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HArd PlAce
Say you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia and when you got to a certain age you decided you liked heavy metal music and wanted to start a band. You’d be asking for trouble, right? by orlando CrowCroft
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In A

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As one of the only doom bands in Saudi Arabia, Grieving Age are flying the flag for a genre known for slow and heavy songs that can clock in at over fifteen minutes. The band’s singer, thirty-year-old Ahmed Mahmoud (centre), is a veteran of Jeddah’s scene. But gigs in the kingdom are rare, and bands often travel overseas to play Grieving Age and Wastedland (below right/ left) performing in Egypt; and Creative Waste (below centre) in New York

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As the harsh sun beats down on riyadh’s concrete, steel and glass, a dozen young men lug amps and drums onto a makeshift stage. Guitars are tuned, microphones tested, jokes exchanged, and an atmosphere of pre-gig excitement hangs in the air. it is another sand-blown summer afternoon in June 2009, and this moment is what it has all been leading up to. Not just the weeks of preparation, lists of names, tickets and arguments with venue owners, but years — a full decade — of risks, battles won and lost, people threatened with jail, clandestine websites and secret recording studios. still the gigs went on, and the crowds grew. Now, tonight, in riyadh, saudi Arabia, it’s the final test. By the end of the night a dozen people will be arrested, their equipment confiscated. Charges will be levied, ranging from drug dealing to satanism and the lives of two young men will change forever. One, a saudi citizen, will spend almost a year in jail and another, a 24-yearold syrian, will be deported and banned from returning to the kingdom. All for playing music; more specifically, for playing heavy metal music.

e’ve been up And down the roAd A dozen or So timeS before I realise the scenery hasn’t changed. Ahmed Mahmoud is driving his beat-up silver Mazda, the stereo blasting industrial German death metal and we’ve been shouting to each other over the fuzz of guitars and roar of the vocals. “Where are we going again?” I ask. “HMV,” Ahmed replies, mildly frustrated, and waves his hand towards a nearby mosque. This is Jeddah, the “liberal” heart of Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean HMV stays open during prayers. Like everything else in the kingdom — the malls, the shops and restaurants — it closes its doors and kicks out the customers five times a day, every day. So we drive up and down the empty four-lane highway that intersects the Pizza Hut and

Starbucks outlets of new Jeddah; up and down and around the roundabouts, until we hear the call to prayer sound out across the city and then subside once more to silence. “Now we go,” says Ahmed. We’d met half an hour earlier at my flea-pit hotel in Jeddah’s old town, a collection of dusty souks and broken buildings that sprawls along the city’s industrial waterfront, a long way from the malls and villas of the city suburbs. Ahmed arrived late, wearing sawn off black jeans and motorbike boots. He had a shaved head, long-ish beard and thick glasses. His black T-shirt read, simply, Save Milk, Drink Beer. He shook my hand and apologised for making me wait, “Welcome to Jeddah,” he said, with just the faintest touch of irony. As frontman of GrievinG AGe, almost certainly Saudi Arabia’s only doom metal band, Ahmed is one of the stalwarts of the kingdom’s music scene. Doom, a sub-category of heavy metal,
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is epitomised by mercilessly heavy, slow songs, some of which clock in at more than fifteen minutes. Others — like those by California’s scene veterans Sleep — can last up to an hour. In the West, Doom has a small, mostly stoned but very active, following. In Saudi it’s just small. Not that it bothers Ahmed. His band recorded its first album two years ago in a recording studio in Dammam, on Saudi Arabia’s east coast, and is currently working on a follow-up. He has also collaborated with two of the biggest names in the genre, Sweden’s Katatonia and England’s My Dying Bride, with the former agreeing to produce and mix the Grieving Age album for free after Ahmed contacted them via the Internet. As we sit in the two-storey café attached to HMV — divided so that women can sit upstairs, men downstairs — Ahmed happily recalls the experience of working with his heroes. “We are so happy and proud of the record,” he says, in almost faultless English that he regularly apologises for. “Dan Swanö (from Katatonia) did a remarkable job mixing and mastering it. He added his magic touches and evolved the whole sound into something that we never expected.” Music is, quite literally, Ahmed’s life. He imports CDs and distributes them to local music stores, and appreciates the irony that while he is educating the Saudi youth on bands like Metallica with one hand, he is also inflicting Justin Timberlake records on it with the other. His life is a more-or-less constant toand-fro with Saudi Arabia’s censors. Few would be aware, when glancing at the well-stocked shelves of Jeddah’s HMV, that every one of the albums here — from Celine Dion to Carcass — has been fought over by this thirty-year-old metal-head. It’s no surprise that he has witnessed the Saudi music scene change dramatically over the last ten years. “Man, things have changed so much” he says, shaking his head at the memory. “Back in the nineties it was impossible to get CDs. The only way was to ask friends or family to bring them in from Europe,” he explains. “But at the same time it was damn valuable and you would just know it by learning the hard way. Nowadays everybody can have the whole discography of a band with one click.” The Internet may have removed some of the mystique, but it has been invaluable to the band scene in Saudi Arabia, and is solely responsible for uniting Riyadh, Jeddah and the Eastern Province.
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“I guess they just find it strange that desert people are creating such a heavy controversial music. Maybe they still can’t believe that we don’t live in tents anymore”
Pre-MySpace, fans in those scenes had no idea there were bands in other regions. Nowadays Ahmed has developed contacts all over the country. “If there was no Internet we wouldn’t know anyone unless they were our next door neighbour,” he says. This didn’t stop bands from making names for themselves, and some of those early guys have ended up as legends. Hasan Hatrash, a journalist for Arab News, the country’s largest Englishlanguage daily newspaper, founded classic rock outfit moSt of uS in Jeddah back

