Syrian Metal is War: An Interview with Filmmaker Monzer Darwish
The various nations of the Middle East are home to a widespread metal community that continues to strenghthen in spite of all the obstacles and conflicts that continue to arise in opposition. Religious pressure and political conflict to tend dominate the conversation when Syria is involved (and understandably so) but we’re going to divert your attention for a moment and focus instead on an extraordinary documentary by Monzer Darwish that is currently in production. As the title might suggest, Syrian Metal is War aims to address metal and its survival in times of war in Syria. As you can see from the trailer, the film is seriously intense.
In times of great strife, aggressive music thrives, and Syria has proven to be no exception to this time-tested rule. And, as Darwish wanted to make clear, the only similarity his film shares with Vice’s now well-known documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad is a rough geographic proximity. “Syrian Metal is War focuses on the musicians from all the bands and even the fans, while Heavy Metal in Baghdad focuses only on Acrassicauda and their survival and success,” he states firmly.
He’s got plenty more to say, too. Read the rest of my interview with Darwish below to find out more about Syrian Metal is War, life in a warzone, and the New Wave of Syrian Metal.
How old are you, where were you born, and where are you living now?
I’m 23 years old, from Salamiyah, Hama. On the 21st of January, 2013, a huge explosion took place in my neighborhood. It took the lives of friends and neighbors all around me, and I never stepped foot there since then. I’m not residing anywhere currently, I’m mostly in Lattakia but I live on the road, going from one city to another.
How is Syria in 2014 different from what it was like when you were younger?
Syria became a wasteland for the most part, as you will be able to see in the documentary. I’d never even imagined that I’d ever see people in such a state of pain, fear, worry, until they’ve become the natural scheme of emotions engulfing us all. The Syrian people’s only concern has become knowing how to spend a whole day; their dreams are stuck in the times before the war, at least those who consider life right now a nightmare and consider it possible to wake up one day and have it all go back to normal.
Tell me a little bit about your background in music and film – how did you first get interested and involved in these two mediums? I know you play guitar; how long have you been a musician yourself?
Filming has always been a passion of mine, I’ve always had a dream of being able to make my own films, see life through a lens, capture it, and show it to people, but until now I never had the proper gear, not even a professional camera, all due to financial reasons. Musically, I started at the young age of 9, learning the basics of Oud and the Keyboard. I never gave it the proper attention until I got my first electric guitar at the age of 15, and I taught myself from then on.
How did you first get into heavy metal? What is it that you love so much about it?
When I was in the seventh grade, I took part in a programming contest that took place in a school in the city of Hama. It was in summertime and the heat was unbearable that you could crack an egg on the sidewalk and fry it!. I was wearing shorts, and the supervisors had problems with such an apparel because there were girls present, to the extent of adding camphor oil in our tea as a sexual suppressor. Anyway, I refused to change the way I was dressed, and therefore I was kicked out of the contest.
I was so angry at the time that I could’ve hurt myself, but then an older friend of mine talked to me as I was packing my things. He gave me his headphones and said “This’ll drain your anger,” and in the headphones, Metallica’s “Battery” was playing. At the time, it worked. The first thing I did when I got back home that day was search for this kind of bizarre, overwhelmingly thrilling and beautiful music that made my anger magically vanish! That day went quite well for me, and thus I got to know and love a genre that became a huge part of my life.
Metal music with all of its genres and subgenres, is powerful, genuine, and passionate, What I love about it is that you get hooked until the day you die, it’s not something you love for a month and then leave it. There will always be a few songs that will bring you to tears or give you euphoric happiness. It never changes, it’s for a lifetime.
Can you tell me a little about the history of metal in Syria? Obviously there is a big metal community in Syria and throughout the Middle East, despite societal and religious pressure.
It began with rockers, and the Beatles hype that spread such foreign music into the ears of masses in Syria. Then metal came and spread on a larger scale in the early 90’s, the few first people who brought the music in, listened to it, and even performed it are now considered the elders of Syrian metal. Jack Power is the oldest, and my interview with him was one of the interviews I enjoyed the most.
The metal community in Syria has been in a on-off state for a long time due to pressures, misunderstandings and persecution, yet we’re trying -along with the musicians- to keep it stable and ongoing for the longest time possible still, and with the emerge of the New Wave of Syrian Metal, things have been looking up again. The metal community is also split into two categories, those who record original music, and those who bring the music live to the people.
