Heavy-metal music, fans re-emerging in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — On a makeshift stage in a neglected wedding hall, Ahmed Salhi and his heavy-metal bandmates swigged vodka and screamed into their microphones, even though it was still midafternoon.

The songs were angry, the music was loud and the fans were enthralled; some dived into the crowd and pushed against one another as they banged their heads to the beat of the drums. Young women stood by the stage with black nail polish covering their fingertips, dark eyeliner circling their eyes and their feet decked in Converse tennis shoes.

But the scene brought reminders that this was still a city somewhere between peace and war. With Baghdad streets still too dangerous for many nighttime outings, this concert started at 3 p.m. Curtains were used to block out the daylight. Nothing much could be done about the roses, doves and butterflies on the wedding hall's wallpaper. But no one else would rent space to the young rebels with long beards and tattooed fans.

The performance was the first heavy-metal concert in Baghdad in more than a year, a moment of escape and fun for the crowd of about 300 people in a place where there is little to be celebrated. But the music also is a rebellion against the violence, sectarianism and division that leave Iraq on edge.

There was a small heavy-metal scene here early in the decade. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, more bands emerged, hoping to take advantage of a newfound freedom of speech — only to see violence engulf the nation and their music silenced.

More recently, the music has started to return.

This band is called Fatalogy, "the science of death," drummer Rafi Saib explained. "Our music is realistic," Saib said the day before the concert, stroking his long goatee. "Thrash metal speaks to war, to our situation here."

The band is not isolated from the daily hardships of living in this capital. The lead vocalist, Aws Adnan, fled to Belgium because of threats and violence, and Salhi was brought in to replace him. Saib's family, which is Christian, is hoping to leave the country after a slew of attacks on the Christian community. His sister and mother rarely leave the house because of the danger.

Fatalogy rehearses at Saib's house because the others are worried that the noise would draw too much attention. Their music is not accepted by many; in the past, Islamic militants have threatened musicians for playing. After a recent spike in violence in Baghdad, Saib considered postponing the concert. But he decided that no time was a good time and that they would play.