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Acrassicauda: Heavy Metal Hardship In Baghdad

The Iraqi heavy-metal band Acrassicauda had problems playing their music under Saddam Hussein, but they didn't get death threats until after the American invasion. Two band members — and the filmmaker who made a documentary about them — talk with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.


Other segments from the episode on March 17, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 17, 2009: Interview with Acrassicauda and Suroosh Alvi; Review of Isabel Gillies' book "Happens every day: an all-too-true story.”


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Acrassicauda: Heavy Metal Hardship In Baghdad


This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross.

Baghdad wasn’t the easiest place to keep a heavy metal band together – not
exactly the preferred music of the Saddam Hussein regime. But for the musicians
we’re about to meet, things got a lot worse after the US invasion and the
insurgency started, and so did the death threats from Islamist insurgents. Even
wearing a Metallica t-shirt could put your life at risk. The documentary “Heavy
Metal in Baghdad” is about one of the first and one of the few bands to perform
heavy metal in Baghdad. The group is called Acrassicauda, which is Latin for
black scorpion. The movie was shot in 2005 and six in Baghdad. It also follows
the musicians after they crossed the border into Syria when the death threats
became too much for them.

“Heavy Metal in Baghdad” will premiere on the Sundance Channel Thursday night.
My guests are two members of the band: drummer Marwan Riyadh and lead singer
and rhythm guitarist Faisal al-Talal. Also with us is the co-director and
producer of the documentary, Suroosh Alvi, who co-founded Vice Magazine
Publishing. After making the film, he helped relocate the members of the band
to the US. Before we hear the band’s story, let’s hear what they sound like.
This is “Underworld,” from a demo they made in Syria.

(Soundbite of song, “Underworld”)

Mr. FAISAL TALAL (Lead Singer, Acrassicauda): (Singing) Out of darkness,
(unintelligible). Raise the women from their magic spell. (unintelligible)

GROSS: That’s music from the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda. And welcome,
Marwan Riyadh, Faisal Talal and Suroosh Alvi. Tell us what first got you
interested in heavy metal music, which there probably wasn’t a whole lot of in
Baghdad. Faisal, you want to start?

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, sure. We basically loved foreign music. So heavy metal was a
road to us to explain more of our feelings, explode that kind of rage inside of
us and try to find its way, dig its way, you know?

But that wasn’t enough for us as fans or listeners, only. So – but basically,
we turned our horses to more educational and more training as a band, tried to
feel this music more and more.

GROSS: Marwan, was it hard to find heavy metal records in Baghdad? I’m sure
there weren’t a lot of, like - or maybe there were, like, record shops that had
big heavy metal and death metal sections in it.

Mr. MARWAN RIYADH (Drummer, Acrassicauda): Well, we don’t want to, like, you
know, be like a bad influence or something. But there was, like, a lot of
bootlegs. And that was good stuff, cheap stuff.

GROSS: And did the bootlegs have the covers on them and everything?

Mr. RIYADH: Well, sometimes, no. You don’t get lucky, like, with a cover. So
what we used to do, just like write the stuff down on paper and just like put,
with a tape.

Like, we didn’t have CDs. We had the tapes, cassettes. And - or somebody, like,
will travel outside Iraq and come back with, like, you know, a collection of
stuff, like you know, heavy metal rock ‘n’ roll, like Dio and Black Sabbath and
stuff like that. And we’ll just copy them, and this is the way that we just
trade between each other.

So it was kind of hard. It was kind of also, like, fun, the whole process of -
it was epidemic, like you know, just like spread around, and everybody will get
to hear it. And sometimes by the time that you get the tape, you can’t really
like hear, like listen to a good quality. So it will be just like…

(Soundbite of hissing)

Mr. RIYADH: But it’s still good. You still can head-bang to it.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you to talk about a song that you recorded after you
left Iraq and lived in Syria briefly, and you were able to make a demo record
in Syria. And one of the songs you made was called “Massacre.”

It starts out in Arabic. Would you explain what’s being said at the beginning
of this recording?

Mr. RIYADH: Well, what had been said is like a lot of innocent people getting
killed, rivers turning to blood, since like, you know, we had like two rivers
in Iraq and stuff. And it’s kind of – it has nothing to do - just like about
the images that we have to live daily in our lives.

You know, sometimes something bad happens in your life that you can’t just get
over it. You know, you’ll dream about it. You’ll think about it the whole time,
you know? So we’re just trying to get this off our backs, but hopefully, like,
if we do that, these songs, mostly like a tribute for the people who just,
like, you know, got killed or whatever in the war.

So we’re seeing, like, you know, basically, like, you know, these innocent
children, innocent people, elders and seniors, like who got killed. And some
people, like a lot of people got killed in vain, you know?

