Thursday, December 31, 2009

Taqwacore and the Real Threat: Interview With Marwan Kamel From Al Thawra

Marwan Kamel is full of contradictions. Opinionated yet relaxed, a punk rock puritan who experiments with the sacred cows of punk. His father is Algerian, but lived in Syria before coming to the US and his mother is Mexican. Growing up in the rust belt city of Waukegan north of Chicago, Kamel has been a strong voice in the 'Taqwacore' movement, a movement built by Arab and Muslim Punk Rockers.

I attended college with Marwan, where we would often discuss internationalizing anarchism and anarchist ideas. I remember one conversation we had about the international symbol of Anarchy, the cirlce A, being eurocentric, becuase it didn't exactly carry over into non-latin based languages.

On New Years Eve 2009, I met Marwan for Coffee and to discuss music, politics, and the band that he sings and plays guitar in: Al Thawra. As we see, Marwan is interested in more than a punk aesthetic, or touting mindless chaos as anarchism, or music that gives people a little chuckle. He is interested in music that goes beyond a quirky oddity, and becomes a a real threat to the dominant order

Marwan discusses Al Thawra.

Matt: A couple of our friends are on the Palestine freedom march.

Marwan: They're going to Gaza?

Matt: Trying to. They're stuck in Egypt.

Marwan: It's funny cause all that international crossing is so much more complicated. The one thing with the Middle East is that everything is more complicated. Something that should take like 20 minutes takes 4 fucking hours cause of all the complicated political situations and shit. A friend of mine came to the us from Palestine. He was 19 years old. Like 2 years ago. The visa to get the us was easier to get than the visa to Jordan. Going to Jordan is the hard part. Getting to the US is the easy part. They give visas to the Palestinians easier than anybody else cause they just want to get them out. Just leave.

Matt: I saw last night that Al Thawra posted a new song on Myspace about the Seige of Gaza.

Marwan: Yea and this morning I got hate mail.

Matt: What did it say?

Marwan: It said, 'Burn Gaza to the ground.'

Matt: Was it from someone who had been a fan of the band or just some random dude?

Marwan: Dude, I don't even know. Just some person sent em a message..... it was like.... I don't know man. The one thing I've noticed about our stuff vs... I hate to play this race to the bottom... like I'm more impressive than you or whatever, when it comes to, like, vs. the kominas or these other Taqwacore bands, or supposed Taqwacore bands, I've noticed with us, we always end up catching the heat from these other bands. Like the Komina's are lighthearted and funny about it. I look at it like the Sex Pistols vs. Crass, y'know? They're like the more fun pop aspect of it, being sarcastic.

I've noticed like, in some ways being South Asian is like daisy or whatever is like a little bit more politically friendly, cause their Pakistani. But when your Arab, everyone fucking hates you. It's like being the public enemy of this current, I don't know what to call it. Status quo in the US.

It seems like with us we're under a different paradigm. It's like, oh, they're being serious, their talking in Arabic. Fuck them.

Matt: I haven't listened to many of the other Taqwacore bands. I know you guy's cause I know you. I've read a few articles about the other groups cause you went on tour with them. A group like Vote Hezbollah, are they a little more jokey?

Marwan: Yea it's all a joke. I think that's the difference. When you want to be serious, it's more threatening to people. I'm not really sure. I kinda fell into the whole Taqwacore thing anyways. I didn't set out to create a Taqwacore band. It just happened. I put my music on Myspace and these dudes found me on there. And they sent me the book and the idea of a tour came up. So I wasn't sure where I fit in with the whole thing. I still really don't know where I fit in with it.

Matt: you wanted to create a Doom / Crust band and everyone says, 'oh, you're like this', and your like 'I am?'

Marwan: Yea exactly. It's kinda like you end up wanting to create something, and someone else labels it. Which is what ultimately happens with any group.

Matt: You mentioned earlier that your writing for a blog about Palestine?

Marwan: Oh yea. That's something I'm just starting up. So I'm not sure what my angle is. It's called I'm also writing for The one seems real serious.

Matt: Are these site you started yourself or....?

