By Leila Fadel
Saturday, November 27, 2010; A09
On a makeshift stage in a neglected wedding hall, Ahmed Salhi and his heavy-metal bandmates swigged vodka and screamed into their microphones, even though it was still midafternoon.
The songs were angry, the music was loud and the fans were enthralled; some dived into the crowd and pushed against one another as they banged their heads to the beat of the drums. Young women stood by the stage with black nail polish covering their fingertips, dark eyeliner circling their eyes and their feet decked in Converse tennis shoes.
But the scene brought reminders that this was still a city somewhere between peace and war. With Baghdad streets still too dangerous for many nighttime outings, this concert got underway at 3 p.m. Curtains were used to block out the daylight. Nothing much could be done about the roses, doves and butterflies on the wedding hall's wallpaper. But no one else would rent space to the young rebels with long beards and tattooed fans.
The performance was the first heavy metal concert in Baghdad in more than a year, a moment of escape and fun for the crowd of about 300 people in a place where there is little to be celebrated. But the music also is a rebellion against the violence, sectarianism and division that leave Iraq on edge.
"Laws sacrificed/Justice slaughtered by a rusty dagger," Salhi sang. "Sadistic torment/Scream of clemency . . . Abu Ghraib/Perverted minds guarding Mesopotamia."
The song was about the notorious prison in Iraq where U.S. soldiers abused detainees in 2004 - and where Salhi's father was briefly detained.
There was a small heavy-metal scene here early in the decade. After the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, more bands emerged, hoping to take advantage of a newfound freedom of speech - only to see violence engulf the nation and their music silenced.
More recently, the music has started to return.
This band is called Fatalogy, "the science of death," drummer Rafi Saib explained. "Our music is realistic," Saib said the day before the concert, stroking his long goatee. "Thrash metal speaks to war, to our situation here."
The band is not isolated from the daily hardships of living in this capital. The lead vocalist, Aws Adnan, fled to Belgium because of threats and violence, and Salhi was brought in to replace him. Saib's family, which is Christian, is hoping to leave the country after a slew of attacks on the Christian community. His sister and mother rarely leave the house because of the danger.
Another band left Iraq - its rehearsal hall was bombed and the members lives threatened - and moved to the United States.
Fatalogy rehearses at Saib's house because the others are worried that the noise would draw too much attention. Their music is not accepted by many; in the past, Islamic militants have threatened musicians for playing. After a recent spike in violence in Baghdad, Saib considered postponing the concert. But he decided that no time was a good time and that they would play.
"I'm worried that someone will come do something," Saib Najib, his father, said. "I think they're risking their lives to play in this situation. I just want him to finish the concert and be okay."
His bandmates, all Muslim, also worry about security. They want to move someplace where they can play at night, grow long hair and long beards without prompting double takes, and never worry about bombings.
"Our lives are war after war," said Homam Ibrahim, the bassist, describing one of their songs. In the past, he received threats from militants for his music and his outfits. "People think we sing about Satanism and evil things, but metal is about our life."
On the day of the concert last week, they set up a fog machine and lights to mask the wedding hall decor. They turned out the lights and hired 11 guards to protect the venue.
Rami Abd al Sattar, the guitarist, stood onstage with the confidence of an admired musician. Ibrahim held his bass and Rafi drummed to the beat as Salhi, a shy 24-year-old, transformed into a performer.
"Show me what you're made of!" he roared. The crowd screamed back, flashing devil horns with their hands.
"War has many faces - ultimate chaos is one/Ruin - kill - steal - your mission is done/If you can't stand and wait - if you can't kill/Run," he sang. "War after war, consuming our age."
Latif Ahmed, 24, who belongs to a band called Dog-Faced Corpse, watched. He had fled in 2007 but came back when things calmed. His band, which will perform soon, is named after a story he heard about a man who was beheaded and a dog's head was sewn onto the body.
"People follow their religions, their tribes, and their groups," he said. "I just want to play my music."
A young girl giggled and filmed the band with her iPhone.
Special correspondent Ali al-Qeisy contributed to this report.