Released: 2008, Three Rivers Press
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
The very roots of heavy metal lie in the post-war devastation that shaped the lives of the musicians that went on to form Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest and others. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone well-versed in the metallic arts that the Islamic countries have a healthy metal scene, either. It takes all of five minutes being tuned in to CNN for those of use lucky enough to live outside of the daily turmoil that plagues countries like Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Egypt to see that these countries have enough lyrical fodder to fill a metal album. Yet, when I first received Mark LeVine’s new book, HEAVY METAL ISLAM, I found myself surprised to read of such a healthy—albeit underground—metal scene that populates the countries of the Middle East. My previous knowledge of band’s from that region never extended beyond Orphaned Land, Melechesh or Oath To Vanquish (all of which are profiled) but after reading HEAVY METAL ISLAM, I have a new-found respect for the bands who choose to follow the music that inspires them, even if it means imprisonment, torture or simply being seen as a pariah within their own culture.
Split into six chapters based on the respective country, HEAVY METAL ISLAM offers first-hand accounts of corrupt governments, intimidation and the daily difficulties faced by those who choose to live by the horned principles. In stark contrast to the image of the Muslim extremist that we are constantly bombarded with (at one point, LeVine likens them to hair metal bands, in that, “both have given their respective cultures a bad name”), many of the people the author introduces us to are regular types—students, working stiffs, musicians—who just happen to also be fans of heavy metal. From personal, harrowing accounts of oppression to open-air festivals attended by tens of thousands, the Muslim countries differ vastly in their acceptance of long-haired, black-clad metal fans (the cover image of a young Muslim female wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and a head scarf juxtaposes the two worlds perfectly) but LeVine’s incredibly detailed and voraciously researched material is always engaging. The author himself holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies from NYU, as well as having spent a great deal of time incorporating himself into the cultural mores of the Muslim nations, so there is a full credibility to what LeVine has undertaken here.
At times, the text can become a bit scholarly and dry but overall, HEAVY METAL ISLAM is a very interesting book that clearly identifies the differences between the Western and Muslim worlds but associates a common brotherhood that defies all political, cultural, and social boundaries through heavy metal music (the irony is not lost on the fact that fans of heavy metal music were actually brought up on charges in Morocco of being devil worshippers for wearing black clothes, while the nation’s flag bears a pentagram). This is not essential reading by any means but for anyone interested in seeing beyond the paradigms that CNN and Fox News see fit to filter to the North American public, Mark LeVine’s HEAVY METAL ISLAM is an excellent start.