Marwan: No I'm contributing. So much of my writing is not that serious in a journalistic sense. I ended up interviewing a band in Syria because it interested me. I wanted to talk to them, so I was like, 'fuck it, lets do an interview.' But this site seems serious some of their writers are dudes who have written for the New York Times and shit.

I asked Marwan about the documentary movie about the Taqwacore scene, "Taqwacore: the Birth of Punk Islam." The movie featured Al Thawra.

Marwan: It's all bullshit. Documentaries are like half fiction. One of the things I noticed especially when we were working on that films: 'Ok, that was great, but can you guys do that again in the light?' 'What? I thought this was a documentary?'

Matt: All the great historic photos were posed. Iwa Jima, the Red flag over the Reichstag.

Matt: Tell me about when the film crews became interested in filming you guys. Have you seen it yet?

Marwan: Yea, I saw the documentary. It's interesting because .... I don't know if the film maker, Omar Majeed, set out to make a definitive piece on this movement. I don't know if it was supposed to be encyclopedic in some sort of way. I don't think so. In terms of being a narrative, it's a good narrative. But I don't think it does justice to the story of all the bands that were involved. I'm not saying that necessarily I want to see more of myself... but it seemed like... instead of the same 500 word article that they keep printing over and over and over again. It ended up being an hour and ½ article. Like one of those articles, like the Rolling Stone piece.

The camera crews started coming, in like 2007. I was talking to these dudes online and the idea of a tour came up. I bought a ticket to Boston, one way. I didn't fuckin' know these kids or nothing, I was just diving into it blindly. I had no idea who was even going to pick me up from the airport. The first thing that happens is we pull into Bossum's driveway, and we had to stage it again, like 4 times before we got it right. So that was my first experience with a camera crew. I was like 'what is going on?'

Matt: You mentioned some of the other articles and they are all sort of the same. They treat it as a novelty. “Oh look at all these Arab kids playing punk music.” I feel like they aren't digging any deeper than that. You told me on the phone that maybe there wasn't anything deeper than that. But... I feel like there is some sort of consciousness shift going on.

Marwan: In America?

Matt: Well, with this quote unquote Taqwacore. I remember I went to an United Muslims Moving Ahead event at DePaul once. I was playing my guitar in the quad, so I brought that with. And some guys were like you should go up there with the hand drum guy, do a little thing. I was like 'Ok, I wasn't planning on it, but sure.' We talk to the organizer of the event and – oh! apparently there's some prohibition in the...

Marwan: Dude that's fucking retarded.

Matt: against stringed instruments

Marwan: Dude, that's the biggest bullshit I ever fuckin' heard.

Marwan: It's weird that these innovations of theology and ideology from the 1700's have infiltrated so deep into the consciousness of Muslims that its like created this idea that it's always existed like that. Part of the reason why that coverage [of Taqwacore] always ends up being the same is cause that type of Islam is the monolithic Islam that the media in the US projects. In some sort of way, there is an Orientalist tinge in everything they write about us. It returns to the original exotification of the East. It treats us like clowns. Like, 'how weird.' What they don't understand is that there have always been critics like that.

There was one group in Arabia in the 8th century the Najdiyah,they formed a commune-like society. Their theological position was that is there is no one able to become the Imam, then we can do away with the position completely. And they also said that the land belongs to everyone. It's sort of a forerunner to socialist ideas.

What they don't understand is that those type of criticisms have always existed. Out of that same movement was a group that supported women as imams.

Matt: You had mentioned to me a few years ago that you wanted to write a book on these Anthropological type things. Precursors, stuff embedded within Arab history and culture that could be the basis for a non-European socialism. Like how socialist and anarchist ideas have always been said to have come out of European struggles, but maybe not. Did you ever actually write that, did you do research, what's the status?

Marwan: I started. I lost touch with it. It's like that sometimes. You know you start something and lose your train of thought. What's interesting is that some kid started that. I forget his name though.

Matt: You ever think about going back to grad school to continue on a project like that?

Marwan: I don't know dude, but I need to go back to school for sure though.