GROSS: Well, why don’t we hear the song “Massacre.” So this is the Iraqi heavy
metal band Acrassicauda, and there’s a documentary about the band called “Heavy
Metal in Baghdad” that premiers on the Sundance Chanel Thursday.

(Soundbite of song, “Massacre”)

Mr. TALAL: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: That’s the song “Massacre” by the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda,
and the members of the band are now living in the United States. Two of the
members are my guests, Marwan Riyadh, who’s the drummer, and Faisal Talal,
who’s the rhythm guitarist and singer. Also with us is one of the two
filmmakers, Suroosh Alvi.

And Suroosh Alvi’s documentary about the band, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,”
premiers Thursday on the Sundance Channel.

Let’s talk about what it was like to play heavy metal in Baghdad before the
American invasion. Let’s start with the Saddam Hussein era. Did the government
disapprove of heavy metal music? Did you have to play it underground?

Mr. TALAL: This is Faisal. Basically, the government didn’t disapprove anything
back in the time. Most of the rumors come ahead from all the friends and the
people who surround us because we had to (unintelligible) from our friends to
translate all the lyrics that we used to sing, just in case, and be prepared
that somebody would ask us or tell us that what the hell that we were writing
about or describe that the music that you’re expressing…

Mr. SUROOSH ALVI (Co-director, “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”): I think I’m going to
jump in here and…

Mr. TALAL: Go ahead.

GROSS: This is Suroosh, the filmmaker. Yeah, go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALAL: Suroosh.

Mr. ALVI: Who has nothing to do with the, you know, writing or playing the
metal in Baghdad. But they wrote a song called “Youth of Iraq” that they don’t
like talking about. I’m going to force them to talk about it.

Mr. TALAL: Dude, dude.

GROSS: Oh, oh, I was going to ask you about this. You know, this is a song that
you - it’s explained in the movie that when you do the concert under Saddam
Hussein, you had to do a tribute to Saddam, a musical tribute to Saddam. So you
did one, and that’s in the movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah, it was an opening for a concert. Thanks, Suroosh. Yeah.

Mr. ALVI: It’s their dirty little secret. They don’t like talking about it, but
it’s in the movie, so…

Mr. TALAL: You’re evil. You know that.

GROSS: Just to make it more evil, let me quote one of the lines from the song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah, sure. Be my guest.

GROSS: All right, okay. And this is about fighting the evil forces. And the
line is we’re following our leader, Saddam Hussein. We’ll make them fall. We’ll
drive them insane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIYADH: Yippee.

Mr. ALVI: I love that song.

GROSS: Did you write that just for this concert so that you could have your
shout-out to Saddam Hussein, or did you change the lyric of a pre-existing

Mr. RIYADH: No, no. Actually, like the whole thing is, like, just like Faisal
said before. It’s just like sort of like our friends, who like had bands
before, like had played gigs were kind of like intimidated by the situation
down there. So we were kind of frightened because it’s the first concert. So
they told us, like, you know, maybe we should take precautions and just, like
you know, write something to the government.

Some of us, like, you know, approved. Some of us disapproved the whole thing.
But I guess this song came to be, and we played it twice in two concerts. Then
we quit playing it.

I guess it’s much more like, you know, in order, like you know, to play your
music, you’ve got to do some stuff that probably - you need to be flexible. You
need to go with the flow, which is not good all the time, but we had to do it.

GROSS: No, I understand. And it is catchy.

Mr. RIYADH: Plus, like it’s, you know, plus - yeah. I don’t know. I mean, like
the guy who wrote this song is not, like, no longer in the band now, but –
like, the lyrics. But what I’m saying is like sometimes it means a lot for us
to play our music. And you know, like for the last, like you know, years, like
you know, we’ve been doing whatever.

GROSS: Well, since there’s a scene of you performing it in the film about you,
“Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” why don’t we listen to an excerpt of that performance
of your tribute to Saddam Hussein? And what’s the song called again?

Mr. RIYADH: “Youth of Iraq.”

GROSS: “Youth of Iraq.” Wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Here it is, and this is the band Acrassicauda.

(Soundbite of song, “Youth of Iraq”)

Mr. TALAL: (Singing) (unintelligible)

GROSS: That’s the band Acrassicauda. They’re an Iraqi heavy metal band that
managed to get out of Iraq, and the band members are now living in the United
States. My guests are two members of the band, Marwan Riyadh and Faisal Talal.
My third guest, Suroosh Alvi, is the co-director of a documentary about the

band. The film is called “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” and it premiers on the
Sundance Channel Thursday night.

So we were talking a little bit about playing in a heavy metal band while
Saddam Hussein was in power. Let’s talk about what it was like after the
American invasion, when there was a civil war, and a lot of the insurgents were
ultra-religious Muslims, many of whom, like, didn’t even like music, let along
heavy metal music.

