'Remember, we are not the children of rock'n'roll, we are children of war'

Born in a culture of anger and violence, the remarkable story of Iraq's first heavy metal band is a lesson in dedication

The two men shambling towards me could almost melt into the bustling crowds filling the streets of Istanbul's Taksim Square. Only the AC/DC badge worn by one and the other's long hair mark them out as different from the tourists and locals seeking shade from the fierce midday sun. I am at the Bar Code bar nursing a Diet Coke, watching customers playing backgammon and checkers as they drink Turkish coffee and suck on hookahs. The two men are Marwan Ryad and Faisal Talal, the drummer and lead singer of Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda. The band have been around for eight years, but it was only with the recent release of a feature documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad that they have come to international attention. The film has been visiting film festivals across the world, but the band members have been forced to remain in Istanbul, where they have the status of asylum seekers, unable to work or travel. Anyone who wants to talk to the band must visit them in Istanbul.

They take their seats and a bartender brings Marwan a beer and Faisal a coffee. They both light cigarettes. I ask Marwan to tell me about his childhood. 'When I was growing up in Baghdad, my father used to listen to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra,' he says. 'I grew up on that music, grew up watching Elvis in Fun in Acapulco and I remember watching Buddy Rich on the drums and thinking that's what I want to be, a drummer.'

But why heavy metal? 'I was an angry person,' Marwan continued, 'and I found that when I listened to metal rather than getting angry at myself I could channel it; rather than beating people up, I could beat on the drums.' Inspired by bands like Biohazard and Anthrax, Marwan decided to set up a band with his friends Waleed and Faisal. They named themselves Acrassicauda after the Latin for 'black scorpion', rehearsing in a Baghdad basement and playing concerts that attracted hundreds of other metal fans. 'The first concert we played was in 2000,' Faisal told me, 'and it was in this small club, maybe 250 capacity, and it was full - we were surprised that so many people were craving this music.'

It surprised me as well. I had always considered heavy metal to be the preserve of privileged Western white boys wailing and complaining about how they had nothing to scream and complain about. Growing up as a teenager in Iraq, yearning to express oneself amid a climate of repression, it is perhaps not so surprising to see the appeal of metal music. As one of the band members says in the documentary: 'We are living in a metal world.'

After Waleed left Iraq for Canada, the band's line-up was Faisal as lead singer and guitarist, Marwan on drums, Tony Aziz on lead guitar and Firas al-Lateef on bass. Marwan was the band's songwriter. 'I wrote my songs in a small room with a generator spewing out gas,' he told me. 'That was our reality and in my songs I absorbed that and tried to translate it into music.' The song titles - 'Massacre', 'Message From Baghdad', 'Between the Ashes', 'The Underworld' - give a hint of their tone, which Marwan describes as 'wrathful, realistic, dramatic, angry music'.

The music reflected their daily lives; Marwan told me that he experienced more than 10 explosions. After one, a makeshift morgue was constructed on the street where he lived. 'I saw a bomb explode just 20 metres away,' recalls Faisal. 'It killed everyone around me.'

There were also risks in playing what was considered to be Western music. 'The music we were playing was a taboo,' explained Marwan. 'We were playing with fire. The traditional conservative culture was afraid of what they didn't know.' The heavy metal ritual of head-banging was condemned as it was claimed that it mocked religious prayer. The band received death threats amid accusations that they were too Americanised. 'We were afraid to say anything that may hurt your future or family,' says Faisal, and though the band claimed to be apolitical they were ordered to include pro-Saddam songs in their set list, the price of being allowed to perform at all.

In Heavy Metal in Baghdad, there is footage of the band singing 'The Youth of Iraq' which includes the lyrics: 'So we decide to fight the evil forces, yeah... we're never gonna lose/ Following our leader, Saddam Hussein/ We'll make them fall, we will drive them insane.' In the documentary, Firas quotes the Arabic saying: 'To stay away from the devil, sing for him.'

Despite suspicions aroused by the music Acrassicauda remained able to still perform under Saddam's regime but following the American occupation, life became even more dangerous. 'It was easier for us before the invasion,' says Marwan. 'Back then, we had concerts that really kicked ass, with 600 people at our gigs.' 'After the invasion, it was just too dangerous to play,' continues Faisal. 'Before the invasion, life was clear - you had limits and rules - but afterwards it was just chaos and that is frightening.'

Tony left Iraq at end of 2005 and Marwan and Faisal fled to Syria where they spent a year before they were ordered to leave. 'We didn't want to return to Iraq,' says Marwan. 'It was just total chaos, so we decided to try to get to Turkey.' The only way Turkey would accept them was as tourists, which meant a one-month visa, but even that required each band member to have $2,000 on arrival.

By then, the band had come to the attention of two film-makers, Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi who, inspired by a 2004 profile of the band in Vice magazine, had resolved to bring the story of Iraq's only metal band to the world. While Marwan sold his drum kit and the others sold everything else, they had the film-makers set up a website to solicit donations to help the band reach Turkey. Within three days, the website had raised $17,000, enabling them to leave Syria for Turkey, where they have been for the past year. Tony and Firas stay outside Istanbul and Marwan and Faisal share an apartment in a rough neighbourhood where the floor is rotting and the ceiling is leaking. 'I saw a black scorpion in my room the other day,' says Marwan, 'and we had a rat living with us for a while.' The apartment is above a kindergarten so Marwan cannot even play on a practice kit because the teachers complain about the noise.

I ask them how they spend their time. They laugh and pretend to consult their diaries. 'We are not allowed to travel, we are not allowed to work and we cannot speak Turkish,' says Faisal. 'We have no money so we hang out with friends and walk around the city.' They follow the progress of the documentary online, sitting in their apartments looking at photos taken of screenings at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals. What irks them most is that they haven't been able to play their music. 'For us, that was how we beat our frustrations and fears,' Marwan tells me. 'It was how we defined who we were. Without the music, I am nothing, except another Iraqi refugee.'

Having spent the past year in legal limbo, the band have been granted the right to residency in the United States and they will be moving in the next few months. I asked how they felt about living in America where their beloved metal music is even more popular. They seem nonchalant but I wonder if they are just playing it cool. So, I suggest, as the bartender brings the bill, soon you will have your chance to chase the fantasy of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. 'Dude, this isn't about sex, drugs and rock'n'roll,' says Faisal. 'It was always more serious than that. For us, this is about reality. The music we make is not performance, we are not wearing masks, it is about who we are.'

I shake their hands and just as I am about to say goodbye, Marwan turns to me and says: 'Remember, we are not children of rock'n'roll, we are children of war.'

· Heavy Metal in Baghdad is released on Friday, September 12.


Sarfraz Manzoor

The GuardianTramp

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