in 1993, and is spoken of with reverence by younger members of the scene. Another Jeddah stalwart is wASted LAnd, a five-piece death metal band that appeared in a BBC story about Saudi Arabian metal back in 2006. Then there is the renowned Saudi band, Sound of rubY, fronted by Mohammed Al-Hajjaj and still playing and recording albums almost fifteen years after their formation in Dammam back in 1996. Nowadays there are more than thirty rock and metal bands that have made themselves known to fellow fans in Saudi Arabia, with at least four recording studios and probably dozens more makeshift set-ups in bedrooms and garages across the kingdom. Bands come and go, suddenly appearing on MySpace or on Saudi forums and then disappearing just as quickly. These bands occupy a strange place in Saudi Arabian society. Playing music is legal, but so many of the activities associated with it are prohibited: gatherings of more than fifty people and the mixing of men and women,

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photography: vanessa america/ hasan hatrash

Fawaz Al-Shawaf (left), frontman of Creative Waste, a grindcore outfit from Saudi’s east coast. The band played two shows in the U.S. in 2010, and will play the Maryland Deathfest in 2011. Much of the country remains a conservative place (right) meaning fans (below) are limited to a few private gigs in rented halls or expat compounds

for example. Then there are the other obvious associations rightly or wrongly attached to heavy metal music, such as Satanism, alcohol, drugs, and subversion. The upshot is that bands start off with a MySpace site and might even record an album. But then attention — from parents, friends or employers, as well as the authorities — is such that they subsequently back off, the site gets outdated and the band slips into obscurity. None of these factors worry Ahmed though, as he flicks through the shelves of the considerable metal section and shoots the breeze with the staff, most of whom know him well. His concerns for Grieving Age are more mundane: the guys are all too busy with their work and their wives and their jobs to rehearse. In fact, he’s not even sure why the outside world is so interested in metal in Saudi Arabia. “I guess they just find it strange that desert people are creating such heavy controversial music,” he says, half joking, half disappointed. “Maybe they still can’t believe that we don’t live in tents anymore.”