So, and Americans were really hated by - or maybe I should say are really hated
by a lot of Iraqis, and heavy metal is associated with American bands and with
American popular culture.

So did all of that, did the religious fundamentalism and the hatred of America
affect your ability to play heavy metal music, or even to wear your favorite t-

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah, of course. Yeah, totally. I mean, it became – it was already,
like, dangerous, like forbidden, like, to play such kind of music. I wouldn’t
say forbidden, but it was just like too eccentric, you know.

But, of course, after the invasion, it became a matter of life and death, and
is it even really worth it? Is it even worth it that you’re playing music and
you’re threatening - you’re jeopardizing your life and your family, too, with
that, you know?

GROSS: Well, why was it so dangerous? I mean, I know it was dangerous to just
to be outside, no matter who you were. But why was it particularly dangerous?

Mr. RIYADH: Well, it’s – first, we’re singing, like, in English, you know. So
they considered that, like, Americanized. Second, it’s rock and roll, so
that’s also Americanized, you know? Third, it’s like, you know, the way that we
dress, the way that they can see us coming back and forth from the practice
space. And, you know, obviously, we wouldn’t, like, you know, we weren’t like
going to practice space wearing (unintelligible) or something, or turbans, you

So it was kind of like, you know, we were kind of distinguished, but in a bad
way. So that’s the thing. So we received the threats, and saying that we’re

GROSS: Well, how would the threats be delivered? Like would someone tell you
we’re going to kill you if you’re going to kill you if you keep playing your
music? I mean, how…

Mr. RIYADH: Well, you know, we found them hanging on the store walls, like, you
know, the front door for the…

Mr. TALAL: The practice space.

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah, practice space. We found them there, and it was like pieces
of papers and, you know, written and just hang there. So…

GROSS: So here you are, trying not to call attention to yourselves when Suroosh
shows up to make a documentary about you. And suddenly, there’s cameras
following you around. Suroosh, were you worried when you went to Iraq to make
the movie that you would endanger the band?

Mr. ALVI: Well, when we first went, our original idea was that we wanted to
spend a day in the life with these guys and see what it was like from breakfast
to evening to playing a concert. And as soon as we got there, we realized just
how impossible that idea was, and we weren’t following the guys around Baghdad.

It was just far too dangerous for them to be seen with us. So we were forced to
meet at locations that, Firas would choose, and it was all completely on the
DL. And we’re never seen in public together.

GROSS: And Suroosh, you’re Canadian. You live in New York, but you’re of
Pakistani descent. So you don’t necessarily look Canadian or American, and
until you open your mouth, you could pass, maybe, as Iraqi or from the region.
Did that help you, do you think, in getting around?

Ms. ALVI: I think so. I think it did a little bit. And Eddie, my co-director,
he’s, you know, Italian-Canadian, and he can pass as Iraqi, as well. And that’s
the thing that Faisal and Firas were saying when we were there. They were like
you guys look Iraqi. You just have to start walking like Iraqi guys. Just walk
like you’ve never been more tired in your entire life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, except for the flak jackets that you were wearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALVI: Well, we practiced in the hotel room because we were starting to go
sir crazy. We were in there for a week and being told we couldn’t walk around
in public. So Eddie and I were determined to go walk around in public.

So, you know, Firas and Faisal kind of put us into training, and they said
okay, pull your shirt out. Like, you know, put some dirt on your pants. Wear
flip-flops and just drag your feet as you walk. Stare at the ground.

Mr. TALAL: Cigarettes in on hand.

Mr. ALVI: Yeah, smoke a lot of cigarettes, and then you’ll be fine. So that was
our, you know, camouflage.

GROSS: We’ll talk more about playing heavy metal music in Baghdad and about
making the documentary “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” after a break. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are two members of the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda:
drummer Marwan Riyadh and lead singer and rhythm guitarist Faisal al-Talal.
Also wish us is Suroosh Alvi, the co-director of a documentary about the band
called “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” It will be shown Thursday on the Sundance

Suroosh, you and your co-director helped organized a concert for the band at
the Al-Fanar Hotel in Iraq. So there’s scenes of this concert in the movie, and
the audience - I mean, it’s a relatively small audience because it’s, what,
like in the ballroom of the hotel or something.

Mr. ALVI: Yeah.

GROSS: But people are so into it, and everybody’s kind of, you know, like doing
the head-banging thing and making this, you know, kind of like falling on each
other, and I mean, doing the devil horns. They’re so into it. But from what I
could see, there wasn’t one female in the audience.

So I was wondering, is it because the music didn’t appeal to women, or is it
because women just couldn’t go out then? Or, I mean, like, what accounts for
the fact that there were no females?

