Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 19, 2009

Hasan Hatrash's Kingdom of Rock

A Saudi journalist talks about music writing, video vixens, and 'Chinese Democracy.'

Craig Fehrman

Let's depart, for a moment, from the journalism industry's hand-wringing, its soul-searching, its doom-and-glooming, and turn to a place where the number of newspaper critics is on the rise. The place is Saudi Arabia, and the count of rock critics has gone from zero to one.

Hasan Hatrash. Photo by Islam Abou Jebara.
"There is a change in Saudi Arabia. It's social, economic, and political, and it's progressing at a fast pace thanks to the internet and satellite TV."

Hasan Hatrash. Photo by Islam Abou Jebara.

Hasan Hatrash writes for the Arab News, the country's largest English-language daily, mostly about "local news and city affairs." Recently, though, he's attracted enough meta-media attention to make Chuck Klosterman blush. In November, Hatrash appeared on the front page of the New York Times, lending some historical perspective to a story on The Accolade, a Saudi rock band composed of female college students. He's also appeared in the Washington Post and on CNN.

Hatrash's burgeoning media profile continues a recent trend of coverage about the Middle East's rock scene. Such stories first appeared in 2003, when Islamic metal heads were officially condemned as "devil worshipers." We're still seeing some of the longer projects sparked by those events—including an excellent documentary, Heavy Metal in Baghdad, and Mark LeVine's book Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam, which includes chapters on the scenes in Egypt, Iran, and elsewhere—but the most recent reports depict a Middle Eastern culture that, however slowly, is becoming more open and free. "Saudi Arabia, long bound by tradition and religious conservatism, is beginning to embrace change," Afshin Molavi writes in a Smithsonian essay (which also, of course, quotes Hasan Hatrash).

To see just how much Saudi Arabia has changed, compare that sentence to a few from Lawrence Wright's 21,000-word opus on the Saudi press. Published in the New Yorker in 2004, Wright's story chronicles his time spent training young Saudi journalists, including Hatrash, who is now 34 years old. "In many ways," says Wright, "[Hasan] was our best reporter, but music was his passion. There wasn't a place for him in a society that smothered art and other pleasures." As Hatrash has stressed in his interviews and his own writing, though, his country's rock scene is quickly catching up. (LeVine said in an email that, while he was aware of Saudi Arabia's burgeoning scene, he decided not to cover it "simply because my editor said no more chapters.")

One of the main reasons for what Hatrash calls Saudi Arabia's "new cultural wave" is technological. According to statistics from the International Telecommunications Union, internet usage among Saudis exploded from 0.9 percent of the population in 2000 to 22 percent in March of 2008. Like everyone else on the internet, Saudi bands use MySpace to market themselves to a global audience, while other citizens can stay current with news and culture from around the world online (despite the government's moderate censorship). In fact, to conduct this interview, Gelf reached out to Hatrash via Facebook, and interviewed him through email. The interview has been edited for clarity and length—and for no other reasons.

Gelf Magazine: Let's start with your music writing. The story you wrote on The Accolade for the Arab News included some stuff that the New York Times's did not—info on the band's instruments, reactions to their sound, even some quick criticism. (For example: "[Accolade's] heavy electrified guitar riffs, dark and dreamy keyboard melodies, and Lamia's strong and clear vocals and lyrics.") Why add these elements?

Hasan Hatrash: First, sorry for the delay in my response. I came back from reporting on the Hajj with a sore throat and a high fever. Bah, comes with the deal.
Anyway, music writing is a relatively new thing in Saudi Arabia. We don't have local, specialized music magazines, so I try to put some technical description and criticism in my stories to give them balance and clarity, and to show the world that there is a growing Western music scene in Saudi Arabia.

Gelf Magazine: Do your editors encourage that? Do you find there's an audience for this kind of writing, in newspapers or on websites like Saudi Arabia Metal?

Hasan Hatrash: Of course. My editors don't mind because it is more information on this new cultural wave. I target the youth when I write these stories because I know they want to read about the sound of a specific group, and not just another story of a Saudi rock band. The website you mentioned was one of the first to track the rock movement in the Kingdom. It is quite popular—covering bands, events, and demo albums—but it is not well maintained or developed. It needs more dedicated and experienced critical music writers to cope with the growth and seriousness of this trend.

Gelf Magazine: So do you follow any specific rock writers or publications?

Hasan Hatrash: I don't follow the style of a specific music writer because I didn't expect to write about music in the first place. I do read general music websites and magazines like Billboard and Rolling Stone, and I've been reading more music writing because I hope to someday start a specialized page or section in the Arab News on music. I want to push for that because I know there is an audience for it.

Gelf Magazine: What do you mean when you say, "I didn't expect to write about music"?

Hasan Hatrash: I've been into music since childhood. I started my first rock band as a teenager (we called ourselves Megalomania), and I've played clubs in Europe and as a session guitarist in Asia. In other words, I wanted to be a musician long before I wanted to be a journalist. In fact, I came into journalism by coincidence, though I've always loved writing.

Gelf Magazine: What coincidences led you to journalism?

Hasan Hatrash: It all started when I was looking for a job after graduation. I had a science degree, but in 1996, not many Saudis had a strong command of English. A friend introduced me to the editor of the Saudi Gazette, our other English daily. He tested my English and then said, "Do you want to be a journalist?" After working at the Gazette and going to Malaysia for two years, I ended up at the Arab News in 2005. That's where I started to observe the growth of rock music in the Kingdom. I was the first to point out the emergence of this trend, and I'm still monitoring its development.