It's interesting to juxtapose the paradigm of Western society. If you look at us on a different historical trajectory than the Middle East. So you have to make it relevant and indigenous to Mid-East culture. One reason why they don't work is that they are viewed as outside ideas. In some sort of way it needs to speak to people. If you think about it, a lot of the ideology, like anarcho-syndicalism, it's dealing with industrial society, but a lot of those societies in the Mid-East aren't even industrialized yet. It's totally different It's like Russia at the time of the revolution,
Matt: or like China, it was mostly peasants at the time of the revolution.

Marwan: but then there is the ultra fucking capitalism of the gulf.

Matt: Like the United Arab Emirates. Building man made islands in the shape of a globe so Brad Pitt can buy one.

Marwan discusses his music.

Marwan: Like when they talk about decadence, that's fucking decadence. That's just ridiculous. People don't identify with that. Everyone else in the Mid-East don't have any sort of cultural similarity with them. It's so different. 'everything is for sale.'

Matt: I saw you guys play a show at Boogie Not Bombs and one of the things I liked about your set was how in your last song you brought all those drums and gave them out to the audience. Is that something you do regularly, where you try to make it more interactive?

Marwan: Yea that was fun. The traditional concept of shows is that you go and watch someone perform. But you own it more if you get people involved. 'Oh, it's my show too.' It democratizes the show. It takes it off the stage and puts it in the hands of people. It's analogous with political concepts. One of the interesting things about how we fuse music is how Mid-East music is based a lot on improvisation. So that ties it with the democratization thing to. Leave the format open for people to put their own muse into. So we try to do that as often as we can but sometimes we don't have enough drums. It's a good way to end sets. Cause then you don't need to have an ending that lets people down, cause they will just have fun anyway. Ultimately that's what shows are about, having fun.

Matt: Most of the time,

Marwan: Unless it's about PC posturing. Making people feel bad about doing shit. 'It's your fault.'
The only time I did that was in New York. It wasn't even politically motivated, it was cause I hate New York. I was just trying to piss them off.

Matt: Would you say there is a rust belt twinge to the group?

Marwan: Post-modern post-industrial deal? Yea. That's the cool thing about Chicago. Even the punk hardcore in the 80's it tended to be more experimental cause it wasn't tied down to these things on the east coast.

We go outside for a smoke

Marwan: Going back to talking about Taqwacore being threatening. These articles love to see people shit on Islam, but not on the West as well. If your not being honest about everything, your not being honest. You have to be self-critical.

Matt: Al Thawra does criticize both. You don't fall into Christopher Hitchen's paradigm. The liberal hawk. "Oh Islam needs it's own enlightenment. They need to accept Western values. That's why we need to invade. Make them look like us. Give them McDonalds.” A group like Al Thawra is a counter argument to that. "We don't need you to bomb the Mid-East to give us your supposed freedom. We know how to make freedom ourselves."

Marwan: Absolutely. Like I said, those criticisms have always existed. There is nothing new about it. People don't know how big Islam is. They have this one monolithic image of it. It seems a lot of those bands play into that. It seems less threatening. It seems more of a marketing ploy than anything else.

Matt: What do you think of all these protesters in Iran? Or as I call them the twitteratti? Do you think they have a liberatory vision for Iran after they topple the theocracy or are they pro-western?

Marwan: I don't know how much of it is genuine democratic feelings or peoples uprising or how much is involvement of foreign organization.

Matt: It's kinda hard to tell.

Marwan: That's one of the things about those covert ops. It's all about hiding it. Make it look like a people's uprising but maybe its with the support of the CIA or MI5. Of course I support that movement of people but I don't know if I want to be outright supporting it. Cause, I don't know whats genuine about it. Is it a liberatory vision? I don't know. If it's a ploy to end up with a McDonalds in Teran they might as well stop right now. You'll just end up with a different tyrant.

One of the thing about the manipulation of public opinion here is that the people who supported the Shah are supporting the protesters. One of the Shahs relatives gave a press conference in Paris during the riots after the election where he was crying for that girl who died. I was like, 'yea right he doesn't care about that girl.' He was like, 'just put me back in power.'