hiLe the more LiberAL JeddAh iS A breedinG Ground for YounG metAL bAndS, it’s actually the east coast that is the engine driving the country’s scene. The Eastern Province is home to the SAudi rock And metAL SocietY (SAMETAL) and has hosted six out of the eight gigs held in Saudi Arabia over the last ten years. The guys in Al Khobar and Dammam have the benefit of proximity to Bahrain, Dubai and the Levant, all of which have played host to Saudi bands unable to find venues at home. Fawaz Al Shawaf and Bader Husain have been involved in the eastern scene since it began, but tonight in the five(ish)star Gulf Pearl hotel in Manama, they are an unlikely pair. Twenty-six year-old Bader is a geophysicist with an ultraconfident manner. He’s wearing a smart

dark suit and doesn’t seem at all out of place in the hotel lobby, where we sit surrounded by Western businessmen drinking overpriced beers. Fawaz could not be more different. The twenty-threeyear-old MBA student is wearing loose jeans, a black Nasum T-shirt and speaks with a pronounced American accent. His head is shaved, he has a short beard, and his quiet demeanour contrasts starkly with Bader’s mile-a-minute enthusiasm. As an Asian girl in a glamorous green dress plucks out dated hits from a golden harp, I toy with the idea of ordering a beer — this is Bahrain after all — but when Bader orders a Shirley Temple and Fawaz an iced coffee, I opt for tea. The two of them have driven over the King Fahd Causeway to see me, simply because I happen to be in Bahrain for the night. They’ve come equipped with laptops, flyers, gig posters, pictures and a DVD Bader made documenting the first metal show they arranged in Saudi Arabia. He proudly tells me he has four jobs: organising the metal scene is one of them.
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Putting on gigs in Saudi Arabia is a complex arrangement. The bands have to find a venue — usually an empty hall or private villa — then build a stage, borrow equipment, sort out the sound, sell tickets and organise the bands. All of this has to be done without provoking attention from the authorities, who have a tendency to crash the party

Since its foundation by Sound of Ruby bassist Kamal in 2003, SAMETAL has become a focal point for the Saudi metal scene, providing information about bands, recent releases and a popular web forum. Fawaz and Bader have been involved in SAMETAL since the early years, but took over the running of the forum in early 2008. Fawaz is also the singer of creAtive wASte, Saudi Arabia’s only grindcore band, and is trying hard to popularise a genre made famous by British grind legends Napalm Death. Fawaz lights up when mentioning Creative Waste, and rightly so — last month the band played two shows in the U.S., and has been invited to join the bill on the Maryland Deathfest next year. He speaks of the first SAMETAL gig with a nostalgia that defies his years. SAMETAL I and II, as the shows were known, were the glory years for the East Coast scene; a time when gigs went ahead, new bands sprang to life, and the older guys started to dream of a coming renaissance. Their feelings were premature, as they would later find out, but as the pair puff away on Dunhill cigarettes and laugh over Bader’s pictures of the show, it is obvious how important the events were to them. “We just rented an empty room. All of the equipment, even the cables, we had to borrow or buy. We set it all up ourselves,” recalls Fawaz. The laptop video footage of SAMETAL I shows the stage curtains open to reveal the four members of Sound of Ruby. They first look down at their instruments, as if nervous, then gaze out at the baying crowd as the drummer starts a heavy four-beat. In the background you can see a set of grubby beige curtains, which gives the impression they are playing in someone’s front room. The long-haired singer smiles, sings his first note, and Bader can’t help but smile.
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“I love this moment. I’ll never forget it,” he says, staring intently at the small screen. After a few seconds, he points at some guys head-banging in the crowd. “Most of them are bald now,” he laughs. Saudi bands basically have two options when they want to play live. Either they rent a space on the outskirts of town — a villa or a farm — or they play at an expat compound, where laws forbidding public gatherings and men and women intermingling are more lax. Four out of six of Saudi Arabia’s live shows since 2001 have taken place in the former, from Dammamfest, which attracted just twenty-five people, to SAMETAL II, which saw 160 turn out for an evening featuring six bands. That was 2005, and 2006 saw the first gig in Jeddah, titled Metal Resurrection, followed by SAMETAL III, which saw five hundred people pack into an expatriate compound in Khobar. Shows followed in Riyadh in 2007 and again in Khobar in 2008, and for a while it began to look like things were really changing. Then came Riyadh 2009, an event that neither Bader or Fawaz want to talk about, but one which has had lasting implications for every band in the kingdom. The bust-up of that gig, the arrests, the attention it drew, had everyone running scared — and still does. There have been no gigs since, and no one really knows when that is likely to change. The Riyadh show had come out of the successes of Jeddah and the SAMETAL gigs, and fans in the Saudi capital wanted to give something back. The problem was that in their enthusiasm they got carried away. On that night, in the summer of 2009, the organisers sold some seven hundred tickets, but the expat compound only admitted four hundred. The three hundred people outside who had paid 150 riyals upfront were angry, someone called the police, and the rest is history.

