Surviving Syria's Civil War With Heavy Metal

Armed with a cellphone and borrowed camera, a young Syrian seeks refuge in a rockumentary.
Bashar Haroun and his metal band Chaos at Buzz Cafe in Aleppo, on December 24.

On a scorching August day in 2011, in the city of Homs, the Syrian conflict nearly swallowed Monzer Darwish. The 23-year-old graphic designer, who grew up in nearby Hama, had stopped at a cafe with his fiancée, only to take cover in the establishment at the sound of screaming outside. When they finally ventured into the street, they heard a pop—pop, pop, and someone fell. Then everyone ran. “The whole street was literally on fire,” he recalled.

Fleeing the violence, Darwish wrestled with the kinds of questions many face during war. What do you do if you don’t want to take a side? If you don’t want to take up arms? If you want to keep your community from being torn apart? If you can’t escape? Many of his friends found themselves in a similar situation, and they sought emotional refuge through music, even live heavy-metal concerts near the frontlines. Reconnecting with these peers, Darwish decided to film how this alternative community—musicians and fans alike—was surviving amid the country’s three-year civil war.

Heavy metal, with its macabre poetry, thundering elegies, and violent moshing, has often resonated with young people and helped them express solidarity with one another during periods of political and social tension. But Darwish wanted to show how Syria’s “metal heads” and alternative youth, like their peers in Iraq and Afghanistan, are turning to the music not only as a way to cope with mass trauma, but also as a means of conducting a brutally honest dialogue about how to survive war and reform society.

The result: a rockumentary called Syrian Metal Is War. For much of the last year, Darwish has crisscrossed the country to film every metal musician he can find. He’s uploaded a trailer to YouTube, and he hopes to screen a rough cut of the full film in Beirut by late spring.

Syria’s “distinct cultures are now united under a tremendous wave of destruction, and I find that to be crucial to the film since, as the name indicates, metal here is at war with the war itself,” Darwish told me over email from Latakia. “The film could bring us praise, appreciation, and support, or it could bring us doom, more destruction, and loss. Yet either way, we're going through with it until the end. This is beyond myself or anyone working with me. This is the cause of a community within Syria dealing with pain and hardships … grief and hopelessness.”

***

Darwish’s mission is in keeping with heavy metal’s history. When the genre emerged in the West, musicians deployed their loud, theatrical, and physical music to protest war and moral bankruptcy. Black Sabbath, whose members were often falsely accused of being Satanists, actually called for peace in the group’s 1971 classic, “Children of the Grave”: Must the world live in the shadow of atomic fear?… If you want a better place to live in, spread the words today / Show the world that love is still alive; you must be brave / or you children of today are children of the grave.

Syrian heavy-metal fans often cite the operatic singer Jack Power, who formed metal cover bands in the 1980s and 90s, as the pioneer of the genre in the country. In 2003, Nu.Clear.Dawn, combining choral vocals with keyboard and heavy guitar, became the first Syrian heavy-metal band to release an original album. That same year, the guitarist Rawad Massih created The Hourglass, the first Syrian metal band to tour outside the country. Within a couple years, mainstream performers like Gene Band and Anas & Friends, which modeled their music after Western hard rock, were catering to the party crowd in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Meanwhile, alternative musicians like Fadi Massamiri were experimenting with darker approaches, collecting ideas from Scandinavian death and doom metal and American hard-core thrash. Soon, cafes in Aleppo and Latakia were hosting underground mosh parties featuring bands like Slumpark Correctional, while those in Damascus hosted studio outfits like Eulen, which churned out keyboard-laced dirges, distributed through YouTube. While some of these groups remain in Syria, the fighting has scattered others as far as Dubai, Jordan, and Turkey. The Hourglass’ Massih, for instance, has departed for Beirut, where the more mainstream hard-rock band Tanjaret Daghet has been making a name for Syrian refugee rock.

Monzer Darwish prepares to film near the site of an explosion.

Darwish grew up listening to Western heavy metal, Syrian metal bands like Nu.Clear.Dawn and The Hourglass, and Arabic music, and has tried his hand at the piano, oud, and guitar. He discovered metal after listening to Metallica’s “Battery” to calm his nerves, and has since found inspiration in the work of Samantha Escarbe of Virgin Black, Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth, and John Petrucci of Dream Theater.

Presented by

Daniel J. Gerstle is founder and executive director of Humanitarian Bazaar, an organization that produces projects focused on how people survive war and disaster. He is based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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