It’s Friday, and while most of Kirkuk’s men are heading to mosque, the only death metal band in the city is beginning their weekly practice.
An ethnically mixed city in northern Iraq, Kirkuk has perhaps a million inhabitants, predominantly Arab, Kurd and Turkmen, with a handful of other minorities among them. Historically Turkmen, or Kurdish – depending on who you ask – Kirkuk’s demography changed significantly from the 1960s on under an ‘Arabisation’ campaign enforced by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. No one today knows the city’s precise ethnic mix, because holding a census is too politically fraught. Both the Baghdad federal government and the Kurdish autonomous region want authority over Kirkuk, while the city’s Turkmen want some kind of local autonomy.
Arguably, the real reason for the fight over Kirkuk lies beneath: oil, an estimated 9 billion barrels, about ten per cent of Iraq’s total reserves. But while the oil is extracted and the two administrations argue over the profit, Kirkuk itself receives little. According to a compensation scheme, Kirkuk is supposed to receive a share, but this hasn’t been paid since 2013 and the city is owed well over a billion dollars from the federal and Kurdish governments. The result is decrepit infrastructure, poor services and scarce job opportunities.
What Kirkuk does produce in abundance – and it’s not unique in Iraq for this – is frustrated young men with few outlets or opportunities. Some of Kirkuk’s Sunni Arabs have joined the Islamic State; a young Turkmen might join a Shi’a militia; and disaffected Kurds who don’t care for the Kurdistan Regional Government and their Peshmerga forces are increasingly joining the Kurdistan Workers Party (a group listed as a terrorist organisation by the European Union, the United States and Turkey). Most young men just want to get out. Murad and his bandmates formed Dark Phantom.
Playing in a heavy metal band is an unorthodox choice for men who grew up in such a conservative society. Their affinity for western music sets them at odds with their community. And while the anger in their music is directed at the political leaders they view as responsible for their economic situation, they themselves are the target of Islamic extremists, who view them as satanists. In a city where security forces regularly make raids on suspected supporters of Islamic State – which abhors western culture and outlaws music – that threat is real.
It all started with Metallica. In 2003, in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq, a friend gave Murad Khalid a CD. Today he’s a twenty-seven-year-old electrician at a power station with a long goatee and tattoos but back then he was just an impressionable Turkmen teenager. The music was unlike anything he’d ever heard before. He immediately shared it with his cousin Rebeen Hasem. “They were talking about war – like our situation,” Murad recalls. “We liked that.”
Heavy metal became an obsession and they downloaded all they could. They bought guitars and taught themselves to play. Murad plastered the walls of his bedroom with pictures of his favourite bands torn from magazines obtained in Turkey. Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth took pride of place. By 2007, they were ready to take the next step. “We were thinking, why not create a metal band here in our city?” Murad says.
From the beginning, the challenges were formidable. Finding the time and money to play is tough in a city where just surviving is a challenge, says Sermet Jalal, the third Turkmen member of Dark Phantom. Like his fellow band members, the twenty-five-year-old works six days a week. Before dawn he leaves on his commute to his job as an air-conditioning technician in a cement factory in the nearby city of Sulaymaniyah. It’s dusty, monotonous work, with overbearing management, and all for $750 a month. “I feel like a robot,” he says of his day-to-day existence.
To pay the rent on their practice space (around $200 a month), the band pool their money and share the room with Sermet’s brother’s Turkish rock band. When they were getting started, they took a collection among their friends and classmates at the technical institute where Murad, Rebeen and Sermet were studying and raised nearly $300. Today, they help each other out with loans when they are short of money. Still, it’s tough. Their first drummer left in frustration. “He said, ‘I pay for music, but music won’t pay for me,’” Murad says. “He’s working in a mobile phone market now, he left music behind.”
In 2011, Dark Phantom played their first concert in Kirkuk. “Three hundred people came, the show was amazing,” says Murad. “The young people didn’t know what heavy metal was but they saw us playing with a lot of energy and power on the stage and they liked it.”
Then the death threats came. “People were talking, saying: ‘Satan is in our city.’” Murad recalls. Anonymous threats appeared on the band’s Facebook page. “The threats said: ‘Don’t play, it is forbidden in Islam,’” Murad remembers. Their singer at the time grew afraid. He lived in a dangerous area to the south of the city. His brother had already been injured in a terrorist bombing in Mosul. He decided it was time to leave and moved to Turkey. “He left a great job as an engineer too,” Murad says.
The rest of the band closed their social media profiles and laid low. They missed playing together though, as it was their only real outlet. “I play when I’m angry,” Sermet says. “No smoking, no drinking, just metal.”
