The anger we’re seeing on the streets of Egypt and in the Arab world has been building for a long time.
There are all sorts of reasons: lack of free speech, dismal economies, and sectarian wars. Some solace can be had through screaming — in a public square, or through song.
And that’s why heavy metal has grown on a parallel track with that anger, especially among young people.
Ophaned Land is a hit among Arabs in the region — even though the place where it’s from isn’t.
The fans have tattoos, leather boots, t-shirts decorated with skulls. The guitarist on stage is a bouncing blob of long hair. Nothing unusual for metal heads.
But then I went backstage and met lead singer Kobi Farhi. And he started talking like a flower child.
“The land who gives us so many fruits so many vegetables, so many air to breath. This is just love.”
Farhi is an Israeli Jew, whose music is creating a stir around the Arab world.
“People stereotype heavy metal as something who is not the way it truly is, we are breaking all stereotypes,” Farhi said. “Simply as that. Of music, of religion, of politics, of nationality: We are just here to break it.”
Farhi wants you to look past his tattoos, all 11 of them, and try to understand why heavy metal speaks to him and to so many young people in the Middle East.
“I was a teenager and when I discovered metal, I felt this is the only true thing that I have discovered in this world. The only thing that was without masks.”
Farhi said he got sick of fanatics masking their beliefs as religion. He got sick of the endless wars plaguing the Middle East. The song “Disciples of the Sacred Oath” is from their latest album. It directly addresses the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the region.
“We are speaking with our Muslim brothers, it’s like we are speaking to them face to face in this song and asking them, ‘shall we see the end of war, blood brothers or shall we fill another grave for ourselves we couldn’t save.’”
But “Disciples of the Sacred Oath” isn’t a song of peace strummed on a guitar around a campfire.
“Yeah, anger is a part of our art. If we want to describe the wrath of god, or if we want to describe the anger of people fighting each other, killing each other in name of God, distorted guitars and growlings will be the best filter to do it,” Farhi said.
Orphaned Land actually came on to the scene 20 years ago, mixing Middle Eastern melodies with quotes from the Koran and the Bible. Another song, Sapari, takes its lyrics from a 400 year old Yemenite Jewish poem.
Ears perked up throughout the region, and the band gained fans in Arab countries, where they usually have no exposure to Israeli culture. For some Arab fans, it’s been risky. Farhi said a while back, an Egyptian fan got six months in jail because he had an Orphaned Land CD. The authorities said the music was Satanism.
Then, when the band went on six-year hiatus — the usual rock band nonsense — they got an email from a fan in Jordan who sent a video attachment showing his tattoo of the Orphaned Land logo.
“This was a moment that changed our life,” Farhi said. “I understood right there, the band is most important thing we could do. So the Israeli Orphaned Land was resurrected by an Arab guy.
When the unrest in Egypt broke out last week, Orphaned Land sent a shout out to their Egyptian fans on Facebook. Many Egyptian fans replied with gratitude. The band recently performed in Turkey, at a time when Turkish Israeli relations are at an all time low. When the band was there, they got a peace award from a Turkish university. And they met fans from Iran and Syria — countries that are sworn enemies of Israel.
“You can still practice your religion and still have peaceful relations with people around you,” said one Israeli fan in Tel Aviv. “So that’s the message and that’s good.”
You don’t need to flood the streets of Tunisia or Egypt to challenge the norm in the Middle East.
Around these parts, subversion can take many forms, from marching in the streets to banging your head to Koranic lyrics and tearing your vocal cords singing Jewish poetry.