Sounds of the Street: Music, Political Opposition and Street Protests in Two Powerful Books
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From music to dressing up to protest, the following anti-establishment books bring us the sounds of the street in the Middle East, and the methodology of making political protest visible:
Prior to the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, the two most replicated graffiti images on Middle Eastern walls and streets were Mickey Mouse and Tupac Shakur. Out of Tupac’s posse, it was Eminem who spoke to disaffected youth in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. His songs about the gang-ridden streets of Detroit resonated in the militia-controlled no-go areas of Yarmouk Camp, in Damascus.
Orlando Crowcroft in Rock in a Hard Place follows homegrown metal and Hip Hop communities to reveal many remarkable facts about regional music scenes: for instance, there are an estimated 1,700 band playing in Iran today. Before the Syrian conflict another vibrant metal scene centered around Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Music has always been the story of local scenes—how a little-known sound gains power and recognition.
The Eminem fan Yasser Jamous and his brother Mohammad, one of the few success stories in this fascinating book, began hearing the first song they recorded in the 160,000-strong Yarmouk Camp, coming out of cars and restaurants; it was a rap song about young love that found a following, even though it rubbed traditional Palestinian songs of exile the wrong way. Forced to flee Bashar al-Assad’s “kneel or starve” policy towards the camp, the brothers ended up in Paris and their group Refugees of Rap now play stadiums around the world.
The twin stories of rap and metal in Rock in a Hard Place are all that more remarkable because Crowcroft, who wrote for The Atlantic and Middle East editions of Rolling Stone and Esquire, starts his story before the Internet, when these musics were not instantly available. Future adherents discovered them accidently or clandestinely. Hip Hop, he maintains, became the music of the working class because it needed fewer instruments and mics. While metal was a middle class pursuit; someone in a family either had to travel abroad or had close contacts to people abroad and smuggled the cassette tapes—remember them?—and CDs across borders.
The scene in Iran was secret; it had to be. That country’s chapter opens with the flogging of Meraj Ansari from the metal band Masters of Persia, in Mashhad. Meraj, accused of Satanism, was given 100 lashes and then released. Nine months later Ayatollah Alam Alhoda described Masters of Persia, with its female lead singer Anahid, as kaffirs—unbelievers—an accusation that galvanized Meraj and Anahid to immediately leave the country. Ayatollah Alhoda had called for the Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, then living in Cologne, to be killed. He was, as Crowcroft reveals, “given a death sentence for apostasy by another hardline critic based in Qom, and an Iranian news website announced a $100,000 reward for anyone” who carried out the order. In Syria and Egypt, imprisoned metal-heads weren’t whipped. Instead live cats were thrown into their cells to see if musicians would sacrifice the animals.
Crowcroft has spent a lot of time at gigs and it shows in the cool ease in which he describes the support of Saudi Arabian grindcore band Creative Waste for the US death metal group Eternal Hate, in 2012. “The venue—a grotty Irish pub in a two-star hotel in the suburbs—was far from being an arena. In a city so well-known for glitzy malls, celebrity guests and tall towers, it was the closest Dubai had to a dive bar.”
Having women in the audience was also a change for the band, which spent more time playing in their bedrooms than in public. Music in the Kingdom is haram—forbidden—and often came under scrutiny by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, also responsible for banning snowmen, emojis and Pokémon until King Salman reduced its powers last year. For me, an ex-music writer, Rock in the Hard Place is pleasurable, hilarious and at times shocking particularly when the book repeatedly revisits an early premise: “Extreme ideologies need enemies to survive.”
During the Lebanese civil war, metal was making inroads among Beirut’s young Christians when Lydia Canaan began writing songs in the 1980s. At her live shows, Muslims shouted out the names of their neighborhoods, from the other side of the Green Line past the checkpoints and the snipers. By the late 1990s and early 2000s women like Yasmine Hamdan from Soap Kills and rapper Lynn Fattouh aka Malikah (“Queen” in Arabic) started recording and performing. By then rap moved out of the parking-lots and house parties to an alley in Hamra in downtown Beirut “where punks and metallers would hang out, trade cassettes and CDs and formed bands.” Then in 2004 a crumbling 1980s brothel, The Pavilion, became home to thrash, punk and metal bands and a scene, with all the attendant miseries—bad drugs—was on its way until violence stopped it.
During the 2006 war with Israel, heavy metal musicians Blaakyum wrote songs in bomb shelters. The war also changed the language Malikah rapped in. “I always thought it would be difficult to rap in Arabic,” she admits, “ … it is a powerful language … my vocabulary is much more complex.” However for many, it was the last straw, and musicians left the country. Long after the breakup of Soap Kills, Ziad Hamdan was arrested for defamation in 2011, after recording a reggae song critical of then presidential candidate General Michel Suleiman, yet again proving the subversiveness of music in countries hell bent on authoritarianism.
Despite the adoption of Western musical forms, the sentiments expressed were purely local. During Egypt’s January 25th Revolution, a little-known singer-songwriter rocked Tahrir Square with a sound drawn from a people’s long history of incarceration. Onstage 23-year-old Ramy Essam played the songs of the country’s best-known dissident poet Ahmed Fouad Ngem (1929-2013) and blind guitarist Sheikh Imam (1918-1995).
With the rise and fall of local scenes, many endings are bittersweet. Crowcroft leaves Ramy, now a refugee in Malmö, dreaming of Egypt, while Masters of Persia’s Meraj and Anahid still remain in hiding.
At a time when twenty US states are proposing new laws to stop protests since Trump came to office, Street Spirit, by Amnesty International’s Steve Crawshaw, is a timely compendium on making political dissent visible through objects—mirrors, hangers, flags, sandwiches—body placement (try kneeling nuns or underwater diving) and dressing up, as donkeys or clowns, to name but a few methodologies. I should declare an interest. My sister Marni Halasa wears all manner of curious get-ups, parades with banners and protests regularly. She and her cohort of Merry Trumpeteers would do well to familiarize themselves with this illustrated history of performed dissent.
The book champions better-known examples of public protest such as Pussy Riot and women driving in Saudi Arabia. However its strength are the forgotten or little publicized gems: Darth Vader visiting the Belgian arms manufacturer F.N. Herstal; the field-size clear-eyed portrait of a little girl who lost her parents and two siblings in a drone attack in Pakistan; #bigyellowduck in which tank-size rubber ducks menace the legendary lone protestor of Tiananmen Square or a blank space Indian Express left on its front page, when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency on 28 June 1975. Shorts essays on artistic strategies feature quotes by the great and good. Mark Twain remains a potent commentator: “Irreverence is the champion of liberty, and its only sure defense.” Although Ai Weiwei is a voice for our times: “Never retreat. Retweet.”