Mr. RIYADH: It was too dangerous for them.

GROSS: Too dangerous?

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah. Basically, the whole tradition wasn’t, like, so acceptable
for a woman to walk alone in the street or having boyfriends or something, just
like no so liberated. And I daresay that going to a dangerous spot that we
performed in that night, which is, basically, it’s near to the Sheraton and
Palestine Hotel, which has been surrounded by concrete blocks and Americans all
over the place and the whole security guards.

So they check the whole Iraqi IDs and search the whole T-shirts, candy machines
and all that stuff. So an Iraqi woman wouldn’t bother to go through all that
process just to see heavy metal.

I mean, yes, they do exist, a lot of listeners. I mean, I got - for now, I
mean, I’m having a lot of messages on MySpace or Facebook or whatever, they
just - just expressing their feeling that they wish to come at these concerts,
but they couldn’t. And they wish they could have seen us before.

So at this point, I feel glad about it, you know? Just like all these years, I
was imagining there’s no scene of metal to women, you know? But now, just like
everyone’s started coming up, and now it’s really growing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s funny because, you know, certainly in the United States, so many
musicians say they became musicians because they thought they thought they
would be more appealing to girls if they were in a band.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIYADH: Yeah, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

GROSS: No, exactly, exactly. And, of course, here you are in Iraq, where, like,
girls can’t even show up to the concerts. So it’s not going to be very helpful
in that area.

Mr. RIYADH: It’s more like, you know, bomb and war and rock ‘n’ roll for us.

GROSS: Yeah, no exactly, exactly. You said for you, it was of war, bombs and
rock and roll. In this concert that we’ve been talking about, there’s a power
outage. There was a mortar that goes off, like, next door or something. So…

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, yeah.


Mr. RIYADH: That’s part of the scene, actually, just like fireworks, you know?
So it’s much easier to do such stuff in Iraq.

GROSS: You did kind of get used to it in a way, didn’t you? I mean, you seem
kind of like unfazed by it in the movie.

Mr. RIYADH: No, I guess it’s all going to be overrated if we say like we got
used to it. No, you can get used to such stuff. Like bombs? I don’t think
nobody can get used to it. But you just, like you know, it’s part of basic,
human survival, I guess. You had to survive, you know? So you have to go, like,
wake up every day, and you have to go to work every day. You know, you can’t
starve. So you can’t get used to it. But you can deal with it, I guess.

GROSS: Marwan Riyadh and Faisal al-Talal of the Iraqi metal band, Acrassicauda.
We’ll be back in the second half of the show with Suroosh Alvi, who made a
documentary about them that will be shown on the Sundance Channel Thursday.
It’s called “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. We’re talking about what it was like to be
in a heavy metal band in Baghdad. My guests are two members of the Iraqi metal
band Acrassicauda, drummer Marwan Riyadh and lead singer and rhythm guitarist
Faisal al-Talal. The band is the subject of the documentary “Heavy Metal in
Baghdad,” which will be shown on the Sundance Channel, Thursday. Also with us
is the film’s co-director, Alvi Suroosh. After the insurgency started, the band
started getting death threats from Islamic extremists.

So eventually you and the other members of the band decided to do your best to
get out of Iraq. Two members went first, the other two followed. Can you tell
us why you wanted to leave and how difficult it was to get out? You went to
Syria first.

Mr. TALAL: Let me just rephrase this before…

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. TALAL: The general idea of us leaving Iraq is not like because we wanted
that so desperately. I mean, most of people could miss it or misunderstand it,
but we’ve been forced to leave. And leaving all this behind was so hard. It was
so depressing for us. We wanted to do something for the band, and for me, I
mean, at my time, when I wanted to leave, I had already two members of my band
had already left to Syria.

GROSS: How long were you in Syria and how long were you in Turkey?

Mr. TALAL: Well, a year and a half and a year and half, I guess like three
years overall. I can’t be exact, but I guess it’s overall like three years -

GROSS: Did you feel like freedom in either of the places? Or were you in such
difficult positions that you still didn’t really feel…

Mr. TALAL: You need to understand, we were refugees. So it’s life like just -
it’s a hard life multiplied like in ten times, I guess, like - because a lot of
bureaucratic stuff that you need to go through, paper work, just to legalize
your situation and just to, you know, a lot of people got the (unintelligible)
like, you know, to born in their countries and walk tall and stuff. For us it
was - even that was kind of hard. So we had to go like through down streets and
alleys just to avoid like being in like misunderstanding situation or get
caught by the police, because sometimes we’re illegal in these places because
the paperwork wasn’t done.

Mr. RIYADH: Well, I guess the general idea wouldn’t - I mean, things were
really getting harder and harder. And we were out of time, out of money. So we
had to do what we had to do.