Matt: This last decade there has been this big interest in ethnic punk. Gypsy punk. Recognition of Latino punk groups in Pilsen, movie Behind the Screams, the movie Afro-Punk, now this movie about Taqwacore. There has always been this non-white punk, but it's getting its own recognition and the mainstream is acknowledging that it exists in ways that it hasn't before. Any thoughts?

Marwan: It's about musical progression. Do you want it to be the same or move on. I hope it doesn't become a tokenizng thing. That's denigrating in a lot of ways. 'Hey man we're not racist we have a black friend.'

Matt: Punks not racist, we have Bad Brains.

Marwan: haha yea. That's what I'm saying. It goes back to making it indigenous to your cultural context in some way.

Matt: There are two ways to spin this question- why is punk rock so attractive to these marginalized communities? Or do you feel like picking up the western rock sound and prototype for a band and adapting it to these different communities... is this just a different kind of assimilation?

Marwan: Yea the assimilation aspect is always played into this in an interesting way for me. How do you negotiate assimilation and your identity? I found interesting in Taqwacore that we weren't coming form the same cultural context, but we identified with each other. Having this identity conflict out in the open. You feel neither here nor there. Our context might be different than Afro-punk but I think it has a lot in common with Latino punk. Your here but your not quite American. But when your there, your fucking American. If I'm here in the US, who is the first person picked at the airport for a special screening? Me. But when I'm there, their like, 'oh he's American.'

Matt: I remember you told me once about how when you visited Syria the secret police were following you.

Marwan: That;s a totally different topic man. The secret police in Syria... it's interesting. There was one journalist from France who covered us. A war photographer correspondent, he had been to North Korea and Cuba and he said, 'it's the only country I stayed in where there are police in front and behind you.' It's insane, the state security apparatus is on top of dissent. It think it's opening up some. When I was interviewing that band in Syria. They said they are more computers now but it hasn't improved much. I think it's being censored or their keeping tabs on people.

Matt: You always read reports about 'the great firewall of china' and how all these country have censorship blocking stuff. I go on youtube and watch newsclips, and some say 'this is not available in your region.' Not even from some 'terrorist state'. Stuff from England, but it's like copyright, trademark, what's the difference? It's a censorship based on profit.

Marwan: Yea it's a different type of censorship. That's one of the reasons I haven't been pissed off about how the media has been covering this Taqwacore thing. Because that sensationalism plays into that aspect of creating profit. They have to make it sensational. I understand it, I don't think it's right, but they're covering us in this way because their motivation is profit.

Marwan: Going back to identity punk thing... it's poignant now to have these identity punk movements because it has something to do with the faceless globalized world. Finding out who you are and maintaining your identity is important in that kind of thing. To break the homogeneity of that kind of world. Your either a soldier in their army or a faceless sweatshop worker. Just to be like 'no, I exist' is really important.

Matt: Al Thawra is the cultural and artistic face.

Marwan: One of the things were trying to do with Al Thawra is that our process, at first we took punk and put mid-east on top. This new album is the reverse. You get a different result.

Throughout this experience, there has been these magazine articles, but the one thing I have been going back to is how I originally started doing things in the 'Do It Yourself' fashion. I started getting in contact with these kids in the Mid-East. Their motivations for feeling different are different than mine. They can feel like outsiders and identify with that in some sense. There are always some people feeling marginalized or different everywhere. Rock music isn't that prevalent in the Mid-East yet, so it takes someone to do it, for it to take root.

Matt: There are two sides to rock music. On one hand they credit Levi jeans and rock music to toppling the Soviet Union. On the other hand this is a music that has its roots in the blues and the African American experience. It's a double edged sword maybe.

Marwan: Rock music is a cultural ambassador. It plays into that dialectics. It some ways it's Westernized, but in some it's trying to be Eastern. I hate to use those terms but just for the sake of understanding. It's bringing this music that foreign but it's gives people a space to empower themselves. So it's a dialectical process. Your using that kind of ascetic to empower yourself to do something.

Matt: Dialectics, contradictions, shades of gray...

Marwan: To say that we exist in the gray, and we're OK with it is one of the most important things about our music. We don't fit here or there but it's alright, we are who we are.

Intense Debate Comments