Samples of Middle Eastern music, voices of poised intellectuals and angry children, heavy guitars, and growling apocalyptic vocals from punk rock band Al-Thawra produce an effect as jarring as the imagery of Orientalism, war, and repression. Described in terms of a seamless cultural crossroads, eastern and western fusion, and multiculturalism, Al-Thawra (meaning “revolution” in Arabic) has been associated with Taqwacore, a musical scene centered on the seemingly irreconcilable realms of hardcore punk and Islam.
Formed in Chicago during the Iraq War, Al-Thawra reflects far more than identity politics; the music’s themes reflect the band’s engagement with issues ranging from the Iraq War to Gaza to Orientalism in a post-9/11 America. This earnest engagement is at a crossroads of aesthetics, imagery, and voices, where current representations of war, repression, and otherness are delivered.
In a conversation with Al-Thawra vocalist and guitarist Marwan Kamel, Aslan Media contributing writer Nahrain Al-Mousawi discussed the importance of being earnest, Taqwacore, Islam, Kamel’s Syrian roots and his thoughts on the current situation unfolding in his country.
Aslan Media: You’ve been described as a Taqwacore band. What does Taqwacore mean?
Marwan Kamel: The word “taqwacore” is an amalgamation of the Arabic word/Islamic term, “taqwa,” which means something like “devotion,” and “hardcore,” a reference to the hardcore punk sub-genre. Either way, it implies earnestness in both music and your relationship to religion. The term was coined by Michael Muhammad Knight in his 2005 novel, The Taqwacores. Initially, he intended for the novel to be his farewell to Islam, or at least the closed world of Islam he knew at the time, and in it, he fantasized about a world where there was room for people to be complicated in either their belief or disbelief as they liked. By 2007, a bunch of musicians were connected by the term (and through Mike Knight), not by virtue of their music or ideas sharing commonalities, but because of a very general like-mindedness in a post-9/11 America. In reality, we were all very different, but we were glad to be creating a space where we could create dialogue and be complicated–or at least I was. And because of very sexy headlines with “Muslim-American,” “rebellious” and “punks” as the favored buzzwords, the media ran away with it and created the illusion of a cohesive genre.
But these are some of the same reasons why my relationship with the whole thing was kind of complicated and why we’ve both embraced and distanced ourselves from the genre at different times. First of all, I was reluctant because I started my band before I even knew that Taqwacore existed. I was excited to meet other people who were feeling like the “other,” as Edward Said says in Orientalism, and I was excited by the prospect of creating a place where we could explore the identity politics of “outsider-ness” (I know I just made that word up). But later I felt like the media coverage was very tokenizing and sensational, which effectively ended up exploiting caricatures of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and, generally, Muslim imagery to subtly imply the West was winning some kind of cultural war. No one talked about the complexities, and instead stuck with the tired, old idea of the “Clash of Civilizations” and the dichotomy of East vs. West. I also felt like I became part of a marketing gimmick. But, as a band, we wanted to explore so much more, so we set off on our own.
AM: What is the significance of Islam, and the earnest relationship to religion, as you describe it, to your music, artwork, and performances?
MK: I think it’s more of a vague cultural influence more than anything. I don’t really find it relevant to be proselytizing or somehow toting around Muslim culture as some sort of exclusive club in our music. At the same time, we draw upon imagery that comes from Islamic poetry, art, and music, because it’s part of our cultural context and it’s part of where we’re coming from, albeit in a secular way. It’s about taking traditional elements and reusing them because of their power, while leaving behind dogma. It’s as if we’re taking the cuttings of the roots from a plant so that we can plant it elsewhere, where its context may give it a different meaning. A flower in an open prairie may just get lost in the landscape, but if it’s put in a pot on winter windowsill, it becomes a focal point.
AM: So what are the musical, literary, political, urban, or local scenes from which you feel your music and performances really emerged?