GROSS: And what did you have to do because you were out of money?

Mr. TALAL: We made “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” We said yes to whatever Suroosh…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You hadn’t said yes before that?

Mr. TALAL: No.

Mr. ALVI: Not in our Baghdad, you know.

Mr. ALVI: I think it took sometime to gain the trust of these guys as well and
the whole, you know, process of making the film. But once the film was out and
premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, that’s when the Syrian government was
getting fed up with, you know, the number of Iraqis that were coming in, were
threatening to kick Iraqis back in to - to Iraq. And at that time the guys were
receiving threats from inside of Iraq when they were living in Syria. So
because of the footage that we’d shot and put on our Web site, on, I’m
not sure if that makes sense, but what happened was we had kind of outed these
guys. They were living their lives as refugees in Syria and all of a sudden
they’re getting threats for their music from inside of Iraq, people saying, you
know, come back home, we’ll take care of you; meet us on this corner at this
time in this city. So the guys are contacting us saying: Syrian government’s
about to kick us back home and going back home is really bad idea; what can we

Mr. RIYADH: Situation was unstable too.

Mr. ALVI: Yeah. So that’s when we started raising money and…

GROSS: Raising money to get them out of Syria?

Mr. TALAL: To get them out of Syria and get them to Turkey. Turkey was the one
country that you could fly to as an Iraqi without a visa and they would accept
you. That was the one border that was kind of open at that time. And even that
had a window that was going to close. So we – we hustled and, you know, raised
awareness, and the metal community donated…

Mr. RIYADH: It was the craziest thing ever.

Mr. ALVI: Yeah, donated, you know, whatever - 25 grand or something like that.
And with that we got them tickets and some cash in their pockets when they

GROSS: That’s great. So there’s like metal community around the world.

Mr. ALVI: For sure.

GROSS: That’s really great. Suroosh, when you decided to make this documentary
about this Iraqi heavy metal band, did you have any idea that suddenly you’d
feel responsible for their lives, that their lives would be endangered, in part
because of the movie. And it would be on your head in a way, yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. ALVI: Absolutely not.

Mr. TALAL: Oh yeah, keep talking, keep talking.

Mr. ALVI: Terry, had I known, I never would’ve made the movie. I mean come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALVI: No, you know, it was just – we were just chasing the story, and it
just kept going and it was something that started off as the story in the
magazine and then became a short form…

Mr. TALAL: Epidemic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALVI: Yeah. Webisodes on the Web site, and then it turned into a feature.
And then once, you know, the credits rolled at the end of the film, the story
kept going, and that wasn’t something that we had expected or bargained for,
that it would have repercussions like that. And so that’s why we stayed
involved. And at that point we’d also developed a relationship with these guys
and were friends and just wanted, you know, they asked for help, so…

Mr. TALAL: A lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALVI: We have to say that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So Turkey isn’t the end of the story. Suroosh, you helped get them -
with contributions from the heavy metal community you helped get them into
Turkey. But now you guys are living in The United States. Was Turkey a problem
eventually too?

Mr. RIYADH: No, we need - we needed a place, okay. We couldn’t stay like in
exile forever. We couldn’t stay like in stable forever. We couldn’t like walk
and we’re carrying like the forms of refugees like three or four papers around,
you know. You need to understand this because refugee being - refugee is not a
status. It’s just like, you know, form. You know, it’s part of a process, you
know? And that’s why it was just like, you know, it wasn’t the destination. So
we had to go to someplace where we can perform our music, where we can play our
music, it didn’t matter where. Just like, you know, we had to find a solution.

I remember we applied like with help from the boys, we applied to the Canadian
embassy twice, got rejected. And the German because like embassy, where they
were premiering “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” the movie, and they helped a lot with
just the papers. I guess it was a problem with our paperwork. Then it just
happens that we got to the States and then, you know, and it took awhile. We
came to here like separately, you know, like individual, like separately, till
like I just got here like month and a half ago.

GROSS: Oh, no, I didn’t realize that.

Mr. ALVI: Yeah, the level of bureaucracy as an outsider looking in, seeing what
these guys had to go through in Turkey, was totally insane. We’ve actually
filmed something called “Heavy Metal in Istanbul,” which was not just keep
pushing, you know, movies that I make about these guys, but it was - kind of
covered the - their story in Istanbul. But we filmed the entire process with
the UNHCR that they had to go through…

GROSS: That’s the UN Commission - High Commission on Refugees.

Mr. ALVI: Yes, in Ankara in the capital of Turkey. And we interviewed the
people at the UNHCR there, and they were saying, you know, the psychological
impact that this amount of bureaucracy has on refugees, it really takes its
toll. And you know, the system on some level doesn’t make sense. They - even
once they became, you know, official refugees in Turkey, they weren’t allowed
to work legally and then were forced to resettle in these satellite cities all
over Turkey.

