What do we do in the Middle East? An alternative view

Let me paint a very simple picture of recent history. In the Middle East, the West backed the wrong horse, and has paid the price ever since.



Backing this particular Arabian stallion has, however had its advantages. The House of Saud have been providing petroleum for our cars, central heating systems and aeroplanes since the 1930s.

The price for this has been our reticence – to the point of complicity – regarding the regime’s human rights abuses, a silence which, through decades of ever-increasing dependency on oil, has only grown louder.

A few more churns on this sickening cycle have been notched in recent days. First, a High Court ruling that arms sales to the Saudis – arms which are pouring over hospitals, water plants and schools in Yemen – are lawful (useful, as BAE finalises the transferral of the last of 27 cruise fighter jets to the Arabian Peninsula).

Days later, Home Sec Amber Rudd withheld the classification of a document detailing where funding for domestic terrorism was coming from. Last year, another secret report was leaked, highlighting the link between the Saudis and the instigators of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, the provocation for a ‘War on Terror’ which shows no sign of ending.


More still, in her revealing new book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, Helen Thompson reveals how a drastic change in the price of ‘black gold’ precipitated the fall of the Global Economy in 2008. This completes the outline of the world’s principle power relation: one in which Western powers, drunk on the tantalising fumes of petroleum, sacrificed their liberty for one more hit from a dodgy dealer.

Now, like any addict, we have reached breaking point. Our continual financial and military aid for the Kingdom must now be explained to a Western populace with increasingly hostile views towards ‘Islamism’.  This caricature of Islamic culture – conservative, sandy and intolerant of democracy – appears in part to stem from our legitimisation of the Saudis.

We must find another horse in this increasingly bloody and complex race. The question is: which?

This is a question which Mark Levine’s 2008 book Heavy Metal Islam attempts to answer.

Heavy Metal Islam. Seems like an oxymoron, right? Yet there is something inherently radical about an oxymoron. It burns through your imagination, producing a sense of something unsettlingly new. For an instant, an image pierces your retina; collapses on to your psyche, fades in to familiarity. The light becomes dark; the dead are enlivened; what was false now appears as true.


Levine’s book rebukes the kind of cultural myopia which leads Westerners like me to view Heavy Metal Islam as contradictory. Iraqi guerrilla filmmaker Oday Rasheed politely illuminates this ignorance, telling Levine ‘I know all your artists and cultural figures – Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, F Scott Fitzgerald. But I also know my culture – Oum Kalthoum, Farid al-Atrash, and Adonis. How many (Westerners) even want to know my culture, let alone take the time to do so?’

It isn’t simply the traditional culture of Middle Eastern society which fails to register in Western minds, however; Heavy Metal Islam is an account of Levine’s five year exploration of music genres with indelible roots in Western culture: Islamic rap, metal and rock.

Journeying across six different Islamic nations, Levine finds a musical movement of staggering diversity. Yet a common thread unites the book’s protagonists: fear of persecution from the authorities.

In Egypt, we find a scene still smarting in paranoia from the arrests of 100 metal heads in 1997 on charges of Satanism. To conservative regimes, metal’s aesthetic is provocative enough to warrant surveillance and repression, even if no explicit political message comes with it. The Egyptian chapter ends with one of the scenes leading musicians – known to the reader as ‘Marz’ – demanding his full name be printed: an act, in context, of defiant heroism.

Yet it highlights how limited the scope is for these musicians to resist authority. Readers searching for a perfect X Factor ending will find Levine’s book disarmingly inconclusive. Many musicians offer only veiled critiques of their leaders. Many have given up even trying.

Existence, however, can often be politically potent in and of itself. For Levine these scenes matter beyond their artistic output, because they symbolise an interpretation of Islam that is ‘far more radical than (that of) the supposed radicals of al-Qa’eda, Hamas, or Hezbollah, who are distinctly reactionary in their reliance on violence and conservatively grounded religious and political imaginations’.

These are the cultural terrorists, hidden in the recesses of their society, and evoking the kind of latent fear which only those in the shadows truly can. When considering who to throw our lot in with, we can often look with immediacy to the conventional corridors of power. In doing so, we fail to spot the dark horse in the outside lane.

The music scene in Palestine is perhaps the most chaotic, restricted yet fascinating that Levine explores. Rap groups like Ramallah Underground and Palestine Rapperz, unable to develop internally, rely on the support of foreign fans to survive and flourish.

What if those of us who lament Western cultural hegemony consciously attempted to undermine it? What if we gave the money we (typically) aren’t giving our local musicians to those in countries such as Egypt and Palestine? What if we began seeking political solutions not through parliaments and commissions, but through people, through art?

Heavy Metal Islam is an eye-opening book. For it to hold power, however, it should only be our introduction.

Pictures from: 





For more, check out this article on the metal scene from this year…


And Mark Levine’s companion playlist to the book, ‘Flowers in the Desert’.