[Note on the New Wave of Syrian Metal: The term seems to have been coined by Syrian metal journalist Sam Zamrik in a memorial piece on musician and recording studio owner Fadi Massamiri. It’s become accepted as a catchall term for the recent burst of renewed activity within Syria’s underground metal & rock scenes between 2010 and 2012. More information is available via The Syrian Metal Movement Facebook page and Zamrik’s original article, linked above. His piece “Hope in Syria” is another recommended read.]
In the trailer, one man voiced the concern that, if metal concerts were made public, someone may come in and “blow himself up among us.” It’s a brutal, powerful statement. Are tensions really that bad between metalheads and the rest of society?
In general, metal music up to this very moment is unaccepted and not correctly understood in Syria or the Arabian countries, although somehow the same society can accept a video clip from any other musical genre featuring nearly naked girls, explicit sexual hints and degradation towards women with certain terms and swears.
Some people consider metal to be strictly about Satanism, and others believe it to be against religions and holy figures; another group thinks that it encourages “moral decay.” So up to this very day metal music is a music that is fought, and is kept from spreading. Having said that, it is possible that a person who has the belief that metalheads are threatening to shake his faith, religion, and dogma would blow himself up among us, or, in lesser occasions hurt us.
Are there many female metal fans in the Syrian community? As far as you can tell, what is their experience like?
Yes, there is a decent number of female metalheads in Syria, starting with my fiancee who happens to be a doomster. I would say, the experience of female metalheads here is a bit difficult, as they have to face the same suppression they face in our society among their peers and especially from male metalheads which dominate the overall scene (suppression in terms of sexism and arbitrary prejudgments), but I know a few girls who are really experienced in metal and are able to topple many male metalheads.
What misconceptions and prejudices do you find that Middle Eastern metalheads and metal bands face from the rest of the global community?
Most metal communities around the world didn’t even know Syria existed until the war became global due to the media, yet in the year of 2012 the New Wave of Syrian Metal managed to put itself on the global map as a distinct scene from its peers in the Middle East. Since then it was met with gratitude and appreciation since most of these bands’ fan-bases are outside Syria and the Middle East in general.
So what made you decide to make this documentary?
I am a Syrian metalhead who is still in Syria and has suffered from society and such before the war. Because of that, like most of my peers in Syria, I found that there is nothing that brings our scene proper exposure, exposure that reflects the suffering and hardships we are going through without exploitation and interference with other subjects. So ,I decided to make such a movie.
Can you share some details about the film itself? The trailer is fascinating.
Thank you. The movie is filmed within Syria, yet we’re thinking of expanding to Beirut and possibly the UAE to feature all those in the diaspora, but it all depends on how much funding we may possibly get. I am, as you know, responsible for the directing, filming, editing, and interviewing people in the film; working with me is Sam Zamrik, he is the manager of a few bands and is the only remaining Syrian metal journalist still in Syria. He is helping with the overall management of the documentary and other promotion-related matters.
The movie is also shot and edited on the most minimal gear you could think of to produce such quality.
The documentary makes a point to include the views of individuals of a variety of political, religious, and sexual orientations, which I think is quite important. Are there rifts between Syrian metalheads who hold different beliefs?
In general, most Syrian metalheads didn’t let anything come between them and remained united as a whole because metal is a lifestyle for us more than it is merely a genre of music. It’’s a way to see the world with all its problems and diseases.
What are your personal views on the ongoing clashes between Syria’s people and the government leaders?
My only comment on this subject is that anything, no matter what it is, once it reaches the levels of extremism, it’ll turn into something hideous.
What do you aim to accomplish with Syrian Metal is War?
I only aim to show everyone the suffering of Syrian metalheads, because I see their passion and it shouldn’t be left unknown.
When will the full documentary be released?
I’m working as fast as I can, but I don’t have a definite release date yet, we will, however, keep updating everyone through our Facebook page, and I’m also working on a designated website that will be up and running soon.
So if I was to start delving into Syria’s metal scene, where would I start?
There’s a variety of bands from a large scale of genres, such as Theoria (Space Black Metal), Netherion (Death Metal), Eulen (Post-Metal), Slumpark Correctional (Thrash Metal), The Hourglass (Heavy/Trad Metal), Anarchadia (Modern Thrash Metal), Sideffects (Metal/Alternative Rock), Haunted Cellar (Death Metal) Karaj Adeem ( Hard Rock/Heavy Metal)
[Note: Theoria’s got my stamp of approval. Check out their trippy-ass latest album below.]
The last words are yours, thanks so much.
Thank you for this interview and to all the MetalSucks crew who made this possible. Check out Syrian etal, you won’t be disappointed, and stay tuned for updates!