Report: Egyptian Heavy Metal Is Re-Emerging And Shaking Up The Scene

Sophia al-Maria and Ethan Heitner of Egypt's Cairo Magazine have issued the following report:

Cairo has dirt, energy and — most importantly — frustrated youth under pressure: all elements needed to form hard and vital rock. By this rationale, Egypt has no excuse to be conspicuously inept in this international language of high-voltage sounds. Looking at the rich cliffs of this quarry, one has to wonder, where is all the rock?

Rumor has it that as little as eight years ago, there was rock. Loud, blistering rock. The sort of rock that made your orifices bleed, to the delight of bands like STEEL EDGE or VYRUS. Sure, it was a lopsided scene dominated largely by metal and its descendents, without much influence from other branches of the rock family. But concerts had big name sponsorship, publicity was everywhere and the audiences packed the venues. The bastion of the establishment — the Gezira Club, no less — played host to big names while local groups like VYRUS and VIPER were gathering a real following. A real milestone was reached on the milestone day that THE CARTOON KILLERS found their cassettes sold in kiosks — normally the turf of big boys like SHAABAN ABDEL RAHIM and AMR DIAB, old favorites like OUM KALTHOUM and dodgy copies of imported easy listening.

"The flyers were in the streets, and there were plans to televise the concerts. There were sometimes up to a thousand people there," recalls metal fan Muhammad Azzam. "It wasn't underground, like it is now."

"They kicked ass," remembers bassist Jacques Avakian of IDLEMIND. "The concerts in the '90s were something else."

What happened?

But go to a metal concert today and you'll see that audiences have shrunk to sometimes less than a hundred. The venues are often totally inappropriate and in the middle of nowhere, but even so, fans and bands alike feel grateful to get them. More importantly, although Egyptian rock was never exactly up-to-the-minute on the latest trends (metal having crested, many will tell you in the English-speaking world, by the early '90s), today’s scene can feel especially retro. Many bands rely heavily on songs older than themselves, their audiences or their instruments. A visitor might be forgiven for thinking the scene more an anomalous bubble, perhaps akin to Baghdad's only known metal band, A. CRASSICAUDA, a barely tolerated freak in the last days of Saddam's regime, as opposed to evidence of a vibrant and organic landscape.

But still, there is an audience, and it, along with the options for local musicians, seems to be growing. Slowly but surely, the number of bands and the number of concerts are on the up-turn. Under the leadership of a small core of hardened veterans from the '90s, a new generation of would-be guitar gods are trying to rebuild the scene pretty much from scratch.

But the movers and shakers of the new scene are moshing cautiously. It's not just a question of age-old concerns from parents worried about long, greasy hair or the noise of your average garage practice session, but the memory and very real threat of history repeating itself: no one on the new scene wants a repeat of what happened to the old scene.

The truth is that the security establishment came down pretty hard on the heads of young metalheads, and it has taken almost 10 years for the survivors to crawl from the rubble.

On the night of 22 January 1997, security forces made a massive sweep of homes and venues of teenagers listening to heavy metal — or teenagers who wore black leather, or just teenagers who drew skulls on things — and arrested around 90 (numbers vary) of them in the middle of the night, many from upper middle-class homes who had never had any previous problems with the law. The raid came after a months-long Satanist "panic" had been sweeping the nation, fueled by publications such as Rose Al Youssef, claiming that Egypt's youth were being seduced into drug use, orgies, sacreligious rituals and a variety of other sordid practices by foreign Satanists using rock music.

The Mufti of Egypt at the time, Nasr Farid Wassil, called for leniency on account of their youth, but only if they renounced their Satan-worshipping ways — otherwise, he said, "we should carry out the punishment called for by Islamic law." The Sheikh of Al Azhar, Muhammad Tantawi, singled out Israel as the source of this satanic influence.

Some teenagers were held for weeks (the longest was 45 days) and some apparently confessed to holding rituals in cemeteries and churches, including the Baron's Palace, and named the Heliopolis McDonald's as the central meeting point for their cult. Cairo was treated to the sight of the well-dressed mothers of the upper-class protesting outside courthouses for the release of their sons and daughters, a sight usually reserved at time for the munaqaba-clad mothers of Islamists, for whom such security sweeps were already routine.

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