The East goes Punk in the West

The Middle Eastern punk rock movement is the subject of two new films and a hot topic on social networking sites.

WAYLAND, Massachusetts // Artwork from India's Punjab state decorates the Ray family home. A statue of Johann Sebastian Bach sits on a piano. But in the basement - cluttered with wires, old concert fliers and drawings - 25-year-old Arjun Ray is fighting distortion from his electric guitar. For this son of Indian immigrants, trained in classical violin and brought up on traditional Punjab music, getting his three Pakistani-American bandmates in sync is the goal.

Their band, The Kominas, is trying to record a punk rock version of the classic Bollywood song, Choli Ke Peeche (Behind the Blouse). "Yeah," said Shahjehan Khan, 26, one of the band's guitarists, "there are a lot of contradictions going on here." Deep in the woods of this colonial town boils a kind of revolutionary movement. From the basement of this middle-class home, tucked in the woods west of Boston, The Kominas have helped launched a small, but growing, South Asian and Middle Eastern punk rock movement that is attracting children of Muslim and Hindu immigrants and drawing scorn from some traditional Muslims who say their political, hard-edged music is "haram", or forbidden.

The movement, an anti-establishment subculture born of religiously conservative communities, is the subject of two new films and a hot topic on social networking sites. The artists say they are trying to reconcile issues such as life in the US, women's rights and homosexuality with Islam and old East vs West cultural clashes. "This is one way to deal with my identity as an Arab-American," said Marwan Kamel, the 24-year-old lead guitarist in Chicago-based Al-Thawra.

The movement's birth is often credited to the novel The Taqwacore, by Michael Muhammad Knight, a Rochester, New York-raised writer who converted to Islam. Knight coined the book's title from the word taqwa, which means piety or God-fearing, and the word hardcore. The 2003 book portrayed an imagined world of living-on-the-edge Muslim punk rockers and influenced real-life South Asians to form their own bands. South Asian and Middle Eastern punk bands soon started popping up across the United States and communicating with each other via MySpace.

At the time of the book's publication, Basim Usmani and Khan were already experimenting with punk and building the foundation for The Kominas, which loosely means "scoundrels" in various South Asian languages. When Usmani, 26, came across the book, he was writing songs and sporting a mohawk - just like the punk rocker on the novel's cover. Usmani contacted Knight, who agreed to buy a bus on eBay for US$2,000 (Dh7,346) to help launch the first "Muslim punk rock tour" in the United States in 2007.

The Kominas, who sing mostly in English, now are trying to break the image they are just a "Muslim punk band", especially since one of their founders, Ray, is Hindu. The musicians have performed at various venues but were notably kicked off stage during an 'open mike' performance at the Islamic Society of North America convention in Chicago. Traditional Muslims there decried the electric guitar-based music as un-Islamic.

The episode was documented by the Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Omar Majeed in his new documentary Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam. "These guys are not prophetising or preaching anything specific about Islam," said Majeed, whose film is set for release in the United States this year. "They just happen to be young and Muslim, and they write songs and do art that expresses that idea." The musical style of each group varies. Some songs on The Kominas' album Wild Nights in Guantanamo Bay lean towards the humorous and ironic, including Suicide Bomb the Gap. Their sound mixes hard-edged punk, ska and funk. Meanwhile, Al-Thawra sings about political events in the Middle East with songs like Gaza: Choking on the Smoke of Dreams. Their music is closer to heavy metal. Other bands include Sarmust, from Washington, DC, and the group Vote Hizbollah, from Texas.

Like most punk groups, bands produce their own albums and sell them at shows and online. Most band members have full-time jobs, so tours are sporadic. Usmani works full time at a call centre and writes occasionally for The Guardian newspaper in the UK. Ray is a medical researcher at Harvard University. Typically, The Kominas and Al-Thawra say they play in front of 50 to 80 people. The bands have noticed Latino punks getting into their music.

Alan Waters, an anthropology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said it should come as no surprise that young Muslim and Hindu immigrants were expressing themselves through rock or that their music would strike a chord with other "disenfranchised" populations in the United States, such as Latinos and other children of recent immigrants. "If they're touching or singing about identity, it's going to make a connection," Mr Waters said.

"Punk rock is very American, and this is assimilation through a back door." * Associated Press