The Emirati metalhead shredding cultural stereotypes

Self-taught musician Kareem Alfadl wants to see the region embrace different genres of music

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A Dubai government employee by day and a heavy metal guitarist by night, Kareem Alfadl is determined to change the perceptions of metal music in the Arab world.

Under the alias Arabian Panda, Alfadl first caught the attention of the internet when he began posting videos of himself playing heavy metal on his electric guitar dressed in his traditional Emirati kandura.

Alfadl has since racked up tens of thousands of followers from across the world on Tiktok and Instagram. He says it has been a way for him to try to change misconceptions the world may have about Arabs and metal music.

"There are metalheads from all over the world and people get shocked when they see an Arab guy playing heavy metal on guitar or drums. They think only metal exists in the western world, but there are many well-known metal bands that came from the Middle East itself," Alfadl says.

He first fell in love with metal music when he was 9 years old. "There isn't a fascinating story behind it, I just remember hearing a metal track by a friend and got hooked. It was my calling to listen to this type of music," Alfadl says.

While his peers were listening to the Backstreet Boys, he says he was busy discovering and listening to bands they had never heard of — fascinated by the depths that metal music could reach. "There are so many sub-genres to it," he says, "and I was exploring all of it."

Growing up, metal music continued to play a special role in his life. "I would watch videos of musicians playing and see the guitarists; they looked so cool. That’s how I picked up the guitar," he says.

Alfadl is a proud self-taught musician. "I don’t know anything about music theory. I was told I have a musical ear because everything I learned and published has been by ear," he says.

Emirati metal musician Kareem Alfadl wants to see the region embrace music from a wider range of genres. Wajod Alkhamis / The National

Sharing his music with the world was a slow process to begin with, and Alfadl was self-conscious. "I was very shy about the music I played, in terms of showing it to audiences or to other people. Only close friends or family members would hear me play."

However, he says his sister and an old best friend kept encouraging him to share his music with the world, and "take it to the next level". His alter-ego, Arabian Panda, is a one-man show.

"I do every single thing, starting with the writing process of the guitar, the drums, bass, keyboard, and any effects," he explains. Alfadl also handles video production for the content he shares online.

"It just became this obsession. As every musician will tell you, there’s always a sound in your head that you’re trying to achieve," he says.

The Arabian Panda alias came about quite naturally. Six years ago, Alfadl was a heavyweight bodybuilder, sporting a thick, long, black beard, a Mohawk and dark bags under his eyes from training. "Being this big, and with the white kandura, black agal, white ghutra, my friends told me I look like a grumpy panda. Since then, friends, family and loved ones have been calling me 'Panda'."

Having amassed an audience, Alfadl wants to use his social platforms not just to feature his own talent, but also of other Arab artists, displaying their work to a global audience.

Yet, while he sees metal music as a healthy way to express frustration and energy, his videos have received some criticism from the Arab world: "I face backlash every day, every post; there’s this misconception that metal music is associated with dark and bad things."

Many of these negative comments take issue with him wearing a kandura while playing his music. However, he asks, "What is the difference between me playing in pants and me playing in a kandura?"

Although some of the comments are "ignorant, vulgar and senseless," Alfadl takes them with a grain of salt. "They still watch the talent, whether it’s me or someone else I'm featuring. They'll still watch the video and still know this talent is out there."

Some day, Alfadl hopes to turn his hobby of playing and writing metal music into a full-time career, and to help shift regional perceptions of metal music.

"It’s not just angry or dark music. It's a form of expression and I just hope that people see it how we see it, how personally we take it and how in-sync we are with the music, and how we connect to it," he says.

"Just because I'm playing something that doesn’t sit well with you, it doesn't make me an outcast or bad person," Alfadl adds. "We have to be open-minded and respect all genres of music."

Scroll through images of collaborations between Arabic and English music below

Updated: August 12, 2022, 11:07 AM