Heavy metal unites Jews, Muslims across Middle East

While Israel’s relationship with Arab, Muslim world has deteriorated, a Israeli heavy metal band is uniting them.

Music is the key (photo credit: Reuters)
Music is the key
(photo credit: Reuters)
Sometimes change happens in the most unlikely ways, fostered by the most unlikely people. In the past few years, while Israel’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim world has drastically deteriorated, an Israeli heavy metal band has been uniting thousands of Jews and Muslims across the Middle East.
Orphaned Land, Israel’s biggest heavy metal band, are credited both with pioneering the genre of Middle Eastern metal and – to many people’s surprise – with garnering thousands of fans in the Muslim and Arab world: from Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran (despite the fact that their music is banned in many of those countries).
Many of those followers are diehard fans: they travel far to get to Orphaned Land concerts (mainly in Turkey); have a strong facebook presence; tattoo the band’s logo on their bodies; create Orphaned Land artwork; play covers of the band and post them online; and even dance to their music in weddings.
Orphaned Land, who are not overtly political, are nevertheless proud of having created a reality of coexistence that has escaped politicians and peacemakers. They often speak of the power of music to turn purported enemies into friends; frequently pay homage and encourage collaborations with Arab and Muslim artists; and have made their latest album free to download for anyone in a number of Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Reciprocating the band’s courageous efforts to cross religious and national boundaries, Divan, an Iranian rock magazine, featured Orphaned Land on their cover in an eightpage spread. In 2010, the band was awarded a peace prize by Istanbul Commerce University for their contribution to the friendship between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East. And in February, in a five-city tour of Turkey (in which proceeds from the Istanbul concert went to the victims of a recent earthquake), Orphaned Land was awarded The Friendship and Peace Award from Dr. Huseyin Tugcu, official advisor to Prime Minster Erdogan.
How did this happen and what can we learn from it? The story of an Israeli band’s surprising success in the Muslim and Arab world rests on three pillars: Music, exemplars and community.
Heavy metal is a growing genre in the Middle East and North Africa. Orphaned Land pioneered a style that fuses heavy metal with traditional Middle Eastern instruments, melodies and rhythms. In so doing, they managed to not only tap into a regional aesthetic sensibility, but also to demonstrate that the Jewish people have roots in the Middle East, and that engagement with globalization does not necessarily have to lead to the erasure of local culture.
SINGING IN English, Arabic and Hebrew, Orphaned Land has peppered their lyrics (which often deal with the struggle of light over darkness) with quotes from the Torah, New Testament and the Koran (the latter of which they received some criticism for). With a vision of ecumenical spirituality, Orphaned Land has also managed to connect with an ever-opening religious sensibility that is part and parcel of the modern Middle East.
As for setting an example, over the years, Orphaned Land have worked with Muslim and Arab artists. On their latest album, The Never Ending Way of ORWarriOR (2010), the band joined forces with the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth as well as Zen Two, a Jordanian artist who designed the artwork (striking calligraphy fusing Hebrew and Arabic words) for the album.
Last summer the band caused an international uproar when Lebanese belly dancer Johanna Fakhri joined the band in front of 30,000 fans and the two raised their respective flags together in a show of unity. And just this year, the band embarked on a European tour with a Tunisian and Algerian opening act; the first Jewish-Muslim heavy metal tour of its kind. For Orphaned Land and the artists who work with them, these types of collaborations are micro-proofs that coexistence is a real possibility.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Orphaned Land model is the community that has formed around the band. On Orphaned Land’s official Facebook page, for example, which has over 60,000 members, (10,000-plus from Turkey alone), fans from all over the word leave messages for the band, add articles and videos and interact with one another.
The importance of the Orphaned Land community lies in the boundary-crossing ties that are established. There are very few places, virtual or real, that allow for communication and contact between Muslims, Arabs and Jews from the region. The fact that all share a love for the music provides a common identity that connects the people together.
The ties that are created make it harder for people to negatively communicate with one another. Many fans, by their own admission, explain that being a fan of Orphaned Land has transformed the way they understand one another, the conflict, and the potential for positive change.
During times of crisis the fans reach out to one another.
For example, on March 21, 2012, a day after a radical Muslim entered a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, and shot to death three children and a teacher, a fan posted the following message from Syria: “On my behalf and for all Syrians, offer condolences to the lives of children who were killed in France and it is impossible to this act to be related with our morals or our religion or defend our cause, that barbaric act is crime against humanity, I hope they rest in peace and prayer for their lives... with deep sorrow to their families we know how it feels like nowadays :( ” It would be easy to dismiss Orphaned Land as an aberration of no real significance. After all, how does a story of an Israeli band with Arab and Muslim fans compete with headlines about conflict? And yet, to do so is to misunderstand the potentially transformative power that is being created.
Orphaned Land have at once weakened destructive patterns of perception and communication, and helped build new forms of relations and recognition about what is possible.
The key is not to invest all our hopes in one heavy metal band, but rather to become cognizant of how positive change can take root.
The writer is a Professor of conflict resolution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He is also a graduate student at Columbia University and George Mason University.