Surviving Syria's Civil War With Heavy Metal

Armed with a cellphone and borrowed camera, a young Syrian seeks refuge in a rockumentary.
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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.”

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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.

Even before the Syrian war broke out, government officials and community leaders moved to disperse these bands and the music scene they had established. It wasn’t just that singers were spinning poetry that denounced war and corruption. The authorities, like those in many other Middle Eastern countries, accused metal musicians and fans of immorality and devil-worship.

In 2009, for instance, Bashar Haroun, a Syrian heavy-metal producer and performer, released a doom-metal track with his Aleppo-based band Orion titled, “Of Freedom and the Moor”: For freedom through war / We lose our reason and chances no more /  We will stand as one /  Together and on our own /  Nothing but our unity /  Nowhere but our home. Shortly thereafter, Syrian authorities jailed him for allegedly encouraging a “Satanic movement,” citing as evidence a T-shirt of his with skulls on it and a poster he had of the Norwegian black-metal artist Burzum.

***

Now, the same government that, prior to the war, condemned, threatened, and jailed heavy-metal musicians for their sonic storytelling is battling extremists who have also banned non-Islamic music and targeted musicians in parts of rebel-held Syria, in a conflict that has killed 150,000. Is music really more sinful than such devastating violence? Darwish wants his film to focus on these kinds of questions, not on the politics of the civil war.

“Sometimes I find myself forced to use my cellphone for outdoor filming in excessively dangerous parts of the country since it's easier to hide in case I get stopped by armed forces,” Darwish said, “and sometimes a borrowed camera from a friend for indoor interviews and concert footage.” Mostly self-taught, Darwish collects cellphone clips from the front, DSLR clips from the road, and SLR clips from safer areas on a hard disk and cuts his film on a laptop at home—so long as the power stays on. “The lack of electricity is truly annoying,” Darwish added. “For a while I even found myself going from one city to another just to follow the electricity … and that alone puts me at risk of getting blown to pieces along with my gear and footage.”

His film follows Syria’s metal pioneers from the cultural hub of Aleppo to the studio hub of Damascus, and to refuges as far as Beirut. Living between cities and unable to find other work in a broken economy, he has had to sacrifice almost everything to cover the costs of the film. “I had to sell many of my things,” Darwish told me.

In 2013, Haroun created “Live Under Siege,” a series of metal concerts at Buzz Cafe and other venues in Aleppo to urge underground youth not to turn against each other as fierce fighting broke out in the city. Darwish came to not only film the daring performances but also to play guitar, jamming beneath a noose someone hung satirically from the ceiling. One show took place on Christmas Eve, during one of the heaviest bombardments Aleppo witnessed during the war.

Monzer Darwish with members of the band chaos at Buzz Cafe in Aleppo, on December 24.

“I think [Darwish’s filmmaking] is very important work,” Massih told me by email from Beirut, “because it mixes the wars that are happening on the same ground and how they intersect. First, there is the war of being a heavy-metal musician in a small, ‘third-world’ country like Syria, and the problems you face here. The second war is the Syrian war itself, which is in my opinion a proxy war, and Syrians from all sides are just tools in it.” (In the video below, Massih and drummer Aram Kalousdian finalize the musical arrangements for the song “Play the Pawn” in Aleppo in January 2012, before the city experienced its worst violence. “Today Aleppo is a shattered city,” Massih writes on YouTube. “This very basement (Aram's) that we used to rehearse in is in an abandoned area now, or maybe destroyed.”)

Why would Darwish risk so much to make a film about the heavy-metal scene in Syria’s toughest, most divided cities? He says it’s worth it to document how—when the country’s warring factions are clamoring for young people to join the fight, to contribute to the inhumanity—Syrian youth are instead choosing to peacefully preserve humanity through art.

“My family and fiancée worry about me and my well-being,” said Darwish, who has no plans to leave Syria. “I often find them in fear of me dying, yet they are quite supportive of me doing the things I do best in life.”

“They still believe in me and the movie,” he added.

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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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