INTERVIEW WITH HEAVY METAL ISLAM “COVER GIRL” SARA AL-BABA
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in almost twenty years of studying Islam and the Muslim world it’s that there’s no suchsmall cover thing as a typical Muslim, or citizen of the Middle East (many of whom are in fact not Muslim). But then I met Sara al-Baba, the young woman on the front cover of this book. As soon as I caught sight of her about an hour before Iron Maiden’s landmark performance at the Dubai Desert Rock Festival, something told me that she embodied an unusually large share of the themes, conflicts, and promises represented by the metal scenes I encountered during the last five years.
As a Kuwaiti-American equally at home in both Arab/Muslim and Western cultures, Sara’s biography, her confident embrace of her religion, her willingness both to accept and ignore Islam’s supposed prohibition against music, and especially her optimism for the future—which like Marz and so many other Arabs, she unquestioningly believes lies in Dubai—reflect the terms of engagement through which millions of young Muslims are taking on the world around them. I don’t agree with all of al-Baba’s arguments, but her responses are always honest, reflecting the hopes, fears, and possibilities of today’s generation of Muslims, in the Muslim majority world as well as in the West.
My name is Sara Al-Baba, I am 18 years old. I was born in Houston, Texas, raised in Virginia. I come form a multi-cultured family. We moved back and forth between Kuwait and the States. I graduated from JEB Stuart High School in Falls Church Virginia and now I attend the American University of Sharjah, in the UAE, where I study Business Administration with a double concentration in Management and Marketing
2.How often did you move between Kuwait and the U.S.? When did you family first arrive in the U.S.?
We moved a lot, every couple of years. My dad’s family went to the States in the early1980s, then my dad followed and that’s why I was born there in 1989.
3. Dubai has been called « a model for the Arab world » because it is advanced and relatively tolerant. What do you feel about this? Compared to other Arab/Muslim countries you’ve been to, is Dubai a model the rest of the Arab world can follow?
Well, I actually got accepted to Penn State University, but during the summer I went to Dubai for a visit and fell in love with it. I loved its architecture and its modern culture. But what I loved most about Dubai is that it valued its rich Arabic culture and at the same time developed to be a modern rich city with a strong economy. Every time I walked down the streets and saw locals wearing their traditional clothes—men wearing the « thoab » and the woman wearing the “abaya and shayla”—I feel proud, I feel that they did not need to change like every other country to « fit-in » and be « Americanized. » Instead, they’ve kept their culture and traditions and made the world fit in and adapt to it.
Dubai is where East meets West, where tradition meets modernism, where the Impossible becomes possible, and where dreams are no longer a fantasy. Dubai welcomed every nation and every religion, and Every corner in Dubai is planned brilliantly. His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum made Dubai the world’s Business center, a Diamond, a rare pearl. The Emirates in general made their citizens’ happiness, safety and well-being their number one priority and worked hard to achieve that. When I entered the Emirates I didn’t feel like I was away from home, I was not treated as a stranger, I didn’t get those strange stares from the locals as if I did not belong here. Instead I felt that I was home. Right now I wouldn’t leave Dubai for any other country.
4. All this is true, yet there is a dark side to Dubai and the other Emirates, no? The huge number of poorly paid foreign workers, for example. Also, the fact that though the Emirates are relatively liberal socially, they are not in any meaningful fashion democratic. Does this matter, given the positive aspects you describe?
No Comment. I find this question irrelevant. I will not accept to represent anything, any fact or sentence… that would offend Islam or the Arab world. I will answer only the questions that I am comfortable with.
4. Okay. How and when did you get into metal?
I was introduced to metal in the United States. To be honest, I didn’t understand it. I preferred rock, I found it more peaceful. When I went to Kuwait for a visit, I saw that my cousin Khaled was into it. Then he introduced me to different metal styles and different artists like Stone Sour, Iron Maiden, etc. I listened to some songs and came to acknowledge that metal is not only about yelling and screaming and pushing each other around, some songs have a great meaning.
5. What rock did you listen to before you discovered metal?
I listened to alternative rock and soft rock. I found comfort in listening to these types of rock. Metal is way heavier but it has meaning to its weight.
