The Struggle Goes On for Haram and Middle Easterners in Punk
Growing up Middle Eastern in the hardcore punk scene is a very trying social experience. We've never had a foothold for representation the way other minorities have over the years. More distressingly, Middle Easterners have never really found a place within the hardcore punk and metal communities to embrace their heritage. Unfortunately, in a post-9/11 status quo, Middle Easterners have often found themselves hiding their ethnic background in the hopes of not being targeted for abuse and persecution. A friend of mine once remarked that “being Middle Eastern in the punk scene is a lonely existence.”
This past year, a new outfit from New York City called Haram came along and, for the very first time, a punk band was fronted by a Middle Eastern Muslim who sings exclusively in Arabic. Being a band with this distinction has not shielded them from the same persecution that often accompanies a Middle Easterner flying their flag too high. In August, frontman Nader Haram was investigated by the FBI and NYPD for suspected ties to ISIS. Not long after this investigation concluded, the bombings in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan happened, and it was this event that inspired Haram to release their debut 7” EP What Do You See? on Toxic State.
I talked to Nader about his background, how a Middle Eastern kid from Yonkers made his way into punk, what it's like to be investigated by the government and, most importantly, the point and message of Haram.
Tell everyone about yourself. You're a Middle Eastern guy, and I think that people's minds automatically think the worst and rush to stereotype. We all have a story. Take the time to tell yours.
I was born in Yonkers, New York. Growing up in South Yonkers in the early '90s was tough, but I have mostly positive memories. We lived above a pizzeria. My parents were constantly working, so I spent most of the time in the care of my neighborhood friends and family, which I’m thankful for because I learned a lot from them, and it exposed me to a variety of cultures when I was still young. My parents both fled the unfortunate and horribly violent civil war of Lebanon in the '80s and settled in Yonkers. They both sought a better and more stable life for their children, a life they had been robbed of themselves. I've lived my life by this lesson. As it became time for me to attend school, my parents decided that a Catholic school would be better for my education, a decision I regrettably agreed to.
This was pivotal. I was raised to be a Shia Muslim, which is the more conservative sect of Islam. They are the minority in the Arab world, and are in a constant state of genocide. I faced a lot of inner conflict attending Catholic school while still having to adhere to the strict tenets of Shia Islam. I remember having to go to Catholic mass every other Friday, and having to stay seated while everyone kneeled, and having to stay seated while everyone received the Eucharist. It was awkward and embarrassing, and many of my peers saw this as a way of alienating me. I would go home afterwards and my father would sit me down and explain why Catholicism is wrong and why they are sinners. I must’ve been nine years old. I remember a day when I was done with all faiths. I couldn’t handle the mental gymnastics of my father combined with religion class at school and my peers’ bullying.
This is when music became a huge part of my early adolescence. I started off listening to hip-hop, as that was what I was exposed to by my neighborhood friends. I loved it. The political meanings, the fashion, the family-first mentality: I became obsessed, to say the least. I remember wearing a DMX shirt that my friend let me borrow to Mosque once; my father was enraged. [Laughs] My exposure to hip-hop paved the way to finding punk when I was around 16. It was one of the most refreshing discoveries. I remember feeling like I had finally found something that described me and my life, and my struggle to live. It’s hard to explain the feeling. Nonetheless, I continued to Catholic high school, and this is where I met most of my future bullies. I was young and too nice for my own good. With my name being Nader and still being known as “the Muslim kid,” [that] was a bully’s wet dream. It was extremely difficult for me to transition. I had very few friends. As I grew older, I found a group of friends that almost shielded me from the rest of the school; I had found social comfort at last. My friend and bandmate Martin [O'Sullivan] has always been there for me; he went to school with me since kindergarten. He has always supported me and listened to me. My friend Anthony has also always been there for me. These two people I have to thank for a lot of the courage I have now.
I started Haram when I started seeing the quarrels I had experienced in my life turn into public opinion of my people. I cannot put into words how angry I am and how angry I’ve always been. I have grown, and I am strong. My life will end with this cause, and I am proud.
I can never be more thankful for growing up in a multicultural community. Everything about it gave me the courage to be in Haram. Thank you for reading this; it’s hard for me to talk about.
So, the new record, What Do You See?, dropped this week. Given everything that's happened in the last few weeks to you with tour, being investigated by the government and then the bombings in Chelsea, how do you feel right now? Exhausted and drained? Relieved? Excited? Nervous? I feel like any one of those feelings is applicable at this point.
Yeah, you’re right. It’s a combination of all those emotions. I first learned that I was being investigated by the FBI when we left NYC for our Midwest tour. I was sitting in the van arguing in loud Arabic with my uncle, who had the FBI come to his job asking about me, and then with my father, who said they came to the house. I had an adrenaline rush. It was a little exciting at first to learn that I had attracted their attention. But I quickly fell silent and depressed. I was afraid that I was the only one taking on the fucking FBI. I sucked it up. I became empowered by it all, in the end.
Every time there’s news of a violent event, I beg that it's not an Arab or a Muslim. It is sad to me that it's become ordinary to hear of these. This is something that exhausts me. There is so much suffering on both ends of these events. Frustrated people take it out on the innocent. I’ve spent days crying — it's very draining.
The bombings in Chelsea destroyed my courage. It brought back all that I had experienced on 9/11 and how it felt to have something happen in our home again. This is why we decided to release What Do You See? the day after those bombings in Chelsea and New Jersey.
