Egypt's heavy metal music scene is tiny, largely due to charges of Satanism brought against musicians in the 1990s. With metal making a comeback, a new crop of musicians is wondering where they stand in the new Egypt.
Amr Hefny's small, darkly-lit music studio sits amid an unpaved tangle of back streets in the Cairo suburb of Nasr City. Hefny, a heavyset father of two, says the studio is unlikely to make him a rich man but he has always seen music as a calling despite his role in one of the darkest episodes in recent Egyptian music history.
At the age of 20, Hefny played in a heavy metal band called "Severed." He doesn't remember their lyrics as particularly dark, nor would he characterize himself as particularly alienated, an argument which failed to impress Egyptian security forces who burst into his mother's house in January 1997.
"They were like SWAT teams in [the] USA," Hefny says of the men who arrested him. "They started tearing everything apart. I was asking: 'What do you want?' And then [one of them] turned to me and said, 'Amr, do you listen to black metal?'"
Amr, along with around 20 other metal musicians and several dozen fans were held in Cairo's notorious Tora prison on charges of Satanism. The authorities accused them of unearthing corpses and taking part in orgies. The Egyptian press, not to be outdone, printed rumors that the young people drank the blood of cats.
After a month in prison, Amr was released. Authorities could find no evidence of any wrongdoing, nothing, in fact, more damning than a few "Guns N' Roses" tapes and "Metallica" posters confiscated from bedrooms.
In the wake of the arrests, Egypt's heavy metal scene went far underground, and today it is devout but tiny. The memory of the 1997 arrests has been passed down to young musicians who were children at the time.
"In my work, everyone, when they know I'm in a metal band they're like, 'Oh, but you're so nice,'" says Rasha Magdy Sayed, a teacher who, along with her husband Wael Osama, sings in a band called "Enraged." "And I'm like, 'do I have to be an evil person or a depressed person to love metal?"
So when charges of Satanism reemerged after a heavy metal concert in September at a popular venue called El Sawy Culture Wheel, which is well-known for its emphasis on good, clean fun, some of the musicians were shaken.
"I got worried first," said Sherif Tarek Saad, who fronts a heavy metal band called "Origin." "I had some worries about whether we are gonna enter legal issues or not."
The accusations were levied by a lawyer from the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of Egypt's mostly moderate, fearsomely-organized Muslim Brotherhood, whose dominance in post-revolution Egypt is best illustrated by the ascendance of long-time Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, to the presidency earlier this year.
But this time around, much seems to be different. The lawyer who filed the charges dropped them not long after several metal musicians took to YouTube in homemade videos that mocked the claim that Satanist rituals were held at the concert. The Muslim Brotherhood publicly rebuked the lawyer. And in a statement to local papers, El Sawy Culture Wheel disavowed the charges.
Polite young men and women
Amr Hefny has a theory as to why things are different now. During his imprisonment 15 years ago, he was housed next to young, devout Muslims who were swept up as part of an Egyptian government campaign to crack down on a relatively small but violent group of extremists who committed acts of terror in 1990's Egypt. At first, the two groups clashed, but after realizing they were all being held unjustly, they became friends.
Perhaps the Brotherhood, long forced underground by repressive tactics during the era of Hosni Mubarak, has some sympathy for the young metal musicians, who, aside from unruly mops of curly hair, are keen, polite young men and women.
In any event, says Mohamed Akram, an "Origin" guitarist who was playing the night of the concert that sparked the accusations of Satanism, this time around metal musicians have some powerful allies on their side.
"Our parents were there [at that] last concert. And the one before it. And the one before it. They don't miss a single concert of ours." He laughs, sounding not the slightest bit embarrassed by the admission. "Origin has the most supportive parents in the whole world."
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