Wednesday, 28 September 2016

World Tour

l-r: Bil3aX, Langtunes, Sonita
Week 4: The Middle East

This is one of the trickiest parts of our journey. The Middle East is an extremely volatile area, and our first venture into the region is to one of the most disputed spots of all. The State of Palestine has no definitive boundaries, much of it occupied by Israel. It has two distinct territories - the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Getting into Palestine (in this case from Kenya, our previous stop) is very difficult given that there are currently no active airports. We have to fly 2257 miles to Tel Aviv in Israel, then drive for a couple of hours, crossing into Palestine with all the diplomatic wrangling that may well involve.

Decades of political struggles and conflict will inevitably be reflected in the nation's culture, and rock music is never going to shy away from such issues. Bil3aX hail from Ramallah in the West Bank and were formed by university students Faris Shomali and Gassan Sawalhi. Musically, they fuse all kinds of things together - rock, blues, reggae and more traditional folk music from the region. Their debut album '12 Richter' which came out about a year or so ago, tackles what the band describes as "contradictions on an Arab level." Zilzal is a track from the album that reeks of punk rebelliousness, reminiscent of the Slits in places, though there are clear Eastern influences in there too.

From Ramallah, we need to get to Iran. However, that's not easy either. We could go via Jordan, and fly from its capital Amman, but while geographically close to Ramallah, demographically it's a long-winded 4 and a half hour road trip heading west, then north, then east and finally south, almost a complete circle. I'm more inclined to return to Tel Aviv and fly directly to Tehran.

Now, the West's view of Iran is one of religious fanaticism, ruled by an aggressive, anti-Western regime that supports terrorism and Islamic extremism. Much of that is, of course, largely false. That hasn't stopped the average person (read: 'idiot') in the west from believing every word. But Iran isn't exactly liberal. On the contrary, rock music is deemed to be un-Islamic and brandishing an electric guitar is an offence. Despite this, rock music does exist.

Bands like Langtunes have to play in secret and use anonymous proxy servers to upload their music to the internet. Discretion is the key. That hasn't stopped them recording and playing though, and in 2014 they released their debut album 'Teherantor' and toured Europe. They fuse electronics with their guitars and sing in English. There's not a great deal of Middle Eastern influence in there, suggesting that they have had more than just a little access to Western music. It's exactly the sort of thing that would go down very well over here.

Finally for this week, a hefty 13 hour journey by car covering more than 1200km, from Tehran to west Afghanistan, home to a remarkable young woman called Sonita Alizadeh. She grew up in Herat province under the Taliban. Aged just 10, her family began making plans to sell her into marriage. Before this came to fruition, the family fled to Iran to escape the Taliban. It was here Sonita learned to read and write and became exposed to rap music, especially Eminen and Iranian singer Yas.

After winning a songwriting competition aged just 15, her mother, now back in Afghanistan, made her intention known that she was planning to sell Sonita to a man in order to raise a dowry Sonita's brother needed to buy a bride himself. This prompted Sonita to write about her feelings in the form of rap music. Initially keeping her lyrics secret from her family, she ended up recording Brides For Sale, an emotionally powerful song about the plight of child brides. A video was shot and uploaded to You Tube. Sonita became an overnight sensation.

Following that extraordinary debut, Sonita continued to write highly-charged songs about life in Afghanistan and became a campaigner for women's rights. She was offered a scholarship to study in the US where she currently resides. In November of last year, a documentary, 'Sonita', was premiered at the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, where it was the run-away winner of the coveted Audience Prize.

Afghanistan is a deeply troubled country, and so it shall remain for many years to come. In Sonita Alizadeh, however, we see the green shoots of hope for all those caught up in such adversity across the globe. Another example of music uniting the world.

And here's an interview with Sonita herself in which she tells her story and her introduction to rap music:


  1. Indeed, CC! Being stuck in the office I haven't listened to the tunes yet, but what a wonderful writing, that's for sure!

  2. You up the ante with every itinerary. Great piece of writing, Robster.