So the band was then broken up and they’re all living in four different cities
inside of Turkey and they have to check in with the local police stations every
week for, you know, X number of months until they can be granted exit visas out
of the country.

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, until they finish the process.

Mr. ALVI: Because Turkey doesn’t want Iraqis to stay there indefinitely. It was
kind of like a temporary station. They want to resettle the refugees in another
country. And so that’s why, you know, we got…

Mr. TALAL: Population.

Mr. ALVI: …we got the IRC involved, who were the International Rescue
Committee, they’re an NGO based here in New York, who got behind their cases
and helped expedite everything and got them re-settled…

GROSS: In the United States?

Mr. ALVI: …over the last couple of months, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So you’re all living in New Jersey now.

Mr. ALVI: No.

Mr. TALAL: No, we’re were still separated. Some in New York, some in Michigan,
some in New Jersey. Also scattered again.

GROSS: Oh, I didn’t realize that. So one member of your band is in Michigan?

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, for now. I mean like just because we can’t afford like, you
know, I mean the crisis of the economy a little bit affecting us.

GROSS: So you finally made – so you made it to America, but you can’t play
together right now because you’re not together.

Mr. TALAL: Yeah, we made it here to hustle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So what you’re doing to make a living and to pay your rent?

Mr. TALAL: Work in different jobs, waiting tables and whatever, you know,
overtime jobs. But you know, you need to understand the main reason for us is
the music to be here, working with the boys on finding something and solutions.
But everything has taken like, you know, a while, you know, finding
instruments, finding practice space…

GROSS: Finding instruments. Did you not have your instruments when you came?

Mr. TALAL: We had to sell them all so we can afford like, you know, whatever,
tickets, pocket, like money for pockets and stuff. So we had to sell our

GROSS: Do you have them back yet? I mean do you have new instruments yet?

Mr. TALAL: I didn’t earn money yet to have them back, you know. No.

GROSS: Not yet.

Mr. ALVI: Some of the, you know, companies out there like Fender Guitars have
been really supportive in the past. And Yamaha just gave a bass to – to Faraz
and, you know, James Hetfield gave his guitar to Faisal.

GROSS: This is James Hetfield of Metallica, and if you want to see him giving
the guitar to Faisal, just go on YouTube. Because it’s on there. It’s a really
– it’s a really sweet moment.

Mr. TALAL: Yeah. For those who doesn’t – still concerning about the whole
situation, I’m still in coma, okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TALAL: I’m still in coma okay, yes.

GROSS: We’ll talk more with two members of the Iraqi heavy metal band
Acrassicauda, and with the co-director of a documentary about them, after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guests are two members of the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda,
drummer Marwan Riyadh and lead singer and rhythm guitarist Faisal al-Talal.
Also with us is Suroosh Alvi, the co director of a documentary about the band
called “Heavy Metal in Baghdad.” It will be shown Thursday on the Sundance
Channel. The band members recently moved to the United States.

So have you been to any heavy metal concerts in the United States? I know you
can’t afford food, but have you managed to get into any concerts?

Mr. TALAL: Look, we can’t afford tickets, but, you know (unintelligible) is
helping, kind of like giving us like mooching…

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TALAL: …tickets and, you know…

GROSS: So tell me something about the experience of being in a heavy metal
concert in the United States compared to what you were used to.

Mr. TALAL: It’s great seeing the amount of people. And – and the whole benches
are full and people standing and people going through the mosh pits and the
stuff. I mean, you don’t see that every day like for us, you know? And it’s
great seeing like a big community of – of metalheads and metal fans and
standing on that solid ground and the bands performing. And it was a great
show. I mean like it was – it was kind of like an epiphany for for us, to see
all this stuff. And just to remind us about what we kind of miss the most,
which is music and performing on stage. I mean like we had 600 people on stage
and we were like, you know, yeah, we had 600 people on stage, and yeah,
whatever, you know?

And now like I just go to underground concerts and there’s like like, you know,
thousands like of people and watching like an underground band. So it’s great.
I mean like we’re kind of being optimistic considering the music, trying to
work hard just to catch up, because it’s been the last two years, I mean, like
we didn’t really, you know, continue with our own music because we had to
handle all the paperwork and, just like we said, the bureaucracy stuff.

GROSS: So I’m sure you would love to be in that position of being on stage in
America with thousands of fans in the audience.

Mr. TALAL: Oh yeah – oh yeah, definitely, all over the globe.

Mr. RIYADH: It’s like when I was trying to talk to the guy and tell them just
like, guys, seriously, for the first time we’re – I guess we’re fit in whole
society. I mean the whole - the whole guys was metalheads and headbangers and
all these hot chicks around you. So just like was really, really interesting to
see all that, you know, just like, yes, I want this.

