An underground scene of bands in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are finding new use for heavy music's blasphemous potential.
This post has been updated.
"Burn the Quran! Burn the fucking Quran!" a woman screams hoarsely, over and over again. Tinny guitars course beneath her howls, sawing away at any semblance of melody. Sampled snippets of fundamentalist Islamic rhetoric filter through, and muffled voices exhort their unseen audience to praise Allah and to destroy the infidel.
To fans of heavy music, the hallmarks are immediately recognizable. This is raw, mid-tempo black metal, a lo-fi example of heavy metal's most evil subgenre. Black metal feeds upon hatred, nihilism, and anti-human behavior. Extremity is everything. It drinks the blood of Christ, turns upon its own, and takes almost carnal pleasure in the theory and imagery of war. The music from the early days of this scene conjured images of the ashes of burned churches and the dried blood of murder, and yet the genre, in its middle age, often doesn't shock the way it once did. The hellish noise of this particular song, though, does. There's something different about it. This is real.
The overall effect is chilling, which is, of course, exactly its creator's intent. She says her name is Anahita, the 28-years-old voice and vitriol behind Janaza, which is believed to be Iraq's very first female-fronted, black-metal band. Allow that notion—Iraq's very first female-fronted, black-metal band—to sink in for a moment. Her first recording, Burn the Pages of Quran, boasts five distorted, primitive tracks that altogether run just shy of an unlucky 13 minutes. She, along with a handful of other acts who say they hail from the Middle East, are repurposing black metal's historically anti-Christian ferocity to rail against Islam. In doing so, these bands are serving up another example of how art and dissent can intersect in a region where dissent can sometimes have deadly consequences.
"What keeps the fire burning is that I live every day in the memories of my parents and friends," Anahita says. "That's why I am full of hate."
For rather obvious reasons, Anahita keeps her full identity secret. In every photograph, she's smeared with layers of black and white corpse paint, rendering her anonymous and demonic-looking. It's difficult for a Westerner to find much information on Anahita, but she is becoming recognized within the international metal scene as one of Iraq's most blasphemous entities. She rarely grants interviews; the only other published Janaza interview to date comes courtesy of long-running dark music blog Heathen Harvest. It took well over a year for me to track her down, and even then, she refused to speak on the phone, instead insisting on communicating via Facebook. She answered questions about her life, her views, and her music, including the one that weighed heaviest on both of our minds: What would happen to her and her compatriots if religious authorities discovered their actions?
"A simple answer. They would kill me, and kill all of my friends, by cutting off our heads."
Death informs every part of Anahita's world. She says she was raised in a Muslim home in Baghdad by parents who were "open minded" and "not strict." A suicide bomb—"by a Muslim guy of course," Anahita wrote—killed her parents and her younger brother during the Iraq War, and she says she has since seen religiously motivated violence hurt some of her college friends too. "What keeps the fire burning is that I live every day in the memories of my parents and friends, and every day the people try to threaten me," she said. "That's why I am full of hate." Fittingly, in Arabic, "Janaza," the name of her band, is a funeral prayer for the dead.
She says she lost her faith, as so many do, between the pages of a book. "I was reading some scientific facts and how Islam doesn't make sense at all with the current science, and they use the method of 'brainwashing' to convince people about Islam," she wrote. Her lyrics for Janaza and its sister project, Seeds of Iblis, make clear where she stands now: "Islamic Lies," "Burn the Pages of Quran," and "When Islam Brainwashed Mankind" are a few of her more memorable tunes. However, unlike many of her contemporaries within the global black metal scene, she leaves Jesus out of it. "I am fully anti-religion in general, but I didn't live in a Christian atmosphere and the Christian people didn't kill anyone who means something to me," she says.