads would change their garb for the sake of an easier life. Societal pressure resulted in more serious outcomes, too, with people losing friends, partners and jobs because of the stigma attached to heavy metal devilry.
To me, this sense of Satanic panic seemed at odds with a country that outwardly projects a sense of permissiveness and openness. "We live in a democratic system that is only democratic on the exterior," explains Deaibes. "If you go to the core—not just the political system, but the whole social structure—it's a feudal system. It was easy to crack down on metalheads because they look so different, and because there's an environment where people are still highly superstitious, where they still believe in miracles and still believe in demonic possession."
While things are easier for Lebanese metalheads these days—the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, war with Israel, economic turmoil, and the Syrian refugee crisis perhaps represented bigger fish to fry than kids with long hair and Kreator shirts— the path is still not clear, with the specter of intolerant conservatism ever present. This means Blaakyum and their comrades have to tread carefully, conceding aesthetic or semantic points for the sake of bigger personal victories. "With our first album [2012's Lord Of The Night] I talked about societal issues, but I wasn't… straightforward," says Deaibes. "We didn't dare. We wanted to make a record that we could actually put out, rather than have to hide and smuggle."
Similarly, organizing an upcoming show for tour buddies Onslaught caused much inter-band debate, since the poster—referencing the UK thrashers' sixth album, VI—was initially set to be splashed with Beelzebub's favorite three-digit number. "I was the one refusing to take the 666 out, but the rest of the band who are younger – and more sensible—disagreed. I understand them – it makes sense not to risk the concert and let a new generation experience it. But I believe making concessions to get things done is just a first phase. It shouldn't remain so. Things are moving forward, though, and I believe that things will change."
These changes, it has to be said, will likely incremental, particularly since Blaakyum is operating in an environment where its frontman receives death threats for deigning to criticize a prominent politician. As a weary-looking coffee shop staffer hustles us along, Deaibes repeats a point he made earlier during the panel session. "The Middle East is fertile ground for metal," he says. "This is because metal, sadly, depends on oppression and being fucked in life. We're angry, we're hurt and we're living all this in the first person."
Alex Deller is defiant on Twitter.