MK: We’ve really bastardized and hybridized a bunch of different influences. We take bits and pieces of inspiring moments from all across the map, and try to leave out others. Often established scenes and genres can be suffocating because people do whatever it takes to fit into whatever the mold and mindset of a respective community may be. As the infamous anarcho-punk band A//political once sloganeered [sic], “Punk is a ghetto.” It’s ironic that this once-visceral and free-of cultural-expressions has now become so mired down and choked on its own bullshit that any people thinking, feeling, and looking different are essentially punished by stigmatization and are ostracized for committing thought crimes.
AM: What has the biggest influence on your music?
MK: It’s really difficult to answer the first question, because it’s always changing. We take things from all over the map. Maybe it’s safer to say that we’re influenced by specific aesthetics or moods from various times and places. In the beginning it may have been people like rai star, Rachid Taha; experimental electronic artist, Muslimgauze; seminal punk band, Crass; or crust pioneers, Amebix; but later on it became equally informed by people like post-metal band, Neurosis; goth musicians like Bauhaus or Peter Murphy; post-punks like Joy Division; or even something as simple as a Munir Bachir oud improvisation. We’re not as concerned with the cults of personality behind the people who made these things, as much as we’re concerned with the various contexts in which their brilliance shined. We have little time for rock stars, but a lot of time for some of their great works.
Even thing we read, from Frantz Fanon to Ibn Arabi to Borges to E.E. Cummings have influenced us just as much. Sometimes influences are a bit more nebulous than people make them out to be.
Our music is also influenced by our personal experiences or experiences to which we have a connection. Our identities are politicized because they are under the gun. Whether it’s being an immigrant in a sometimes hostile land, feeling like an outsider as a first-generation Arab-American in a post-9/11 America, caught between two-worlds because of mixed ethnicity, or working shitty dead-end jobs and getting evicted from our house, all of it is in there. We exist in a cultural gray zone and we want to create something that expresses that.
AM: Your new song “Psalm of the Sniper” is about the revolt in Syria. Can you tell me more about the song?
MK: It’s just expressing frustration with the repression on behalf of the regime, alienation at the world and Syria being forgotten by the rest of the world, only to be watched as some kind of horror series on TV or worse, as a spectator sport like gladiators in Rome. We have a tendency of writing songs as quick reactions to things we see happening in the world. We initially blanketed this song in metaphors because I was afraid of mukhabarat reprisals against my family, as so many critical poets have been killed for saying much less, and have had their families intimidated. At this point, though, the situation has become so dire that I want to release the song as quick as possible to show the Syrian people that not everyone has forgotten about them. There was a huge musical movement against Apartheid in South Africa and even songs and songs dedicated to the Cold War and all sorts of other things, but sometimes no one is speaking up for the moments like these that humanity is at its worst.
AM: Do you consider yourself an activist?
MK: To say that I was once an activist is probably more accurate. Although I guess it really depends on how you define it. In the US, there are a lot of “sport activists” that take on a long laundry-list of causes and go to endless demonstrations until they–usually–get jaded with politics out of frustration. In some sense, I feel like it’s a fashion for some, while it’s something that I take very seriously. What I mean is that I no longer frequent protests as I once did, but I think that maybe my activist streak has taken on a different form, in which I think I can possibly be more effective–through music.
I’ve also become really jaded by the recent inactivity of the activist community in the U.S. concerning the wholesale slaughter by the Syrian government of Syrian dissidents in Homs, Hama, Daraa, Rif Dimashq and other places. I’m not really sure what the problem is. Maybe the situation is too ideologically complicated. Maybe it’s because of the possibility of a Western influence if Assad falls, or the fear of sounding like a Bush-era war-monger if they call for intervention, or the fact that the Syrian regime isn’t a Western puppet regime taking its orders from Washington, or because of a lack of issues popular within the American activist community, the situation isn’t clear-cut in any way. I personally think Western influence could be detrimental as well, but that really doesn’t matter. In any case, as we’re trying to iron out the situation to make it fit neatly into our respective ideological boxes, people are dying in droves. So, in effect, you have the same people who are screaming about discriminatory politics being a violation of human rights in one place, saying absolutely fuck-all when almost 10,000 people are killed in the open with heavy artillery, sniper rifles, tanks, and machine guns.
A lot of people will probably try to call me out and say that I should be organizing protests if it bothers me so much, and I would gladly oblige them, except that none of them would show up.