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| July 3-9, 2008
Americans don’t know Shiite
by Dale Bridges
I was drinking at a bar the other night with an ex-Marine named Patrick. We were talking about music while getting our asses kicked at darts by a girl who looked a hell of a lot like Sarah Chalke from Scrubs (she’s the blonde one who’s really hot, but in an über-dorky way). Patrick spent some time in Iraq before being honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, and now he’s in college, studying sound engineering and growing his hair out. His goal is to become a roadie. “All I want to do is make the music I love even better,” he said. “That’s my whole ambition in life right now.” I thought this was a fairly profound statement coming from a 24-year-old who’d just consumed his own body weight in gin.
And as it turns out, Patrick’s modest aspirations in the music industry might actually have long-lasting effects on the country he just returned from. That is, of course, if Patrick’s still alive after that last Jäger shot. When I left him, he was singing Journey and French-kissing the severed buffalo head mounted on the wall of the bar. But he looked like a tough kid; I think he probably pulled through.
Let’s face it, the average American doesn’t know jack Shiite about the situation in Iraq. (Of course, the average American doesn’t know jack Shiite about how his toaster works, either, but we’ll save that for another day.) We are a nation of very loud, very confident morons, and it’s rather shocking to think about how we find new ways to ask the same question over and over again: How are They different from Us? No one has bothered to contemplate all the ways that the average American citizen is exactly the same as the average Iraqi citizen.
In the past couple of years, several trenchant works of nonfiction have been produced that attempt to bridge the distance between the Middle East and the Midwest. They’re not about religion or politics or even war. They are about rock.
Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a documentary about Acrassicauda, the only official metal band in Iraq. Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi are the two D.I.Y. filmmakers who throw caution (and common sense) into the wind when they strap on bulletproof vests and sneak across the Iraq border to catch a rare concert performance.
In general, pop music is frowned upon in many Islamic cultures, and heavy metal takes the brunt of the ire because of its presumed connection to Satanism and the long-haired, scruffy-bearded aesthetic that accompanies the genre. During Saddam’s regime, Acrassicauda was allowed to play only a handful of public concerts, but they hoped that would all change following Operation Iraqi Freedom. It didn’t. Between the American soldiers and the Islamic fundamentalists, Baghdad became so volatile that Acrassicauda couldn’t even get together to rehearse, much less organize a gig. The band members ended up fleeing the country and meeting up to record a few songs in Damascus. It’s a fascinating (if poorly executed) documentary that involves two gonzo journalists with more balls than brains (which, I suppose, is the very essence of rock ’n’ roll).
Heavy Metal Islam, on the other hand, is a pop culture book written by the incomparable Mark LeVine, a professor of Middle East history at the University of California-Irvine, and it provides the intellectual chops that the documentary lacks. LeVine is an expert on the Middle East and spent years traveling throughout six Muslim nations while researching this book, along the way meeting goatee-wearing guitar gurus and berkha-wearing punk chicks. “If we want to understand the peoples, the cultures and the politics of the Muslim world today,” writes LeVine, “we need to follow the musicians as much as the mullahs.” LeVine has a rare talent for taking personal, comprehensible subjects and connecting them to much larger issues. The result is a careful study of a group of young Islamic men and women who (surprise, surprise) have many of the same hopes and fears as young American men and women. This is one of the most important nonfiction books written in the past decade, and I would strap a sandwich board to my back in order to promote it.
Both the documentary and the book utilize pop culture as a tool to study the similarities between human beings instead of focusing on the differences that have been over-emphasized by the Talking Heads (and I’m not referring to David Byrne here) in The Media. In the end, the U.S. would probably do a better job at fighting “terrorism” if we all stopped focusing so much on Francis Scott Key’s “The Star Spangled Banner” and started listening to Black Sabbath’s “Seventh Star.”