Monday, May 22, 2006

Ambassadors of Death Metal


As I and others have noted, the Red Sea city of Jiddah is basically Saudi Arabia’s answer to San Francisco: a highly liberal oasis in a relatively conservative desert, in this case literally. It’s has been and always will be a trading crossroads, and the influence of foreign people and ideas there is much more pronounced than in Riyadh or the die-hard conservative bastion of Dhahran.

Just how liberal Jiddah is becomes clear on reading “Love for the Language of Megadeth and Marley” in today’s Post. It describes the port city’s unlikely death-metal underground, although the story’s protagonists have inspirations that vary from Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix to Beethoven and Bach:

They adjusted the bass and fiddled with the reverb. Then they broke into an improvised, bluesy number that enveloped the makeshift studio at Amer Tashkandi's house. Islam Abu Jebara manned the Premier drums, Tashkandi glided his hands along the Roland Fantom keyboard, and [Hasan] Hatrash pulled at the strings of a bass emblazoned with stickers. "Iron Maiden" read one; "Megadeth, Cryptic Writings," said the other. Hatrash nodded, his foot keeping cadence. His eyes, half-closed, suggested another world.

"I was born a rocker," Hatrash said.

These men are part of a small Jiddah underground music scene that the article says has recently gone from two bands to 15, itself a remarkable achievement in a country of 27 million that lacks even a single movie theater. It would be easy to make fun of these men’s importation of Western heavy metal; they could be caricatured as the Saudi equivalents of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “wild and crazy guys.”

But Hatrash, Tashkandi and their friends are at some risk of their family’s disapproval in an environment where family ostracization leaves an individual shockingly alone and unprotected. They are also being watched closely by Saudi conservatives, and through them I imagine by the mutawwa or other religious or state security organs:

Shata said he thought the sound system [at a recent show] was bad. The bigger problem, though, was when Islamic conservatives posted [band member Mohammed Shata’s] picture, his T-shirt emblazoned with a skull, on the Internet. The conservatives' take: It was a satanic ritual.

"I was afraid my family would see the picture," he said, his eyes wide. "I would be kicked out of the house. Really."

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