6. Tell me a bit about your family. I took a great picture of the whole gang–your aunt and cousins as well. How did they all get into metal?
As I said before I come from a multi cultured family. Well my family loves music. They listen to all different kinds. Depending on the mood, I guess. As I mentioned before, my cousin Khaled is the one who introduced us to metal. He found peace in listening to metal, and so he made us listen to it, then he introduced his sister to it. When he found out about the Desert Rock Festival he asked my aunt to come and so they arranged for the trio to go to Dubai and called me once they got here and asked me to accompany them. We all had a great time in the festival.
7. Your aunt Wafa told me she’s been a metal fan a long time. And I guess, from her email address, she’s a Tears for Fears fan as well (her email has “tears4fears” in it). How far back does the love affair with Western rock go in your family?
My family’s affair with rock and music in general goes way back, long ago before I was born. Especially my aunt’s family, she is all about rock n roll.
8. Many people, including many Muslims, think that heavy metal and Islam are incompatible. You obviously don’t. Given all the controversy over whether music is haram, forbidden, in Islam, how did you come to your thinking on the subject?
Well let me explain that. Islam prohibits music, music in Islam is « Haram ». We all know that, all Muslims know that, whether Muslims choose to listen to music or not, that is their own choice to make. I know that music in general is haram, but I personally chose to listen to music depending on my mood, and I know that I am sinning. That’s our religion and we respect it. It’s just like all the other stuff that is haram in Islam and all other religions but people tend to do what satisfies them in the end.
The second thing is that people tend to confuse metal with « Devil worshipping » or something like that, something that has to do with the « Devil ». Well the way I see it is that its just a music genre, and we listen to it because we like it, every person relates to music in their own way. For Muslims we don’t listen to metal because we worship the devil or anything in that matter, Muslims worship one God, « Allah. » Metal is just a music style that some find comfort in listening to.
9. Who told you that music is haram? In fact, there are many Islamic scholars who have gone to great detail to demonstrate that this is a mistaken notion; that music per se inst’ forbidden or against the Qur’an.
Mark I was born a MUSLIM, and I lived in a Muslim country and attended a religious school there. MUSIC IS HARAM IN ISLAM ans NO SCHOLAR CAN PROVE OTHERWAY. WE all know it, but we choose to listen to music, and WE KNOW THAT WE ARE SINING, but we make our choices, and not all choices are the right choices. but in the end you do what satsfies you as an individual. I KNOW ITS HARAM AND I KNOW I WILL GET PUNISHED FOR IT. ALL MUSLIMS KNOW THAT.
10. One of my good friends, Reda Zine, a founder of the Moroccan metal scene, says « We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal. » From the little i know about you, it seems you have not had that kind of hard life, growing up in the U.S., in a democracy, etc. So why does metal appeal to you? Is it just the music or also because of its specific resonance or impact in the Middle East?
In fact, it’s true, « Our lives [as Muslims] are heavy metal. » I did grow up in the States in a democracy, but we all have problems. Life in the states is no easier than living anywhere else. Yes there it is a democracy, but do we really practice it ? The states is known to be a free country, but do we practice our freedom? Every individual around the entire world has problems, and music relates to our problems and identify with us. Music is an international language that everyone across the world can communicate with. If you’re feeling happy, sad, depressed, lost, need comfort, need some peace, music has it all, you turn it up and tune to it. music is the only language that ties us all together.
11. Does the music tie your dual heritage as a Kuwaiti Muslim and an American together? Do you listen to Middle Eastern metal and rock bands, or just American and European ones?
The music does tie my heritage as an Arab and an American together; but Islam has nothing to do with it, Islam is against music and so it has no relation with music. Metal and rock in the Middle East is new, and so no I don »t listen to any bands from the Middle East, but I listen to both British and American rock and metal bands.
12. You know that there have been periodic crackdowns on the metal scenes in the region. Have you experienced any of these during your time in the Gulf?
To be honest this is the first time I’m reading about this. No, I never witnessed any of these crackdowns during my stay here in the Gulf area.
13. What kind of kids are into metal in the ME? how are they different than other kids? what percentage would you say are religious?
