BEIRUT: "Maybe 10 bands and 100,000 watts could change the face of Israel/Palestine where ten years of failed negotiations and ten times as long of violence could not."
These are idealistic words for a university professor well-versed on the complexities of the Middle East. Mark Levine, part-time rock star and professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of California-Irvine is not only convinced that music can change the world, he is a partisan in the effort.
There is noting new in Levine's advocating music's power to transform societies, break down social and cultural barriers and promote individual freedom. Rarely though has it been as convincingly argued in the context of the Middle East and North Africa than in his new book "Heavy Metal Islam."
Part road-trip memoir, part ad copy for Arab bands who tend to fly under the Western critical radar, Levine's book is a journey through the heart of the musical counter-cultural of six "Muslim" countries - from Morocco to Pakistan - five dictatorships, one under military occupation.
Levine sees heavy-metal rock music and its hip-hop rival as offering a new form of resistance to oppression and repression found within these societies.
He sees heavy metal as a powerful force through which young Muslims can vent their anger over the corruption, violence and instability in their respective homelands.
Levine recalls how, while performing the U2 chart-topper "With or Without You" in Beirut with the Kordz, he had a revelation about the power of music.
"As I watched the reaction of an audience full of Lebanese ... the idea of rock 'n' roll helping to move a country away from violence and authoritarianism and toward greater tolerance, peace and democracy seemed not just plausible but natural."
Levine's idealism about the power of heavy-metal music in promoting positive change is unabashed. Levine sees a growing youth culture that is connecting with the wider world, undermining repressive authority and oppressive traditions.
In Iran, where Levine says the regime has all but destroyed any public sphere and creative expression, he describes how metal heads rehearse in basements and distribute their music online for fear of being arrested or beaten by the Basij, who act as guardians of public morality.
One Iranian rocker, who performed at one of the only heavy metal concerts allowed to use vocals, tells the story of a metal event at a local university.
"At one gig," he begins, "... we managed to play for 40 minutes before the Basij tried to force us to stop. They weren't supposed to enter the university. So they drove up to the front and started roaring their motorcycles, and the manager of the place begged us to stop."
With the aid of religious authorities, Egypt arrested nearly 100 metal fans in 1997 for "worshipping satan" and being "Zionist inspired vampires."
In Morocco, a country often represented as a reform success story, metal heads have paid an equally high price for their musical tastes. In 2003, 14 young metal musicians were convicted of being "satanists who recruited for an international cult of devil-worship" and for "shaking the foundations of Islam."
In Lebanon, the most-liberal "Muslim country" Levine visited, rock activists are less concerned about oppressive public morality and police repression than they are frustrated in their inability to promote more unity among a diverse population.
Despite these setbacks and hardships, heavy metal has been gaining ground in the Middle East in recent years with festivals from Dubai to Morocco gradually becoming more acceptable to governments and religious establishments.
Levine even alludes to the corporatization of metal and rap music that may be taking place at the expense of creativity.
As in North America, MENA metal and rap walk a fine line between upholding their underground counter-culture credentials and the threat of homogeneity posed by increasing legitimization and a wider audience.
"Heavy Metal Islam" slips when overstating the revolutionary potential of rap and rock. Both genres are far from protest music, often embracing egotism, crime, violence and death.
Therapeutic as they may be for some listeners whose "lives are heavy metal," as one musician says, the lyrics and lifestyles the music promotes, are hardly anthems for democratic change. This may be why lyrics are rarely cited in the book.
To criticize these musicians or genres for their lack of revolutionary credentials, though, is to miss the point. Music does not have to be conscious of itself to be a tool for change - self-awareness being an uncommon characteristic of tools.
Musical expression is, arguably, about pushing the limits of freedom and challenging orthodoxies. Little Richard's lyrics were not calls for radical change in post-World War II US, as such, but one manifestation of that change.
"Heavy Metal Islam," then, is a preliminary glance into how genres of sub-culture are slowly pushing to find space for individual expression in tradition-laden societies.
Levine fails to account for the fact that the rise of heavy metal music in the MENA region can be seen as a new form of cultural imperialism. Otherwise a vehement anti-imperialist, the author makes little mention of the threat of globalization to traditional societies and their local musical, or other cultural, production.
Though he refers to globalization as a "Janus-faced" phenomenon, allowing greater economic marginalization of some and greater openness for others, he fails to deal directly with the Westernization of music in the Muslim world.
This isn't a surprise, perhaps, give that Levine is an active metal booster and, for that matter, an uncritical partisan for political groups less obviously opposed to it.
He falls into a trite oversimplification of Lebanese society, for instance, lamenting the polarization of youth culture between one attracted to the divisiveness of violence and another seeking unity and reconciliation through music.
"If these two poles of youth culture can't find some common ground," he opines, "pulling everyone between them just a little closer in the process, Lebanon is doomed."
It is an unfortunate but not fatal flaw in a book whose strength lies more in anecdote than analysis. Indeed, where there is analysis, it appears out of place and trite.
Levine's book accomplishes its simple, self-appointed task: to exhibit the potential for music to transform societies and bring people closer together through artistic expression.
Given the media's emphasis on the differences between the Middle East and the West, "Heavy Metal Islam" is a refreshing, much needed call to keep searching for common ground.
Mark Levine's "Heavy Metal Islam," 2008, 296 pages, is published in paperback by Three Rivers Press.