Book review: Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East by Orlando Crowcroft

We review a book framed on the night Metallica performed in Abu Dhabi in 2011. Listen to our podcast where the author of this article, the journalist who covered the gig and The National's Weekend editor discuss heavy metal in the Middle East

Metallica's Kirk Hammett performs on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island late on October 25, 2011, as part of the group's World Magnetic tour concert .    AFP PHOTO /ODAI AFANEH / AFP PHOTO / Odai Afaneh
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Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East
Orlando Crowcroft
Zed Books

Orlando Crowcroft's engaging new book on the heavy metal music scene in the Middle East begins in Abu Dhabi. It is October 2011 and Metallica are on stage at the du Arena on Yas Island.

Disappointingly, Crowcroft, who has previously contributed to this newspaper's opinion section and its foreign pages, presents a surprisingly patchy record of the evening: "Metallica's set that night was a blur then as it is now," he writes, "I don't remember exactly what they played. I don't remember whether James Hetfield's vocals or Kirk Hammett's solos were note-perfect."

If his memory of the set list has been destroyed, the raw emotion of what he witnessed provides the platform from which the reader begins to view the region's music scene. October 25, 2011 was a day when young people converged on Abu Dhabi. It was, according to Metallica's Lars Ulrich, a "magical" night. It was, in Crowcroft's words, a pivotal moment when the cries of a frustrated youth, a political movement and powerful music mixed to create the most intoxicating brew.

Crowcroft's commentary crackles with the significance of the moment as thousands of Metallica fans (for that, read legions of young people from all around the Middle East) arrive in Abu Dhabi just months after the Arab Spring uprisings had unsettled the region and unseated several of the Middle East's most intransigent strongmen. What was impossible to predict then, but what we know now, is that those uprisings were just that – a disruption, a brief moment when almost any circumstance seemed possible in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria.

No one knew then, although many might have predicted, that the impossible hope of the disaffected youth of the region would crumble to dust. No one knew then that 2011 would give rise to a most difficult set of regional equations that the Middle East continues to wrestle with. Metallica performed just days after one of the most emblematic of those regional strongmen – Muammar Qaddafi – had been killed in Sirte. The mayhem, multiple governments and militias of Libya today were yet to come.

"There was a feeling that a door had been opened, a dam had been breached and that whatever the Arab Spring went on to become, the Middle East would never be the same again," Crowcroft writes.

As the set-up for a book that traverses the region, it is an intriguing line. Crowcroft's volume jags from Lebanon to Iran, to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and then Syria and Israel and Palestine. Disappointingly, there is no chapter on the UAE. Dubai, in particular, has given rise to a decent crop of metal bands, some of whom have vaulted, if not to the mainstream, but to broad notoriety at least. Nervecell, for instance, have toured the European metal festival scene. Others have also spread their wings farther than the emirates.

Some of the stories he presents began life as parts of pieces the author contributed to the Middle East editions of Rolling Stone and Esquire and this fact gives rise to the chief criticism of Rock in a Hard Place. If the Metallica vignette suggests an overarching narrative, what follows is a series of largely unconnected accounts. There is little attempt to bind the stories of the region together, except in the overall message that music was often the escape route for young people and in the almost unbearable toughness of the circumstances metal musicians toiled against.

In the chapter on Lebanon, Crowcroft notes that as conflict raged, "heavy metal music just seemed to make sense". The fatalism that fed years of violence also informed the music. One Lebanese band, Equation, became known for playing on even under rocket-fire. Of course, music has a long history of being a defiant and strident voice of protest all over the world, but you see in this story why metal, a genre often at the visceral extreme, begins to matter. Amid the cacophony of war, the music became louder and more significant than bombs. The show had to go on, because nothing else mattered beyond the show itself.

In Egypt, Crowcroft's narrative drills down into the intimidation and threat of the Hosni Mubarak years, and the difficulties of being an artist. Live shows were considered risky and rare: "for metal bands they were rarer still. Even walking the streets with long hair and a guitar was dangerous".

It is a similar story in Iran, where the despair of daily existence under successive and unsatisfactory political administrations gave life to a spirited if small music scene and a reliance among some musicians on drugs. But generally, the chapter on Tehran is heavier on attacks and crackdowns than on amphetamines and crack cocaine. The metal scene was tiny in Iran, just 15 or so active bands when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad swept into power in 2005, but it did not survive the new president's swingeing bans on playing and performing rock music. The Hassan Rouhani years have proved just as cruel, despite the current president's undeserved reputation as a moderate reformer, although the scene has grown defiantly and dramatically, with an estimated 1,700 bands now active in Iran.

Outliers and shadow players as they often were, the metal bands of Rock in a Hard Place exhibit an indefatigable spirit. They almost wilfully walk into the desert winds. In the kingdom of Saudi Arabia that means young men going to almost impossible lengths to practice their art.

Creative Waste, a bedroom band by both definition and societal circumstance, tell Crowcroft that "we weren't even aware of other musicians until a few years later. We thought we were the only ones".

Now, of course, a significant evolution is under way in the kingdom. Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 blueprint for a post-oil economy imagines the country as a place where recreation, leisure and live performances are commonplace. The crown prince sees the entertainment industry as a growth area for the economy and an engine for jobs. While most expect the relaxation of the entertainment laws to be aimed at mums and dads taking their kids to magic shows rather than metal fans jostling in a mosh pit, the regulating of the powers of the committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice will, inevitably, bring some greater concessions for all. The last live rock show to be held in the kingdom, Crowcroft reports, resulted in the arrest, jailing and deportation of the organisers in 2009.

Mostly then this is a tale of scattering seed on stony ground, of survival against the odds and, well, rock in a hard place. In Jerusalem that means once a month a venue would hold a metal night. In Gaza and the West Bank, the daily horrors and humiliations of the Israeli occupation offer an additional layer of complexity no musician from the West could ever truly comprehend. But it also means Palestinian musicians sometimes bristle at critics who seek to endlessly decode their lyrics for political messages. In pre-civil war Syria, 90 per cent of concerts made a loss. The music was for passion rather than for profit.

It's also a story of changing tastes. Electronic dance music and hip-hop are now the genres of choice for young people. By comparison, some metal bands seem almost anachronistic. But for others, there are altogether different reasons why the music may have died or, at least, why it no longer courses through the veins with quite the same urgency. As one displaced Syrian musician who fled Aleppo during the conflict before belatedly ending up in the Netherlands, tells the author: "I have a different view of life. I don't know what I am. I am lost. Every person I loved is deeply scarred."

Some things, it turns out, are more important than music.

Nick March is Opinion Editor

Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East
Orlando Crowcroft
Zed Books