Claudia Leisinger

October 6-12th 2008


In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Iraqis now number the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis. In the first of a two-part feature, Leigh Singer assesses the situation through a new documentary about Iraq’s only hard rock band and their attempts to stay together and stay alive, Heavy Metal in Baghdad.


Whatever your take on the Iraq War – a righteous mission to rid the world of a murderous dictator, or a cynical show of force to protect future Middle East influence and oil rights – it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that those who have most suffered the consequences are the citizens of Iraq themselves. Purportedly the very people meant to have benefited, five years on, Iraqis have become the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world today.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates a staggering 4.7 million people – Sunni and Shi’a, Muslims and Christians alike – have been displaced and are now struggling to survive. And small wonder. Despite the removal of Saddam Hussein’s vicious ruling Ba’ath party and the eventual foundation of a democratic government, the average Iraqi’s situation has deteriorated dramatically.

According to Oxfam, in 2007 70% of Iraqis had no access to safe drinking water. 43% were living on less than a dollar a day. Child malnutrition had increased from 19% during the period of international sanctions (1990 – 2003) to 28%. Lack of coherent social infrastructure means that large swathes of Baghdad still only receive four hours electricity a day.

Then there’s the daily threat of sectarian insurgency; a seemingly unending cycle of violence, bloodshed and bombings, including the current growing trend for female suicide bombers. Any one of these factors would seem unreasonable. Put together it suggests an almost untenable way of life, yet one that those opposed to the War seemed to predict.

“We as a people in Iraq said, ‘Leave the situation to Iraqi people,’” argues Dashty Jamal, of the International Federation for Iraqi Refugees, “’come and support the progressive forces in Iraq to change the regime’ And they weren’t listening. The real agenda was a New World Order policy and you can see now what kind of democracy they brought to Iraq. Baghdad is the capital city for state and non-state terrorism - every Arab nationalist, Islamic Shi’a, Islamic Sunni, Americans - each one has an agenda and Iraqi people are the victims of that horrible agenda.”

A new documentary takes an unconventional but fascinating personal slant on this horrendous situation. Heavy Metal in Baghdad follows Iraq’s only hard rock band Acrassicauda – Latin for “black scorpion” – and their attempts not just to play their music but literally to survive. Coming to the attention of cult pop-culture magazine VICE, mag associates Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi travelled to Iraq at great personal risk to attempt to document the band’s struggles.

“What happened really was that we made a feature by accident,” muses Moretti, a genial, bearded New Yorker of Italian heritage. “It was supposed to be one of the [broadband video network VBS.TV] Vice Guide to Travel segments but we couldn’t get in to Iraq, so we found a camera crew and they filmed the concert for us. The band refused to cancel that concert because if their fans had shown up somewhere there was no concert they could have been putting their lives at risk. There was some interesting footage but not enough, so we finally managed to go ourselves.”

On the ground in Baghdad, Moretti and Alvi soon realised that just arranging to meet the four members of Acrassicauda was in itself an ordeal. Travelling around with a large contingent of heavily armed security, for the first four days of their ten day stay, they couldn’t even contact the band by mobile phone or email.

“Just to be seen with Westerners is enough to get you killed,” observes Moretti. “They didn’t let us get too close to their lives, so they didn’t let us stay at their houses or even know where their houses were.”

Eventually they managed to meet the band members still in Baghdad, bass player Firas, drummer Mirwan and vocalist Faisal. What they captured was a story of young men despairing but still determined to fulfil their musical aspirations despite the dangers. Aside from the obvious risks already detailed, the band had to be careful of religious fundamentalists who decry heavy metal music as a form of Western devil worship. In fact ‘headbanging’ is banned in Iraq, as it’s deemed too similar to Jewish prayer.

Moretti and Alvi were not deterred. “If we can connect with young people now, in ten years, they’ll have a positive view of the West rather than a negative view, so I think that’s the greater ambition,” Moretti argues. “The worst thing that can happen because of this war is that we create a generation of Iraqis who hate us.”

The film follows the band’s desperate exodus to Syria, where lead guitarist Tony has already fled. They are not alone. Syria bears the largest Iraqi refugee population in the world, as much as an estimated 1.5 million. Roughly half a million other Iraqis have escaped to Jordan, another 50,000 to Lebanon. Understandably these countries are straining under this massive influx. Yet as with many countries, asylum seekers are unable to work, study or travel and live in poverty. Many eventually give up and return to Iraq rather than face destitution.

Moretti describes Acrassicauda’s time in Damascus as a “shitty purgatory”. The film ends with the band in limbo there, but the filmmakers’ commitment to them continued. They set up a website asking for donations to help the band; within three days they had raised $17,000. As a result the band was able to get to Turkey, get on the International Rescue Committee’s programme to help artists in war torn circumstances. They should soon be able to resettle in a Western country. And even play their music.

But what of the millions of other Iraqi refugees not so fortunate? Of those who attempt to reach Western countries of their own accord to apply for asylum? The forthcoming second part of this article will investigate what happens to those coming to a country more involved than many in the Iraq War, and arguably more responsible for the fate of these refugees: the UK.

Heavy Metal in Baghdad is out now.

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