AMMAN, Jordan — Muhannad Bursheh hardly seems like the kind of guy who would be viewed as a troublemaker. He’s an audio engineering student enthusiastic about ancient Middle Eastern mythology and he lives with his family in Abdoun, one of Amman’s upscale neighborhoods. But Bursheh is also the member of three heavy metal groups.
Though they don’t sing about Satanism or anarchy — most of his band’s songs are about Mesopotamian and Nabataean legends — his group, Tyrant Throne, is at odds with many Jordanians who believe they are Satanists, so like most heavy metal bands they have a difficult time playing in Jordan.
In one of the Middle East’s more liberal countries, heavy metal music has become a flash point for freedom of expression. Though most groups popular within the subculture don’t sing about anything contrary to the government or religion, they’re unable to book gigs in Jordan because of misconceptions about metal.
"It comes and goes. You have two years of total freedom of metal in Jordan and then three years of nothingness, which is where we’re living now, with no gigs or nothing, so all you do is work for yourself and promote yourself outside Jordan," Bursheh said.
In the 1990s, Jordan had a respectable metal scene. It wasn’t major, but there were regular concerts and several specialized shops that sold albums and paraphernalia by the likes of Iron Maiden and Twisted Sister.
But some time around the late '90s without any clear explanation the shops were closed and concerts weren’t allowed. Since then, acceptance of heavy metal has varied from year to year, leaving metal heads only to speculate.
Most recently, heavy metal shows were tolerated for much of 2005 and 2006, but in 2007 acceptance of metal declined and now groups say its impossible to book concerts in Jordan.
Part of their trouble may have to do with the widely held public perception that heavy metal music is a form of satanic worship. Throughout Jordan rumors circulate that metal heads do everything from drink cat’s blood to inject themselves with a magical green liquid that allows them to play the guitar perfectly. Many of these stories are printed in major newspapers.
“The most dangerous thing to metal in Jordan is bad news articles,” said Rami Haikal, a guitarist for Bilocate.
Additionally, metal heads are viewed as slackers or delinquents, whereas in Jordan many tend to come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds where they were exposed to Western culture. Members from some of Jordan’s most successful heavy metal bands have day jobs as computer programmers, managers and youth counselors.
"I’m a family man. I have two kids. I sustain a good and responsible life and yet I pursued my passion for music," said Hani Abadi, a bassist in Bilocate whose day job is working as a personnel manager.
Groups can still rehearse in private and even broadcast their music over the Internet. Most groups also travel outside of Jordan to perform. While Europe has hosted concerts for several Jordanian metal groups, other Arab countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Dubai allow performances, though metal heads say that could change just as easily as it does in Jordan.
For Haikal, who says most of his band’s music focuses on human emotion in difficult situations, it can be frustrating to hear other types of music that are allowed in the country without facing any serious scrutiny. In one of Amman’s Western-style malls where he used to work, he says stores often played pop songs with obscenities and overt sexual innuendo.
"Parents were going around the store and they just ignored it, but if you put on metal music, they’d say 'Oh no, this is the devil’s music! Stop it!'" he said.
Abadi acknowledges that heavy metal’s angry sounds might be off-putting for some people, but he says it is just an emotional outlet. Many of his band’s songs have an anti-war theme, which he says it’s hard not to get angry about.
"You can’t talk about war and have this kind of Back Streets Boys vocals in the background. The issues we tackle are very serious and when you’re angry you don’t talk in a normal tone, you shout … and you get relief out of it," he said.
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