GROSS: But here’s the thing. Like now you finally fit into this large community
of fellow heavy metal fans and musicians. But you’re still the outsider because
now you’re an Iraqi in this American community, so like you’re finally with
your people, but they’re not quite your people.

Mr. TALAL: See, to be honest, it doesn’t matter. For these people like, you
know, music does matter. Paperwork and - that says like where you’re from and
stuff, I mean like we speak the same language. We speak the language of the
music, you know? So it sound kind of like cheesy or cliché, but this the way it

GROSS: Right.

Mr. TALAL: We went to this festival in Atlanta. And there was like 31 bands
performing. And we’re like surprised to see how much people knew about us and
knew about the movie, but they knew about us and they were like, you know,
really delighted and would like, you know, wide open arms, saying like, you
know, we want to take to take photos with you guys. Are you playing today? So I
don’t think it does matter - borders and frontiers and stuff doesn’t matter. It
doesn’t make sense in the music like world, you know?

GROSS: Let me ask you this. It seems to me you are in a kind of funny position
where on the one hand you have this like documentary about you being this Iraqi
band that plays heavy metal, and the documentary is about to be on Sundance,
Thursday night. It’s played film festivals. It’s gotten good reviews. So I mean
you have – you have, in some ways, you know, you’re kind of semi-famous, or

semi–semi-famous, or semi-almost-famous. But at the same time it’s like your…

Mr. TALAL: We need to find a category.

GROSS: Yeah, you need to find a category. At the same time you’re almost semi-
homeless. I mean, you know, you’re – you just got to the United States, you
have no money.

Mr. TALAL: Paradox.

GROSS: Yeah. So you’re – you’re living in kind of both worlds at the same time.
You don’t even have instruments yet, you know? That’s how little money you
have. So it must be a really awkward, kind of ridiculous time for you.

Mr. TALAL: It is. I mean like lot of times we just like, you know, you don’t
know if you have to laugh or cry or – because, yeah, I mean like we go and we
saw ourselves and there’s like hundreds of Web sites and then talking about the
bands and, you know, whatever and talking about the documentary and being just
like you said, the whole like buzz about the movie. And on the other hand, you
know, I didn’t like, you know, I’ve been like couch surfing for six months now.
So that’s the thing, so yeah, we’re living this kind of like living paradox
like, you know, are we famous, are we not, are we homeless, are we musicians,
are we musicians, are we refugees?

GROSS: I’m interested in how you feel about America now. Here is what I’m
thinking. You know, the American government decided it wanted to, you know,
bring democracy to Baghdad and ended up bringing civil war to Iraq. And you
became victims of that. You had to flee the country because of it. So that
might go in the negative column for you, for America, and part of the reason
why you had to flea was because you are playing a music that came out of
America, heavy metal, and America was so hated in Iraq then that you were
threatened, and now you’re living in America.

At the same time you’re broke. It was hard to get in here. It’s not like
America invited you to come. I mean you had a - it was really hard for you to
get in.

Mr. TALAL: I already feel better when you say like the whole story, you know,
you are like reminding me of this, and it feels good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So - but how did you feel about America now? I mean like what are your
thoughts about the country?

Mr. TALAL: It’s not easy – it’s not easy as it seems. It’s a lot more
complicated. If you want to like, just like, you know, in one program or show,
like trying to describe, like, two nations’ policies and political views, and
you know, you can’t do that. First like we’re musicians. And second - I guess
what happens in some – a lot of points was monstrous and you can’t justify it,
you know? But also we can’t justify like the First World War, like the second
one or like, you know, all over, I can’t justify the Gulf War or trying to
analyze it or explain it because, you know - we had our had music. But I would
say like, you know, killing living souls and stuff, that’s wrong, you know? And
this is against everything, and we had to go through that and we had to live
through that, and I guess we got lucky in way, you know, if you look at it.

Lot of people got killed in these wars and lot of people just, you know, had to
live with a lot of like, you know, living like the daily sorrow of missing
someone or, you know, part of their families.

Mr. RIYADH: Even here – even here, a lot of families lost their own kids and
sons and daughters in the army, I mean over, just like – it isn’t fare, you
know, both societies have been destroyed.

Mr. TALAL: That’s what we’re saying. Like we can’t justify war. I mean like if
you expect like two musicians just to come and talk about war, like, you know,
I wouldn’t like drag myself to that, but I would say it’s monstrous, it’s
hideous. And we don’t want to sound hippies, but you know, wish there was peace
on Earth, but I don’t think this is possible.

GROSS: Well, Marwan and Faisal, I want to wish you good luck with your lives
and with your music.

