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.
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.
Before her parents' death, Anahita says, she taught herself to play music and had played in a thrash band called Desertor. "I've been a musician since about nine years now, but didn't have any chance to write and record my own materials in the past due to the fucked-up situation in the city," she said. "I used to have a small thrash-metal band in the early 2000s before the war, and we used to record and rehearse a lot, so we were used to recording."
To hear her tell it, a diverse metal scene thrives underground in Iraq. "Metal is metal, black metal is black metal, it doesn't matter if girls or guys are handling the music, the most important thing to me is the passion behind the music itself," she said. "There are many bands here, they just need time and money and some help to record their materials."
She's not alone in her fight. Seeds of Iblis ("Iblis" is an Arabic word for the Devil) features five men and one other woman besides Anahita herself (Epona, who has also spent time in the now-defunct black metal band False Allah) who handles the vocals and lyrics, and released their first EP, Jihad Against Islam, in 2011 via French label Legion of Death. This band is even more unrelenting, crafting songs like "Sex With Muhammad's Corpse" and "Inverted Hilal." One of the band's guitarists, Yousef, pulls double duty in Tadnees, another virulently anti-Muslim outfit who, together with the aforementioned projects, style themselves as part of an "Anti-Islamic League."
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Outside this immediate black circle, there's a scattering of other Middle Eastern or Muslim-raised blasphemers who have been making their screams heard. On the more obscure end, there's Damaar, a now-defunct Beirut collective whose howling, sacrilegious approach to black metal spawned tunes like "Preaching for Mass Suicide" and "Ode to Blasphemy (Onward to the Gates of Mekka)" on their Triumph Through Spears of Sacrilege demo (released by American label Nuclear War Now! Productions). More famously, Lebanon group Ayat have released albums through the prolific North-American label Moribund Records. When their most recent record, Six Years of Dormant Hatred, was released and first burst into the greater consciousness, writers and music critics made much of their brutal, sacrilegious, seemingly anti-Muslim lyrics. Since then, perhaps shying away from the heat generated by their album, the band issued this statement: "We never described ourselves as Anti-Islamic Black Metal. We are against the religious establishment in all its forms and Islam is just one form of it."
Venturing beyond the Middle East yet ever deeper into Islamic territory, we find Weapon. Currently based in Canada and freshly signed to Relapse Records, this particular black/death horde is led by frontman Vetis Monarch, who was born and raised in a Muslim household in Bangladesh. Though the soul of the band is purely Satanic, they make their sentiments in regards to Islam known in songs like "Remnants of a Burnt Mosque" and "Violated Hijab."
In a scene revered and reviled for its commitment to darkness and blasphemy, it's nevertheless rare to encounter musicians who are, quite literally, willing to die for their art. Anahita's message is controversial, but it also comes with sobering, almost-jarring humanity. As her one-woman war against Islam rages on, her deepest desire seems to be for peace—or at least, for understanding.
"The goals of Janaza and Seeds Of Iblis are to show the world that Islam is dangerous," she said, "and even the people who live in the Middle East get hurt by this religion and seek for freedom of speech, just like the other people from all over the world."
This post originally featured images that were purportedly of Anahita but appear to have been repurposed from photos elsewhere on the Internet.