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The Maiden frontier
Mark LeVine asks if heavy metal music offers a blueprint for modernisation in the Middle East.
Last Modified: 18 Jul 2010 09:43 GMT
Could Iron Maiden's philosophy inspire an alternative economic system in the Middle East? [EPA]

I think it was somewhere in the middle of either Blood Brothers or Brave New World that it occurred to me: I was watching a blueprint for the as yet unfulfilled project of modernisation in the Middle East.

I was standing with my son - well, jumping - somewhere off to the side of the stage at Madison Square Garden, the most celebrated concert venue in the world, listening to British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden gallop through a 16-odd song set during a sold out show in the midst of their biggest ever tour of North America.

The songs are not among the most famous in the Maiden catalogue. But for real Maiden fans - and they are legion and growing larger still - they are among the more beloved.

In fact, the upwards of 20,000 fans at the concert sang the words to almost every song despite the fact that the band has deliberately avoided playing the majority of its most well known hits during this tour.

"This hasn't been such a great summer for concerts," lead singer Bruce Dickinson told the crowd near the start of the show. The reason, he explained, is that most groups are essentially playing oldies, living off songs "from 1976" he joked.

"But here we are doing our biggest tour ever of North America. We don't want to be fossils," he yelled to a roar from the crowd.

Charting your own way

Dubai was hailed as an inspiration for a new globalised Middle East [GALLO/GETTY]

So, what does Iron Maiden have to do with the Middle East?

I first saw Iron Maiden in Dubai in 2007, at the Dubai Desert Rock Festival, which although only three years old was becoming known as the "Mecca for Middle Eastern metal".

This was pre-crash Dubai, in all its excessive splendor, and the festival was filled to capacity with 20,000 metalheads, mostly Arabs, Iranians and South Asians, cheering, screaming and even crying during Maiden's headlining show.

Indeed, few crowds have erupted with more energy than did the fans at Desert Rock when Maiden hit the stage. And I do not think I have witnessed a more poignant moment at a concert than when the crowd sang Maiden's anthem, Fear of the Dark in unison with Dickinson, lighters aloft in one hand, cell phones in the other to record it for Youtube posterity.

"This is our first time playing in an Arab country," Dickinson told the audience, visibly taken aback by the crowd's reaction. "I know Dubai is the melting pot. Everybody is here. We have people from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Lebanon, Egypt, Sweden, Turkey, Australian, Wales, Americans, Canadians, Kuwait. We have the whole world, just about, here tonight ... And we'll be back."

The members of Iron Maiden still recall that first Dubai show fondly, but in reality Dubai represented the very antithesis of everything Maiden has always stood for - consumption without reason, style over substance, the pursuit of wealth and celebrity without a solid foundation or sustainable principles.

"What are we about?" asks manager Rod Smallwood, the seventh member of the group, rhetorically. "Honesty, integrity, doing your best regardless of what you've been given; in fact, doing it yourself so you don't have to compromise. And most important, showing our fans passion and inspiring them. If a band can't keep inspiring fans, what's the point of continuing?"

A new model

For much of the past decade Dubai was hailed as the inspiration for a new, globalised Middle East; the place where the proverbial Lexuses and olive trees that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman famously argued symbolised the poles of globalisation, could finally coexist.

As the money and Vegas-style skyscrapers kept growing higher, Dubai boosters like Friedman became passionate in their support of the "Dubai model" of development. But instead of upper middle class Lexuses Dubai quickly became filled with Ferraris, Rolls Royces and other uber-expensive supercars.

As for olive trees, aside from a restaurant with that name and the gardens of the city's elite, few if any have taken root.

"Yeah, but who wants to be that rich?" Smallwood asked a few hours after the show, discussing how many of the band's peers have taken the easy, commercial way out, usually losing their souls in the process. "You wind up playing just for the cheque to support that lifestyle, instead of because it's what you love to do. Eventually, fans figure that out, and then where are you?"

Not surprisingly, the Dubai model was unsustainable, and now the sheikhdom is searching for a more solid foundation for the future.

In contrast, whether at that balmy evening when Maiden first touched down in Dubai, or the even hotter and muggier evening at Madison Square Garden three years later, Iron Maiden has consistently inspired concert goers, and seen its fanbase grow, in good measure because it has refused to compromise or to play by the music industry's increasingly dysfunctional rules.

A musical path towards modernisation

Iron Maiden's lyrics resonate with fans across the Middle East [EPA]

And it is here that the group's unique philosophy offers interesting lessons for its large fanbase across the Arab and Muslim worlds - a young generation that is struggling to define a new role for themselves and the region in a globalised system that, much like the music business, seems rigged against them.

