Rock in a Hard Place

How Bashar Haroun is striving to keep metal alive in Syria

Haroun performs at The Rock Cave in Aleppo
Hazem Abdul Raouf
By Daniel J. Gerstle
Dec 17, 2013

"C'MON, SYRIA!" BASHAR HAROUN, the 28-year-old singer of heavy metal band Reaction, calls out from the stage to the restless crowd at Al Zahraa Cinema in the Syrian coastal city of Lattakia. “We’ll show the world that even in this crisis we still believe in metal.” Over the past decade, Haroun has become a driving force for the Syrian heavy metal community. He has run several bands, the Rock Cave concert series, and a recording studio during the crisis. While many Syrian artists have fled the violence in their homeland, Haroun’s concession has been to move from his hometown of Aleppo to the safer (relatively speaking) Lattakia so he can continue producing music inside Syria. Haroun, like his band and co-producers, doesn’t want to talk about politics. He just wants to make loud, furious music, and help Syria’s growing metal community go global.

While relatively small, this August gig in Lattakia marked the start of a new chapter in Haroun’s efforts to continue his work in the face of extreme barriers. And more concerts would follow, with Haroun fronting yet another band, Slumpark Correctional.

“To be a metalhead in Syria,” Haroun tells Rolling Stone, “is to be surrounded by many dangers. I’m just a guy who still believes in music, especially metal and rock, and I also believe that Syrian society can lead an important movement in this area and join international metal, maybe just like the U.S.A., Norway or Sweden. I’ll never stop before I get this done.”

BORN AND RAISED IN ALEPPO, Haroun was 13 when Metallica’s ReLoad (particularly “The Memory Remains”) introduced him to metal. He knew right then that he would make music. He just didn’t know how.

Syria – despite a thriving creative scene – was not culturally open to metalheads. But Haroun found a guitar and quickly learned to play several hard rock and thrash staples, before diving right into doom and death metal. He felt like the only kid from his neighborhood into this controlled noise.

“I was kicked out of school because of the way I looked,” he says. “It’s like society wants you to walk with closed eyes only on their path. If you open your eyes then you’re different, and if you’re different then you’re dangerous. The first day I met a metalhead friend it was like an oasis in the desert.”

As Haroun tackled his first thrash riffs in the Nineties, a band now considered the founders of Syrian oriental metal were starting to make waves in Aleppo; Nu.Clear.Dawn. Around 2005, they were joined by The Hourglass, based in nearby Homs and led by guitarist and writer Rawad Abdel Massih, soon to be an ally of Haroun. The Hourglass landed cameos from Savatage members Jon Oliva and Zak Stevens on their debut album. Weaving traditional heavy metal spiced with thrash with theatrical vocals, The Hourglass showed local kids like Haroun that there was a future in homegrown Oriental metal.

“In those days, it was very hard to be in a metal band because the government had a strong hand over metal bands and fans,” Massih says. “There were huge misconceptions about us – assuming incorrectly we were into Satanism or drugs.” Plus, he adds, social media and other online platforms for artists were not so prevalent in Syria at that time.

Many bands, Massih explains, would do some cover shows, record a few originals, and then decide they would have to leave the country to fulfil their creative ambitions. Or they’d simply give up. Haroun formed his first bands in Aleppo: The Ominous (a thrash cover troupe founded in 2003) and, two years later, Orion, an influential progressive metal band performing originals and covers. It wasn’t easy. Not only did they face the financial challenges of bands all over the world, but also the additional hassle of having no recording studios around that catered to metalheads, and of never knowing when the police – or just the general public – would come in and pull the plug. Within a few years, police would arrest Haroun for his metal activities, but for now, optimism outweighed the risks.

“The Hourglass gained their fame because they were among the first Syrian bands to emerge with full-length original material and to play their own material at concerts, and then hit it big time to tour Europe,” says Syrian metal journalist Sam Zamrik. “But Bashar Haroun and Orion gained their influential reputation due to the concerts they played and organized in Aleppo, and now in Lattakia. Haroun is a big – probably the biggest – name in organizing metal and rock concerts [in Syria].”

“I call us the survivors because it was really hard to play metal [in the early 2000s],” says Massih. “Bashar and other bands were active in Aleppo where black metal had a fan base. Some believe black metal music and culture hurt metal’s position in the country.”

Most lovers of black metal at the time kept it secret – behind walls or beneath headphones. Or they just stuck to more mainstream genres. Haroun, though, loved the energy of thrash, doom, and death, shifting his taste from the big names of the West to the more artisanal machine-gun bass drums of Scandinavia. Peter Tägtgren – founder of the bands PAIN and Hypocrisy, who ran a studio, produced  and mentored other bands, played drums, bass and guitar, and was renowned for his close relationship with his fans – was, he says, “my idol.” “He played every kind of music and kept working all the time.”

Heavily inspired by Tägtgren, Haroun began to model his work in much the same way. His goal was to create not only an influential band in Aleppo, but also a metal-friendly infrastructure. He set up a studio – U.Ground – and The Rock Cave, a rehearsal and performance space dedicated to heavy metal.

But just when it seemed Haroun had found a possible solution to the many problems faced by Syrian metal bands, a political crisis was brewing.

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East