Popular culture and the news have painted a very simple picture of the Middle East. Only the most extreme examples tend to make it to American televisions, which fail to illustrate much of the culture of countries like Iraq, Israel, Lebanon and Iran. When turning on an American television or making a Google search on the word “Islam,” one is likely to have to dig through accounts of terrorism, fundamentalism or the Iraq war before reaching any evidence that the Islamic world has the kind of music described in Levine’s book.
After a few minutes of talking with Professor Levine, it is easy to tell that he is more than qualified to write about music in the Middle East. He began teaching at UCI in 2001 after spending time at New York University. Music has always been a part of his life and he’s spent almost the last 20 years traveling between the Middle East and America.
His other books mention music, but this is the first one entirely focused on the subject of counterculture music in the region. Levine explains that he wanted to produce a story that people could relate to and help others understand that both sides were more alike than they realized.
Another priority was to illustrate how nuanced the world is. Levine, in his exploration, discovered the most popular heavy metal band of the Middle East is from Israel. The typical media depiction is that all Muslims hate Israel and demand that the country no longer exist. Yet here is a band that has a wide fan base that stretches outside of Israel’s borders. Levine explains the entire situation exemplifies that relations between different groups is not as black and white as one might immediately think.
Levine reveals the deeper complexities in the region using music when he explains that even in towns central to terrorist conflict you can still find quality rock bands and record stores explaining that you “can never make too many generalizations.” This finding illuminates the fact that for all the media coverage of towns where conflicts rage, we know little about their culture and even less about their most simple of tastes. We tend to make sweeping generalizations about regions, their choice in entertainment and their ideas about fun.
Levine was also surprised at how courageous these musicians were. People who play metal, rap and reggae are not just playing music for entertainment. There is a higher purpose to what they are doing. By playing their songs, they are attacking the system and Levine is impressed to see that they are winning.
When a band gathers and plays, they can face a wide variety of punishments based on what country they are in from being prosecuted by the government for being Satan worshipers to having their lives threatened to something as simple as being marginalized by their society. The Islamic musical world even displays the same complexities that the music industry in the United States has created, such as the dilemma of “selling out.”
Music in the Western world and the Middle East display more similarities than the problems with their industry. Islam has had great influence on American culture that goes beyond and predates paranoia from terrorist attacks. Guitar riffs have roots in the oud, a Lebanese instrument. Slaves brought to America in the 18th and 19th centuries used Muslim and Arabic melodies in their songs, which would one day evolve into the blues, jazz and rock.
Levine jokes that you can even hear the Muslim world in the average country music singer. Even today, Missy Elliot and Jay-Z look to this world for inspiration.
Levine explains “the Muslim and Western worlds emerged together five hundred years ago and are very tied together.” The point of his book is to explain this by analyzing a subject not many of us would believe integral to explaining cultures. By analyzing music, Levine reveals some of the intricacies of a world over-generalized in the public mind with stereotypes and wild assumptions and reveals many of the connections we share.
Levine will soon be releasing an album called “Flowers in the Desert” with some of the music he found in his travels. Currently, he is shooting a documentary on the book.
Filed Under: Features