The middle east in general is a religious area, even if some don’t pray or don’t fast they still believe in Allah and the Qur’an. Everyone in the middle east is religious in their own way. If by religious you mean following a religion or believing in a God then we all do. I would say the new generations are into metal, like I find young kids are into metal. Older kids who are in universities prefer other music genres. I find the kids of younger generations more into metal. I guess that is because metal just got introduced recently to the ME.
Kids who are into metal may not be different than other kids physically or mentally, but the way they dress is what differentiates them from other kids. People who are onto metal (not all necessarily) dress in black and tend to act emo-ish. I still don’t get why though. I mean, I listen to metal and I don’t dress in that style. Guys tend to grow their hairs and girls paint their nails black, etc. I don’t know why they do that, but it doesn’t look interesting. Their look is what scared me and pushed me away from metal, but my cousin Khaled who doesn’t dress in that style and is into metal, is who got me interested in metal.
14. Would you find it strange to know that many metalheads are quite religious. Or is there no inherent contradiction between the two in your view?
No, I actually don’t find it strange since I am religious myself. I don’t think it is related. Music has its own world and religion is a whole different issue.
15. What role do you think artists can play in helping bring about social change and even democracy in the ME? and what role can young people, who are the demographic majority in the region, play as well?
A huge role. Artists have the benefit of writing their music and introducing it to the whole world to listen. it is an important way of communication. artists write issues, world issues or personal issues and convey their message through their music. Music can carry out negative messages and positive ones, music can influence the young and the old. Every lyrics touches a person somehow. It may influence them to be better or worse. Music is an international language that everyone can tune with.
16. Women have been at the center of struggles over the meaning and soul of Islam for well over a century. you move regularly back and forth between the west and the Muslim majority world. Can you describe a bit how it feels to move between the two? Are young people different in the ME than in the U.S. in some obvious way in terms of their values or desires? Is there a real difference between the West and the Muslim world, or were you surprised at how similar things are?
Well I do travel a lot. I’ve never been stable in my life. I travel between the States and the Middle East. At the beginning I found the States a much open laid back place to be, and people were more down to earth and minded their own business. I went to Kuwait in 6th grade, then I decided to wear the scarf, and then I went back to Virginia after september 11 which was the time where people started removing the scarf due to racism and religious issues, but I didn’t feel threatened, I saw many Muslims wearing the scarf at that time, and at the same time I witnessed girls abandoning their scarfs. But to me it was a challenge, a challenge to prove my presence and existence in this world, to be noticed as a young Muslim girl.
The Hijab is not a scarf that you can put on whenever you feel like it and take it off to go swimming or to a party. The Hijab is a promise that you make to God, a message that you carry on with you, and a symbol that represents your religion. I wear the scarf in every where, both in the middle east and in the states, even during the rough times after September 11. I stuck with my scarf because I wanted to show the ignorant that my religion is peaceful and that one man’s act does not represent an entire race. I treated my self as an American and enjoyed all my legal rights and freedoms. I built my character to be an open minded person that welcomes all races and religion, I enjoyed being a part of my high school’s political clubs and the athletic teams. In the end I represented my high school and proved to the rest that my race is peaceful, we are normal people that lead a normal life style.
Perhaps ironically, appearance plays as important a role in the lifestyles of young Middle Easterners as Americans. What caught my attention is that although the States is higher on technology, kids in the Middle East enjoy the use of advanced technology more than the kids in the states, in that I mean they have more advanced cell phones, cars, and lap-tops.
Ultimately, the West and the East are similar when it comes to development. They all want to achieve the same goals and reach perfection. I find the Muslim world safer, more peaceful and more stable than the life in the States. I like living here specially in Dubai because it achieved high development, reached modernism and at the same time values its rich Arabic culture and Islamic religion. So I can say that in Dubai we have it all.
17. Final question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic (or both) about the future of the Middle East, and if so, why? Will you be at the next Desert Rock?
I am optimistic of the future if this region. I see a lot of development taking place at this moment and not just in Dubai but all around the Arab world. This place is rising, and i see a promising future. This region takes great care of its citizens and its visitors; it is safe and secure, the plans are going smoothly and all I am noticing is an excellence in development, financially and physically.
Will I go to the next Desert Rock? Sure, why not? Depends on the bands that will play. If I can make it, I will go.