Oppression, harrasment and escape – An inside story of metal in Syria

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Firas Ghrawi is just like you and me. He enjoys metal music. He goes to death metal concerts regul… no wait! He comes from Syria, and back home, even long before the war, heavy metal fans were being harrassed by police and sort of shunned by society. It was, and is, really an underground thing. Really. I mean really. A music culture that most people do not know anything about.

So Firas fled the country. And then came the war, and his countrymen followed his example. For other reasons. This is an interview I’ve wanted to do since maybe a year back. Firas Ghrawi runs the Facebook group Syrian MetalHeads in Istanbul, and this is his story:

I have heard that, because of the anti-religious lyrics, black metal and death metal is not allowed in Syria – is that true? Please explain!

– Actually it’s not because of the anti-religious lyrics. When the Syrian regime started to arrest people they didn’t know the difference between heavy metal or black metal or even pop music. Like, even if you wear a t-shirt for Metallica that is a good reason to be a satanic guy and worship Satan according to them.

– I had many friends that was arrested in Syria in 2001 because of wearing black t-shirts and because of having long hair. They simply force them to admit that they worship Satan and to tell them how they do it.

What did the arrest include?

– They cut their hair and went to each one’s room and broke their CDs so they will stop listening to music. Then, by time, they got some metal heads who can help the police to determine the difference between each genre to help out when questioning people.

As a kid, brought up in Syria, how did you discover metal? By friends? The Internet?

– Well, for me I started listening to metal from my older brother in like 1998 maybe or later. He used to bring records of Iron Maiden and Metallica and I remember listening to the black album by Metallica, and Fear of the Dark by Iron Maiden and my best experience was Dead winter dead by Savatage. I remember buying my first original CD, it was Orphaned Land – El Nora Elila in 2001.

How did your family react?

– Sure I had many problems with my family due to them already having the same mentality that metal means worshiping Satan and they used to tell me that I worship Satan and so on.

– I tried to tell them the differences between genres but it did not work out.

– By time I started listening to black metal bands such as Dimmu Borgir and Satyricon because as you know also in black metal there are many genres so I prefer symphonic more that just black. It’s not my favorite.

– Now my current metal genre is doom/death and my favorite band is the Swedish band Draconian and Finnish band Swallow the sun.

How was a concert arranged, including how did the bands attract audience?

– I used to attend concerts in Syria in cinemas. Like ”local bands play covers”. The audience was like let’s say a 500 attendees because of the small area that was as I remember it. This was like back in 2005.

– Two times after concerts police took names and arrested people. Then I haven’t heard about concerts in Syria for a while and then when I came to Turkey I attended real festivals and concerts by real bands which was in 2009. It was a dream to attend a real festival

Before the war, did you travel to Istanbul for concerts with bigger bands?

– Yes, but not only to attend concerts. My first visit was in 2009 and my first concert was in 2010.

– I traveled to Istanbul because I couldn’t go to Germany or England so Turkey was the easiest option because I felt for a long time I don’t belong to Syrian society because in general people think metal in Syria means worshiping satan and people ignore us.

How did you end up in Istanbul?

– I wanted to escape Syria anywhere since 2005 I tried to go to Germany and England but that didn’t work out so I planned to go to Turkey in 2009 and I learned Turkish.

– I didn’t imagine the civil war would happen, if I knew I would rather go to Sweden or Norway. Nowadays we are facing racism in Turkey due to Syrian refugee cases.

Could you develop this? Many Syrians in Sweden face racism as well from some swedes, but on the other hand, many swedes welcome the refugees and help them.

– Well I can’t say that the Turkish are complete racist against us. And of course there is really good people who helped me. I hate to generalize any matter, but like generally it’s like this:

– When someone knows I am Syrian they start talking about how there are four million refugees in Turkey which I have nothing to do with, they show me a beggar and tell me that he comes from my country. And the problem is that they refer to you to politics in Turkey so if you don’t support Assad so you must be supporting Erdogan or what ever. And I don’t want to involve myself into Turkish politics but I can’t find a link between merging Syrian and Turkish politics, each one has its own separate issues .

– When I want to rent a home, or find a job – which is not easy to find and even if I found a job it’s at least 30 % less that a normal salary.

Where are you going? Will you stay in Turkey? Do you have a job?

– Well if I may go to any other country it will be Germany or Sweden, ”the land of Doom metal”. I am now working with renting daily apartment since two years.

Torbjörn Hallgren

Mohammad Al Balout

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