Head banging in Baghdad

By Christopher Garland

Despite the relative anonymity offered by a small apartment in the lively metropolis of Istanbul, musician Firas al-Lateef remains nervous.

The violence that caused him to flee his Iraqi homeland continues to haunt his daily life and he speaks warily about the past few years.

"It was a culture of pressure _ war pressure, death threats, bombings, and mortar rounds," al-Lateef says.

During the worst of it all, al-Lateef found escape with his band, Acrassicauda, and the raucous music they love to play: heavy metal.

Formed in 2001, Acrassicauda claims to be "Iraq's only heavy metal band."

Brought together by a passion for a largely white Anglo-American musical genre, the members of Acrassicauda embrace heavy metal because they believe it reflects the traumatic details of their lives.

"People think that heavy metal is a bunch of noise and nothing else," al-Lateef says.

"For us, it's a reality. It was one of the ways for us to express our feelings of rage and all the things we have in our mind."

The path for a group of young men with a passion for American "metal gods" Metallica and Slayer to a fully functioning band has been far from easy.

Playing heavy metal was dangerous under the regime of Saddam Hussein. With the conspicuous "headbanging" (seen as mimicry of Jewish prayer) crowd accompanying their live shows and accusations of Satanism dogging the band, Acrassicauda were ordered to play songs that lauded the dictator.

But ironically, under the Ba'athist regime, which had regularly engaged in the torture and murder of dissidents, the band also had a certain degree of security. Saddam's suppression of society had neutralised overt acts of sectarian violence.

Despite the suspicion aroused by the band's music, Acrassicauda _ a name drawn from the Latin word for "black scorpion" _ was able to stay together between 2001 and 2003.

"We managed to keep a low profile _ we just didn't want to get in trouble," al-Lateef says. "We carried on playing music right up until the war."

In post-invasion Iraq, sectarian division and religious hatred flourished. For a group of young men playing heavy metal in a society split between a foreign occupying force and Sunni and Shia fundamentalists, every day was lived against a backdrop of fear.

It was not long before Acrassicauda became targets of the culture of religious violence that has come to define contemporary Iraq _ the band received death threats and was forced to leave.

Like many other Iraqis that he knew in Baghdad, al-Lateef did not initially think that he would have to try to escape the war.

However, as "one year after the invasion life became worse" than during the initial stages of the conflict, his options became limited.

"Whatever I tell you about Iraq or whatever you hear, you really can't imagine (what it is like). It's not really a war-zone; it's a chaos-zone," al-Lateef says. "You're trying to keep alive, trying to keep your friends and relatives alive, and take care of the band."

Acrassicauda became refugees in 2006, joining the ranks of many others from the war-torn region who have sought sanctuary in the capital of Syria, Damascus.

"When we left for Syria, it was just an unknown stretch of time _ we knew that we had to go away until things cooled down," al-Lateef says. "Then we thought that we would try to play in a (heavy metal music) festival and then maybe go back to Iraq. We never thought about being refugees."

As the band came to realise that it was too dangerous for them to return to Iraq, the psychological toll of becoming refugees became an even greater burden.

"In Syria, things went from bad to worse. We realised that we were stuck _ we couldn't go back (to Baghdad) because we would be killed," al-Lateef says.

"Just like our practice space had already been blown up (by a Scud missile when the band was back in Baghdad), our lives had been blown up ... it's a nightmare."

Struggling to cope with the humanitarian crisis caused by the influx of refugees from Iraq, in October 2007 the Syrian Government imposed stricter immigration laws.

Rather than allowing refugees to cross the border to refresh their Syrian visas, Iraqis were forced to return to Baghdad for up to weeks at a time.

The members of Acrassicauda knew they would be putting their lives at risk by returning to Baghdad, so instead they travelled to Turkey, where they have remained since late last year.

While Turkey offers a culture that is more open to heavy metal, al-Lateef and Acrassicauda have found it difficult to adjust to life as refugees.

"Our situation is pending. We are not settled, and we just do not know what is going to happen next."

Mark LeVine, a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, and author of Heavy Metal Islam: Religion, Popular Culture and Resistance in the Middle East, believes heavy metal is a prime outlet for bands like Acrassicauda, who are caught between repressive regimes and the influence of Western musical forms.

"(One of the founders of the Moroccan metal scene) says that, `We play metal because our lives are metal' ..." LeVine says. "In other words, what else are you supposed to play when you live in societies that are devoid of real hope, opportunities, and the chance of democracy?"

LeVine argues that heavy metal in the Middle East is informed by the same kind of frustration with conservative governments and bleak societal prospects that fuelled the music of Black Sabbath in the industrial north of England and Metallica in suburban working class North America.

"Heavy metal has risen (in the Middle East) when these countries are being globalised for the first time ... Heavy metal is perceived as a direct political challenge."

While al-Lateef claims the music of Acrassicauda is apolitical, Levine sees the very existence of heavy metal in the Middle East as a sign of political protest in a space where free expression is barred.

"I have friends in Iran who are `metal-heads' who clearly do metal as a form of protest _ just walking around the streets in an Iron Maiden (a seminal heavy metal band) shirt is a f*** you to the regime ... They get arrested for having long hair and they get beaten up but they still do it."

The burgeoning metal scene in the Middle East, embodied by Acrassicauda's desire for an environment that allows an open discourse for artistic representation, has made some significant waves in domestic politics.

"There have been times in the last decade and a half where (Middle Eastern) regimes have gone after the metal scenes as a threat to order and a threat to religion," LeVine says.

"By trying to create a subculture that was not under the regime's control, (heavy metal bands) are doing something that has to be struck down."

Even though heavy metal may have begun to make a significant mark in the Middle East, Acrassicauda continue to labour as exiles from their homeland. A new documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, showing at film festivals in Canada and the US, has brought greater attention to the band's situation.

Suroosh Alvi, founder of VICE magazine and co-director of Heavy Metal in Baghdad, believes Acrassicauda's story is important, not only because it humanises the conflict in Iraq but for the way it highlights the larger outcomes of the war.

"We went to Iraq to get the story of one band and ended up getting so much more," Alvi says. "We got the story of an entire nation of people who have been affected by the occupation."

For Firas al-Lateef, Acrassicauda's journey has left them in an impossible situation _ the future for the band looks grim in their current situation.

"The threat of being killed if we go back to Iraq has kept us in Turkey," al-Lateef said. "But if our financial situation gets worse, we may have to go back."

Marwan Ryad, Acrassicauda's drummer, sums up the band's dilemma in direct terms: "[In Baghdad] you have the troops on one side, the terrorists on the other ... we are caught in the middle."

- NZ Herald

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