How the charts were overthrown

“Things fall apart” mused WB Yeats, “the centre cannot hold”.

Simple words, yet potent. In times of instability, either personal or historical, they have unfailingly echoed through my mind. At the moment, they seem particularly voluble.

Instability marks our present time like a rash: one which refuses conventional antidotes, and which with every passing day appears yet more terminal to the major organs of our society.

The print and televised media, once so powerful it imposed the adjective ‘mainstream’ on itself, is dying. Neoliberalism, if not quite slain, appears to have been muted. Polling companies, the modern-day oracles to their twittospheric congregation, have been humbled. Things, need we be reminded, really do fall apart.

Stretch our neck beyond the self-indulgent political parapet, however, and we can see this phenomenon within wider culture. Since its inception in 1969 the Official Charts Company has compiled weekly lists of the highest selling singles and albums in the UK.

The charts, however, have come to symbolise more than just what sound is most pleasing to the population’s ears. They have been the rule-makers of idealism; the triangulators of normativity, providing a soundtrack to our mall-wandering existences.

This reputation has been endowed on the charts because, like polling companies, their mechanism for gauging what we think and feel is seemingly infallible.

The internet – with its infinite array of streaming sites and music-sharing platforms – jackhammered this illusion. And it was always illusory: a 90s nationwide investigation found Banghra –traditional Punjabi music – to be the most widely sold genre in the UK. As its sales were made predominantly through independent retailers, and in cassette form, the charts company failed register its popularity.

A similar negligence was commonly afforded to garage and grime artists, who mainly distributed their tunes through pirating platforms. The latter’s recent surge as a genre broadly coincides with alterations made to OCC methods for compiling sales data.

The apparent spontaneity of the charts, therefore, is heavily orchestrated. Artists who feature prominently in mainstream shopping outlets will be disproportionately favoured by compiling organisations.

Who decides which artists are on the front shelf? Major record companies, who can pay millions in marketing and sponsorship fees, ensuring that our ears keep ringing to the sounds of Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran et al.

A system of impenetrable dullness is thus manufactured, self-assured in its ability to reproduce itself ad infinitum. Yet the system has ignored Yeats’ observation: in the past few years, its solipsistic sanctuary has been rudely interrupted.

The first tremors came in 2009, when a Facebook campaign raging against the Cowell machine sent Killing in the Name Of, the anti-authoritarian anthem, to number one. Four years later, Margaret Thatcher’s death inspired Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to hit number two in the charts. Earlier this year, Captain Ska’s Liar Liar – a savage polemic against Theresa May that sent BBC HQ in to a censorphilic frenzy – reached number four.

Despite their popularity, these songs were typically written off as anomalous; the self-indulgent anti-authoritarianism which had no legitimate justification or majority support. The ‘Liar’ would be coronated, Cowell would continue writing our Christmas carols, Thatcher would remain a sentimental speck in every sensible layman’s eye.

The recent election decisively returned Socialism to the mainstream, both as a political demand, and as a critical lens of analysing social events, figures and phenomena. With hindsight, these tracks appear as symbols; as simmering precursors to a seismic change in mass culture.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead is an illuminating example. It represented a belief that Thatcher was not only a bad politician; she was symbolic of an ideology – neoliberalism – which was so callous and toxic that her death could be celebrated. In the height of the coalition government, with an anti-austerity movement largely confined to the streets, it was permissible for pundits to write this belief off, and for regulators to censor it as insensitive.

ding dong the witch is dead
Today, as the consequences of deregulation and market-omnipotence become starkly evident around housing, defenders of ‘Thatcherism’ seem notably absent.

It is the context, rather than the content, which defined these songs. Songs with explicit content – misogynist, homophobic, even political – are, after all, ever present within the charts. The line which these particular songs crossed existed beyond glitzy anodyne bubble which pop listings wishes to reside. The implication of this is stark: the charts are not, as they claim, neutral free-markets. They have political parameters and these boundaries must be respected.

To dare to dissent; to break through boundaries that have been impermeably erected, is the ultimate aesthetic virtue. Such a movement demands attention; refuses to compromise; and with perseverance and tenacity it can lay to waste all who wish to silence it. Our era shows this to be the case, and be it in our music, our politics or our communities, these lessons should encourage us to do the same.

To breach an echo chamber and sing the unsayable is to dare to dissent. That these songs were built by grassroots movements determined to change a narrative of presumed impermeability is remarkable. That their adversaries – the X Factor (is it still going?), Thatcherism, Theresa May – are now confined to the bin of the past, is testament to their success. These songs now exist as stories which should inspire.

Pictures from: http://www.milenio.com/tendencias/mentirosa-theresa_may-cancion-liar_liar-captain_ska-reino_unido-milenio-noticias_0_965903602.html and https://izziemizery.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/killing-in-the-name-of.jpeg and http://azvsas.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/throw-street-party-in-every-town.html