“After that incident I went online and shut down everything, because I didn’t want to get in trouble,” explains Bader. “I’d just got married, I had my job and my life, and I didn’t want problems because of the fault of others.” “They got reckless, it has to be said,” Fawaz agrees as he snaps the laptop shut and motions to the waiter for the bill. “I don’t have a problem with people trying to do it; it’s just whatever they’re doing is affecting what you started. It affects everyone.”

reeze of the dYinG were one of the bAndS on the biLL in Riyadh and, despite the outcome, guitarist Majed counts it as one of their best ever shows. The six-piece death metal band had left by the time the police arrived, but Majed admits that things have not been the same since. Not that it was the first time his band had had a run in with the authorities. Majed, an English teacher by profession, hails from Jeddah, but when I speak to him over a crackling phone line he’s in Dammam, working as a teacher. Eighteen months ago he was playing with his band when the police busted up a gig and arrested one of their members. The cops quickly realised that the show was not the den of iniquity they first thought, and let him go. “They were searching for drugs and alcohol, but we don’t allow any of that into our shows,” he explains. Given that the genre has attracted such infamy for its use of satanic iconography and violent references, it seems obvious from the outside why Saudi Arabia remains so paranoid about heavy metal. But the bands are universally dismissive of the view that

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their music is contrary to Islam. When I’d questioned Ahmed about this, he sounded frustrated, as if he’d been asked the same question many times before. “Metal has nothing to do with the religion. Music is music, what has religion got to do with it?” Majed also thinks the publicity and accessibility afforded by the Internet has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he is able to promote his band to metal fans anywhere; on the other, it means any idiot with a webcam can speak to the world. One such example, that made headlines earlier this year, was a young man who appeared on MTV wearing a subversive T-shirt telling a reporter about the suppression of the metal scene in Saudi Arabia. “People see that and they think we’re all like that. The authorities have always hated metal music and stuff like that gives them an excuse to act against us. They see these people on the Internet and they say: ‘This is metal music, this is what you guys believe in: Satanism and upside-down crosses.’ I mean, what the f***? That’s not metal. It’s these people who cause the problems,” he explains, angrily. And Majed is right. It is a cruel irony that every time there has been a crackdown in Saudi Arabia it has because bands or individuals have made too much noise. In Riyadh, it was the over-selling of tickets, in Jeddah it was because the religious police had heard about the show on the Internet. Old school veterans like hAtrASh have been dealing with this same problem for years — he was arrested in the 1990s for organising a show in a local restaurant. Attention has always caused trouble for the Saudi metal scene, and so they are left walking a fine line between wanting to play and promote their music, and not wanting to draw attention to themselves.

“Metal has nothing to do with the religion. Music is music, what has religion got to do with it?”
But it is also true that, until last year, very few people had actually been given significant jail time for playing or organising shows in Saudi Arabia. Even in Riyadh, the two organisers were jailed and deported for allowing the mixing of sexes at the show, not for organising the show or playing music, both which were actually perfectly legal within the confines of a private venue. This ambiguity, of course, is both a blessing and a curse for Saudi Arabian musicians — it means that they never know how far to push until it is too late. Saudi Arabia is far too complex to second guess how things will map out, but Fawaz is optimistic about the future. Sure, right now, metal bands are keeping their heads down, but there are progressive forces in play in Saudi Arabia, and the conservatives cannot hold back the tide forever. It could be some time before SAMETAL IV, V or VI, but as long as the bands keep playing, continue to develop their talent and, like Creative Waste, get recognition outside of the Arabian Peninsula, anything is possible. “Things are changing right now,” Fawaz told me as we got up leave the Gulf Pearl Hotel in Bahrain; me back to Dubai, him and Bader back across the twenty-seven kilometre King Fahd Causeway to a country that can often seem like another planet — even if it is just an hour away. “A lot of people don’t think so but it’s happening. Everything from gas stations to parking meters,” he said, and then looked me in the eye, his voice getting quieter, his manner even more sincere. “Saudi Arabia is changing,” he said. “I can feel it.”
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