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Egypt's heavy metal scene emerging from the shadows

Sunday, August 20, 2006

CAIRO, Egypt -- The music was loud and the tattooed fans were wild, dancing and swaying in flashing strobe lights to the crashing sounds of heavy metal songs. Suddenly, the music stopped. The band leader grasped the mike and announced: "It's prayer time."

No one left to pray. Everyone stood by the stage and waited, as the band paused its music while a nearby mosque began the call to prayer from a loudspeaker. Then the music resumed.

Welcome to Egypt's heavy metal scene, making a tentative comeback in a conservative Muslim society nine years after a government crackdown amid allegations of satanic worship, drug use and group sex among the upper-crust youthful fans.

"We are Arab Muslims. We respect our religion. But we only love this music," said Noor, a 23-year-old part-time German language teacher and guitarist for Dark Philosophy, a pioneering Egyptian heavy metal band.

Noor has no illusions that the raucous music is likely to catch on big-time in a society where many young adults still date with a chaperone.

"The first step is always the hard one," he said. "People are not used to our music and songs yet. People cannot get over all the negativities that happened in the past."

In January 1997, about 100 heavy metal and rock music fans were arrested in Cairo by state security officers on suspicious of satanic worship -- a serious allegation in a country where respect for organized religion runs deep.

Egypt's state-controlled media carried stories of clandestine parties with drugs, group sex and bizarre satanic rituals including exhuming corpses and killing cats to drain their blood. Fans were ridiculed as spoiled rich kids seeking to fill empty lives with loud music, sex and drugs.

Egyptian authorities have banned heavy metal concerts. But as police controls eased over time, fans organized discreet gatherings, usually in remote areas around Cairo and Alexandria.

Several hundred fans -- guys with goatees and Zodiac tattoos, girls with spiked hair and nose rings -- turned out on a recent Friday afternoon in a rented house on the outskirts of Cairo. In shaggy raven black hair and T-shirts with gothic symbols, they came to proclaim "Egypt metal's second wave."

With music blaring and the stage lights flashing, girls danced wildly, their hair whipping back and forth and arms waving in the air. Suddenly the crowd lifted a young man and passed him through the crowd in a body surf.

"After nine years of absence, we are proud to announce that we are back with our concerts," said Sameh Youssef, a 23-year-old computer science student.

"We are here because we cannot live without our music. Every drum beat I hear reminds me of the beat of my heart."

Most of the songs were older than the audience, among them "Transylvania Hunger" by Darkthrone and "Freezing Moon" by Mayhem. Nobody seemed to mind. For them, it was fresh and exciting.

"Give these guys a double bass, a guitar and good drum set, and you're likely to be entertained, impressed and educated in the art of marvelous performance," gushed one curly black-haired young woman who would give only her first name, Rula.

But mindful of the crackdown of 1997, organizers were careful to avoid giving the authorities any excuse to close them down.

Mohammed Saad, who supervised the party, warned fans not to bring alcohol or drugs. Saad told one young man to put his shirt back on. He asked a couple of girls to wash off heavy black gothic-style mascara.

"We allow no beer in this place," Saad said. "We just want to enjoy our music in peace and stay away from any trouble."

Mohammed Azzam, a graphic designer and pioneer of Egypt's heavy metal scene, said musicians just want to play their music and they discourage talk of satanic rituals.

Heavy metal is a tough sell in Egypt, where music styles are slow to change.

"I guess all of this invaded our society because of the satellite dish," grumbled passer-by Sherif Bassouni, 36, as he watched long-haired fans in black leather pants and adorned with tattoos arrive for the concert.

"We are in Egypt, not in Europe. We carried the banner of Islam for centuries. We cannot accept all this," he said.

Azzam blames such criticism on prejudice and misconceptions.

"We have such a shallow society. They just prematurely judge people based on the way they look," Azzam said. "Because we wear black and listen to loud music, that doesn't mean we are Satanists."


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