Gelf Magazine: Obviously, the internet has changed the life of Saudi musicians (See sidebar). How has it changed the life of Saudi reporters?

Hasan Hatrash: The internet has become my right hand. It allows me to browse newspapers and media sites and Facebook in order to look for ideas and new developments, especially in the world of the youth. Finding stories is quite a challenge in Saudi Arabia, where the media is not very well understood or shall I say "feared." It is very hard to get an official comment, so I chose to write about regular people, who are more likely to give quotes or raise complaints.

Gelf Magazine: I wanted to ask you about Lawrence Wright's New Yorker profile of you and the rest of the Gazette staff. While it's certainly flattering, it also shares some really personal details—I'm thinking about the scene at the end where you're sort of depressed and thinking about heading off to Malaysia.

Hasan Hatrash: Working with Larry was an ultimate experience. He coached me during his stay and gave me key lessons on how to write with description and feeling, and I loved his story because it was neutral, colorful, and real. I didn't know he was writing it until the final days, but he asked me if it was OK to use my name and checked the facts of some incidents.

Gelf Magazine: The Saudi Arabia of that essay seems much different than the Saudi Arabia of today. How is the country different—as a young person? As a musician? As a journalist?

Hasan Hatrash: Truly, there is a change in Saudi Arabia. This change is social, economic, and political, and it's progressing at a fast pace thanks to the internet and satellite TV, which have broadened the minds of people in this part of the world. Of course, the Kingdom's population is extremely young, so change was inevitable and fast. For me it has become much easier to live and practice both my job and hobbies. As a musician, for instance, I enjoy something I didn't have 10 years ago—fans! Back in those days, people didn't accept or understand Western music, which kind of isolated me in a small group of friends. Now I have many supporting fans and friends from around the country and beyond.

Gelf Magazine: Since you mentioned satellite TV, let's talk about Saudi Arabia's mainstream music. What do bands think about Rotana and its videos? As a music critic, do you feel compelled to cover it?

Hasan Hatrash: Rotana, oh boy. Well, Rotana is a record label that has a satellite channel to air its videos. Like many around the globe, this record label has forgotten the meaning of art. They've managed to create new standards for artists and music in general, so that being a musician means having a certain look, a sexy body, etc. This attitude has created generations of what I'd call "soap bubble artists," who arrive and disappear fast because they are not original.
Underground musicians here do not want to be part of that, and I certainly don't want to write about artists who add a lot of sexuality to their videos in order to force people to watch them. I want to hear and write about people who hook me from the first strum of their guitars and from the first word they speak. Gary Moore is not handsome, yet he's a legend. Musicians who look like average people singing about average incidents with simplicity—this is originality.

The Motorhead of the Middle East. Exploring Iraq's Heavy Metal scene in the film Heavy Metal in Baghdad

Gelf Magazine: Wright mentioned Britney Spears three or four times. What other Western artists and genres are big in your country?

Hasan Hatrash: Unfortunately, many in the newer generations were raised on shallow artists like Spears. They became programmed, and it is hard to change their view. For instance, hip hop has an influence here, and there is a growing trend of hip hop musicians in the region. I don't grasp that movement because I believe hip hop was created by black Americans to tackle their own issues—it's more of a personalized art. When I hear people sing hip hop in Arabic, it sounds really bad. Even the attitude that comes with hip hop looks ridiculous when performed by someone other than a black American.

Gelf Magazine: You wrote a fascinating story on the use of text-messaging to market pirated DVDs and CDs. Is that how most Saudi listeners get their music?

Hasan Hatrash: Before Saudis started to understand the internet, they bought original CDs; they loved to own the real CD with the real cover. Now, they rely more on downloading pirated music. As we say in Arabic, "Loose money teaches you to become a thief." I will say that physical pirated CDs haven't caught on like pirated DVDs because the people who brought them to the market didn't understand the general tastes in music.

Gelf Magazine: Before we wrap up, I wanted to get your take on some recent rock albums. In the film Heavy Metal in Baghdad, it seems that everyone is a Metallica fan. What do you think of their new offering, Death Magnetic?

Hasan Hatrash: Metallica is an amazing band, but I lost interest in them after The Black Album. I'm not against new ideas and fresh approaches, but it harder to accept that from artists who have created a style and a distinctive sound.

Gelf Magazine: What about AC/DC's Black Ice?

Hasan Hatrash: AC/DC's album carries with it a full electrical surge to defibrillate their original rock spirit. The sound is amazing and it just rocks. There has been a recent eruption or resurrection of rock legends, and I love the new releases from both AC/DC and Rush. More importantly, I would love to see new bands carrying the real spirit of music that touches the soul and not the sexuality.

Gelf Magazine: Finally, what about Guns 'n Roses' Chinese Democracy?

Hasan Hatrash: That album, especially in comparison to AC/DC's, was not as satisfactory, and I guess that's to be expected, given the band's internal problems. Axl certainly went for a lot of techno/electronic sounds. Maybe he should change their name to Machine Guns 'n Roses.

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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- Media
- posted on Jun 08, 09
hichem kerrab

peace be upon you i want from you to send to a magazine by english to my adreess : ouled tebben salah bey setif Algeria

Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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