First and foremost, do not play their game. Neoliberalism, the dominant system of globalisation, will never produce greater prosperity, democracy or sustainable development for the vast majority of the peoples of the region, precisely because this model of economic integration inevitably concentrates wealth, and through it power, in fewer hands.

Of course, this process suits autocratic elites and the relatively small but politically crucial class of citizens who benefit from such policies just fine. But for average Egyptians, Moroccans or Syrians, this paradigm has brought few if any benefits.

Secondly, think historically, stay true to your roots, and "do it yourself". One of the main reasons why heavy metal, and Maiden in particular, are so popular across the Middle East and Muslim world is precisely because the genre, and the band, represents a "DIY," or do it yourself, philosophy that has allowed artists and fans to avoid the compromises that have plagued other genres like hiphop and mainstream rock.

For centuries the peoples of the Arab and Muslim world have been told that they had to follow someone else's model. They have had to contend with policies imposed from above and outside - first through colonialism and then again, beginning in the 1970s, through the "structural adjustment programmes" that have been at the heart of IMF, World Bank and other Washington consensus policies towards the region.

Today, a new generation is emerging across the region that refuses to accept this imbalance of power. But, the problem is how to create a viable alternative. One alternative, of course, is al-Qaeda and other extremist movements and ideologies. But as many Middle Eastern metalheads have pointed out while lamenting the fact that so many of their fellow citizens consider them little better than Satan worshipers, being an extreme metal fanatic is a lot better than the alternative.

And it is here too that the Maiden model is relevant. Songs like Brave New World, No More Lies, Fear of the Dark, and their biggest hits like Trooper and Run to the Hills all resonate with the band's myriad fans across the region because the lyrics reflect the complexity of their histories, their lives, and their futures. These themes are even more pregnant with meaning in Beirut or Tehran, which have suffered such violence in the recent past, than they are in "the Mecca of music," Madison Square Garden.

"That's certainly one reason Maiden is special," explained lead singer Bruce Dickinson when I asked him about why the group is so popular in the Middle East. "But also, it's the family aspect. The band and the fans, we're like one big family," he continued, echoing the words of amazement an Egyptian friend of mine uttered when we first saw the scene in Dubai. "Finally, a real community," he said with an almost palpable feeling of joy.

As many metal fans from the region have pointed out to me, Maiden's songs remind them that they should not trust the hype and slogans promising a better tomorrow, that progress demands putting aside easy prejudices in favour of a much harder but more honest discussion about the future and that they should remember the past but not be afraid of the future.

If you do that, then you are in a position to create your own networks using your own tools, people, and principles: "Do it yourself" on an international scale. Instead of trying to jump on someone else's globalisation express, develop your own vision that is true to you. "Never sell out, never compromise, and always stay true," is how Smallwood explains it.

Joy, the final frontier

IN depth

More from Mark LeVine:

  Beyond hypocrisy
  The burden of hypocrisy
  The meaning of strangulation
  The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas
  Israel's 'friends' also to blame
  The terrors of occupation
  Obama and the curse of moderation
  'Stupid' law or 'soul' of the US?
  The world is not flat
  Hypocrisy and the end of empires

This is, of course, easier said than done in the Middle East, since the region's rulers in general have so much invested in the existing system. But Maiden succeeded precisely because the band worked around the system rather than trying to join it.

Of course, building a successful career as a rock band, however difficult, is nothing compared to building an alternative economic and cultural system in a region plagued by war, occupation, authoritarianism and poverty. But the point of music and the artists who produce the culture the rest of us consume is rarely to provide a direct blueprint for action.

Instead, it is to inspire, to give a vision of a different future and the courage to get up in the morning and figure out how to survive and even thrive in a system that is very much not set up for your benefit.

More than one member of Iron Maiden has told me that perhaps the greatest gift they can give fans is joy. And whether in Dubai or Madison Square Garden, the concerts were filled with joy, from musicians and fans alike.

Metal is often accused of being music about death, and certainly Iron Maiden's songs can often seem, on the surface, violent and blood-soaked. But as one Iranian metal musician said about the genre, and Maiden in particular, "what's amazing is how a music about death in fact affirms life".

As I looked out across that field in Dubai three years ago and saw a multi-national assemblage of people sharing a rare moment of true community and joy, the power of music to bring people together and heal old and deep wounds became abundantly clear. That feeling once defined a huge swatch of Muslim culture, in music, art, and literature. It is something that is sorely needed across the region today.

As Iron Maiden prepare to release their 15th studio album, The Final Frontier fans across the region will soon have reason to feel a bit of the joy the North American members of the Iron Maiden family have felt during this current tour. And with any luck, the Middle East will once again move inside the Maiden frontier.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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