Mr. TALAL: Thank you.

GROSS: And Suroosh, congratulations on the movie and thank you for talking with
us. It’s been a pleasure to talk with the three of you. Thank you very much.

Mr. ALVI: Thank you.

GROSS: Marwan Riyadh and Faisal Talal are members of the Iraqi metal band
Acrassicauda. Suroosh Alvi is the co-director of a documentary about the band
called “Heavy Metal in Baghdad”. It will be shown on the Sundance Channel
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Happens Every Day': A Marriage's Abrupt Ending


Actress Isabel Gillies has made her debut in the movie “Metropolitan” and went
on to a recurring role in the NBC crime series “Law and Order: Special Victims
Unit.” But she gave up acting to move to Ohio, where her husband had landed a
job teaching poetry at Oberlin College. What unfolded there, says book critic
Maureen Corrigan, was a crime of the heart.

Professor MAUREEN CORRIGAN (Georgetown University): I swear to you, this really
happened. Two weeks ago, I was sitting around on a Saturday night, just me and
the dog. I didn’t feel like reading any of the books I was supposed to be
reading, so I began rooting through my pile of the new review books. One slim
volume caught my eye, initially because of its title — “Happens Every Day,” a
memoir by Isabel Gillies. What happens every day, I wondered. And so I started
reading. I couldn’t put the book down, and by the time my husband came home
late that night from a business trip, I’d finished it. I grunted, Welcome home,
and went up to bed, drained.

The next morning over breakfast, my husband looked up from the newspapers and
announced, I finished a whole book last night. So did I, I said. You see the
punch line coming. He’d picked up Gillies’ memoir from the table where I’d left
it and he couldn’t put it down either. Maybe it’s a bit ominous that we both
were transfixed by this account of a marriage abruptly falling apart. Although
certainly we bonded all that morning by trying to figure out why Gillies’
memoir is so disarming, especially given that she is not a writer. But therein
lies her charm.

When Gillies, for instance, starts reminiscing about the restored Victorian
house she and her husband and her two little boys lived in in Ohio, and then
just gives up after a few sentences and says, I will never be able to write how
great it was, you smile, you’re on her side. That amateurish snort of
frustration with words not only gives Gillies’ story the ring of truth, but it
also ironically conveys what a polished description might not, that this was
one fantastic house.

Similarly, as Gillies tackles her main subject, the sudden disintegration of
her marriage, you feel as a reader as though you’re sitting with a good friend
over a pitcher of margaritas, listening to her, tearfully, digressively, even
ditzilly describe how her husband whom she knew since they were both children
spending summers on an island in Maine, turned practically overnight into a pod
person. I’ll fess up to the fact that Gillies’ beauty - she was on the cover of
Seventeen magazine and she had a couple of dates with Mick Jagger - adds a bit
of schadenfreude here for the rest of us mortals. Even beautiful people get

And it’s a double bonus that this whole sad story takes place within the
fenced-in groves of academe and that Gillies’ then-husband is a professor poet.
Think Heathcliff with an earring, she tells us. It’s always fascinating to read
about academics acting on their ids rather than their intellects. The gist of
Gillies’ tale is this: Her husband, whom she calls here by the pseudonym
Josiah, wins the academic jackpot, a tenured teaching position at Oberlin
College. Gillies, by the way, offers very funny outsider takes on the
preciousness of artsy colleges like Oberlin, describing it as a school where
all the students play an instrument well and know how to address transgendered

After the first year, they bought that great house. And within one month of
moving in, Josiah fell head over heels for a woman Gillies calls, Sylvia, the
new hire in his department, a half-French, Audrey Hepburn look-alike whom
Gillies had befriended. Another entrancing aspect of this painful story, as
Gillies tells it, is that Josiah refuses to discuss his obvious infatuation
with Sylvia. This is a man who’s a poet, whose brilliant mind one friend
likened to a cathedral. And yet, in this crucial situation where his marriage
and family are at stake, he acts like 90 percent of the guys out there and
won’t talk about his feelings. Gillies, of course, desperately wants a story to
explain why her life is upended.

Finally, months after they separate, he calls Gillies and announces that he and
Sylvia are, indeed, a couple. I know we’re only getting one side of the break-
up here, but unless she’s a much more manipulative writer than I’m giving her
credit for, Gillies comes off as a genuinely peppy, uncomplicated woman. She
even admits that she doesn’t really like poetry because she just doesn’t get
it, which obviously, might have created problems with Josiah the bard. For
those readers who’ve endured similar seismic shifts of the heart. “Happens
Every Day” will offer the comfort of solidarity. For the rest of us who’ve
been, so far spared, it makes for compulsive and frankly chilling late night

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “Happens Every Day” by Isabel Gillies.

GROSS: You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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