Eventually, Murad thought “maybe they forgot about us,” and the band started rehearsing again. Mahmood Qassem, a thirty-two-year-old Arab electrician joined on drums and an online search brought in vocalist Mir Shamal, twenty-two, a Kurdish radio DJ from Sulimaniyah and the only band member not from Kirkuk. They played shows in the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. Rawand Khalid Saeed, a programming student at the University of Kurdistan Hewler, saw the band play in Erbil. “They were great,” he says. While most of the crowd didn’t know what they were seeing, according to Rawand, he and his friends were in the front row, head-banging.
The band’s families still worry for their safety, though. “They think, what if some people come and kill me?” Sermet says.
One day last summer, Sermet and his wife got into an argument. Islamic State had recently taken control of large areas of the country and threatened to overrun Kirkuk. Sermet wanted a better life for his soon-to-be-born son and thought it was time to leave. Four of his brothers were already overseas, one in Finland. “They have too much metal in Finland,” Sermet says. “Every day my brother tells me: ‘Come!’”
But his wife couldn’t bear to leave behind her family. Sermet grew angry and punched a window in frustration. Broken glass slashed the tendon of his little finger. Today an angry scar on the back of his hand reminds him of the argument and his pinkie no longer moves when he plays.
The band is tight, blasting through song after song with barely a pause. After an hour, practice is over and the band walks to a local kebab shop. “Down there is gold,” Sermet says, kicking the pavement. He’s talking about black gold. “But up here,” – he takes in the potholed road and dilapidated buildings – “destruction.”
They’ve heard about what happened in Paris, where gunmen killed eighty-nine people at an Eagles of Death Metal concert, and are in a reflective mood. “They were all innocent,” Murad says. “It’s not about religion – they were Jews, Muslims, all people killed in the attacks.”
Later they head to Murad’s bedroom studio at his mother’s house. They’re working on their first full-length album due out next year. They’re introducing some local influences, writing a song with Arabic lyrics. “We insert some eastern stuff into the death metal,” Murad says. “Oriental riffs.”
They’re also mixing in politics, with charged lyrics railing against the corruption they see in Iraqi politics, as they work on their album, Nation of Dogs. They already have cover art; it depicts a parliament of dogs, wolves and donkeys surrounded by piles of money. “Our government is like a nation of dogs, they fuck us every day,” Murad explains.
But their creativity doesn’t come without risk. In this part of the world calling someone a dog is a grievous insult and taking aim at corruption can be even more dangerous than antagonising religious extremists. In 2010, a Kurdish student who wrote a poem criticising corruption in the Kurdish government was kidnapped and later found dead on the side of a road. No one was ever tried for his murder.
Still, Murad hopes the release of their album will bring their music to a wider audience. “We just want to explain our situation to the people by this music,” he says. “We’re not talking about satan or religion, we’re just talking about our situation.”
Metal is the perfect medium to express these frustrations, says Deena Weinstein, a sociology professor at DePaul University who has researched the globalisation of metal music. Weinstein’s research shows that metal music appeals especially to marginalised groups – “people who have been fucked by the establishment,” in her words. “Some of them go into crazy right wing militia groups, others go into metal,” she says. “For young people concerned with your place in the world and with the future of your country, they’re both options that young men can choose.”
Right now, Dark Phantom are unable to play live or plan any gigs; they’re forced to remain underground, practising when they can in their tiny rehearsal space, for fear of reprisals. Ultimately, though, Murad and the rest of the band hope their place in the world will involve playing to an appreciative audience. “Every underground band dreams of playing on the big stage,” he says. “Money is not my dream. My dream is to play some place in Europe or the US. Why not?”
The dream may seem farfetched but is not entirely without precedent. In the early 2000s, a group of teenage metalheads in Baghdad in a similar situation formed a band, Acrassicauda. During the war their lives descended into chaos, two of the band members were almost killed in an explosion and then their rehearsal studio was blown up by a rocket. Like Dark Phantom, they faced death threats from Islamic militants who took them for devil worshippers. They fled into exile, first to Syria and then to Turkey. Their story had a happy ending, though. After featuring in a Vice documentary, the band gained widespread recognition and finally received refugee status in the US, settling in New Jersey.
Dark Phantom have of course heard of them. “They are big, one of the famous,” Murad says. “And they got out.”
For now, Dark Phantom are working on recording the vocals for the album. In one of their latest songs, Mir sings: “Metal is what we do / War is what we fight / Guitar is our gun / Mic is our knife / Music is what we spread / Revolution is what we want / We are Dark Phantom / We will never stop.”
By: Campbell MacDiarmid, 24 March 2016, Huck Magazine, http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/music-2/kirkuks-metal-band-defying-isis-iraq/