Iraq 'N' Roll
Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek
Byline: Lorraine Ali
It's not every day that the NPR crowd falls for a heavy-metal band, but then Acrassicauda isn't your average group of headbangers. The foursome, whose name means "black scorpion" in Latin, played their first real show behind blast walls and barbed wire, had their rehearsal space destroyed by a missile, and received death threats from fundamentalists for playing "Western devil music"--all before ever stepping into a recording studio. You might say they picked a rough neighborhood for launching a music career. "The only other types of bands in Iraq are the kind who play weddings and circumcision parties," says Acrassicauda drummer Marwan Hussein, 25, "so we really stood out, and standing out in Iraq is not a good thing."
The band's struggles became the subject of the 2007 documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, produced by Spike Jonze and directed by Vice magazine's Suroosh Alvi. All of a sudden public-radio listeners, Toronto film-festival critics, and worldly YouTube users got hooked on the wartime story of the Baghdad rockers. High-school friends Faisal Talal Mustafa, Tony Yaqoo, Firas Abdul Razaq, and Hussein weathered the violence and anarchy by dreaming of the day they'd be free to grow their hair long and rock out loud--and it seemed half the world was rooting for them.
Coverage of the documentary by the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and CNN International made Acrassicauda a high-profile rock band in the Arab world--and a formidable target. So they sold their equipment and fled the country in late 2006, joining millions of other Iraqis who today make up one of the world's largest refugee populations. Sleeping six to a room and moving every few months, Acrassicauda spent more than two years scraping by in the refugee enclaves of Syria and Turkey. Finally, thanks to the work of the International Rescue Committee and a reported $40,000 in donations raised by Vice through PayPal, the broke and exhausted band made it to the United States just over a year ago. Their first week here, they were invited backstage at Newark's Prudential Center by Metallica, where singer James Hetfield handed a speechless Yaqoo his double-necked guitar, signed it, and proclaimed, "Welcome to America." Next stop, rock stardom.
Or maybe not. Though their first-ever recording, the EP Only the Dead See the End of the War, was released last week, most of the band's members are working two or three service jobs each and living in cramped apartments. They barely have enough time between shifts to practice, let alone put on a show. "We are kings without a throne," jokes bassist Razaq, 28, who left the computer store he owned in Baghdad when he fled with his wife. "We're famous, everyone knows us, but we're still struggling. At some points, to be honest, I've thought, what have I done? The only thing to push me forward is when I look back." Hussein, who was an English and arts teacher in Iraq but now works as a waiter, says looking into the future can be more daunting than grappling with their turbulent past. "We've been here over a year now," he says. "I sometimes wonder, will we make it in America or just be some guys doing whatever refugee jobs we can to survive?"
Roughly 30,000 Iraqis have come to the United States as refugees since 2003. Many of those who've resettled here are from Baghdad's middle class; their standard of living back home was in fact higher than that of some middle-class Americans. They worked white-collar jobs and parked their new cars in the driveways of paid-off homes. They arrived here thinking they would maintain the same lifestyle, but instead many were resettled into poverty. "Iraqi refugees generally have more professional career experience than other refugee arrivals, and most expected they'd be able to restart their careers here in a relatively short period," says IRC spokesperson Melissa Winkler. …