For parties who are less privy, I just mentioned that you were investigated by the government. There was an FBI / NYPD investigation conducted to look into you and Haram having potential ties to ISIS. What all went in to their investigation? How did you feel when you found out?
I mostly felt vulnerable. We were on tour, and it felt good to be able to play across the most troubled part of this country after learning about this. The FBI conducted a federal investigation on me and my role in Haram’s imagery and lyricism as a possible tie to ISIS and radical preaching. I felt ashamed at how little they worked on the case before confronting me. They never closed their case, even after an interrogation. The NYPD had to conduct a domestic investigation of their own. They had my internet history, headshots of me on the street, and apparently had an undercover at one of our shows who witnessed “radical behavior and violence.” I don’t buy it. The folder they had also had a screenshot of our Bandcamp, my headband and the Haram logo.
They closed their case after I had a sit-down interview with them. “You didn’t seem as much as a threat when we saw you,” was a better way of saying, "You didn’t look foreign." They said my tattoos made them think they had the wrong guy, which I still don’t understand. They handed me their business card at the end of the meeting, asking me if I could keep an eye out for radical behavior in our scene. I laughed and was on my way. I gave that card to Eugene [Terry] of Papertown Company. One of the detectives asked me if Haram was a “rock band or what,” and he went on to tell me that his cousin used to drum in Murphy’s Law. He was trying to cheer me up; by the end of it all, I assume both detectives saw how distraught I was.
How did your friends, family and peers within the punk scene react after the news came out about you being investigated?
My family wanted nothing to do with me. They had already been pushing me out since I was young and found an interest in music and art. And then when I started Haram, it was over. I’m back on okay terms with them now. Since 9/11, my family has always been ashamed of our culture, and trying to assimilate and pass as Americans. Something I could never live with.
My friends were worried about me. My girlfriend told me she thought she would never see me again and had a panic attack. Some of my friends got worried for their own safety and privacy just by proxy of association. I forgive them. It was an impulsive reaction and I understood.
The punk scene gathered around me and supported me immensely in NYC and around the country. I couldn’t have proceeded with it all without my allies’ encouragement and protection. Everyone wanted to know what happened and if I was safe. Thank you all.
James, a special thanks to you — you were one of the first people I told the story to in its entirety, and one the first that gave me reassuring advice. Thanks to Adam Whites and to everyone in Toxic State for always checking in, too. As well as my bandmates, who I owe everything to.
Recently, there was a bombing in Chelsea. The suspect would eventually be confirmed to be an Islamic fundamentalist. What did you think when that news broke? Does your mind rush to the thought, "Oh man, my life is about to get so much harder''? I remember when the Boston Marathon bomber got outed as Chechen, I breathed a sigh of relief. Try to share some insight on the social experience for a regular Middle Eastern person in the wake of a terrorist attack in the USA.
Absolutely. As soon as the Chelsea bombs went off, I felt an intense fear rush across me. I instantly start exhibiting symptoms of intense anxiety. And it lasts for days on end. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I got calls from my extended family asking me if I was present there, and if I could stay home for a few days. There is always this silent yet united reaction amongst Middle Easterners in this country. It’s when everyone stays inside, knowing the culture’s reputation is tarnished more and more as these attacks continue to happen. I believe there's a deeply ingrained defense mechanism in most Middle Easterners and Muslims from the effects of post-9/11. It’s a reaction to that horrendous feeling of becoming a target for something you had nothing to do with. By proxy, we are all terrorists, radicalists, destroyers of life.
I have no shame in saying that I was born here to immigrant parents, who raised me Shia Muslim, sent me to Catholic school, which hindered me from finding myself. I don’t care, and that came from caring for so long. This is something I wish for not just Muslims / Middle Easterners, but for every human being as well. The courage to be what you are is a human right. If you’re being someone you’re not, shame on you. If you’re taking out your anger through acts of violence verbally or physically on innocent people, you deserve the harshest reaction. If you live what is in your heart, I am here for you, and I am proud of you. This is what I focus on. I am not a terrorist, although your fear tells you I am. What do you see when you look at me? I don't care.
If it isn't obvious to readers, listeners and the United States federal government, you're not affiliated with Islamic fundamentalism in any way, much less ISIS itself. Can you explain what Haram is all about? Specifically in a Middle Eastern / Muslim narrative. It's clear that you're not some Wahhabi ideologue, so what is the point of Haram? If people can walk away from seeing your band, what do you want them to think of Middle Eastern people / Muslims after?
I’ll explain what Haram means to me, and why Haram exists. "Haram" is a word that has plagued my existence since the start. It means "forbidden." It is used heavily in Muslim culture. You live your life based on it as I did. Different things in your life are haram; you come to fear those things. The thought of committing that act will give you a feeling of dread.
Haram, in essence, is a double controversy. To those who don’t understand what I say, it is intimidating. To those who do understand, it is intimidating.
Arabic, sonically, as a language, is harsh and intimidating, and I intended to express it as beautiful as it is to me. I wanted to bend the language to my will and work it back into my identity. To an English listener, my shouting is intended to serve as a culture shock. A culture that has been destroyed and demonized is thrown in your face. I always hid that part of me — that I knew the language — and when Haram formed, I knew that I wanted to [push] that to its farthest reach. In the past, when I didn’t hide that fact, I faced bullying and abuse.
It’s intended to spark an interest in English speakers. For them to go on their own or approach me and learn about the beauty of the culture and the language, something that has been lost to radicalists and Wahhabists. I do not fear these people. And if I could, I would fight every last one of them.
To Arabic listeners, it is intended to invoke a revolution. I want Arabic listeners to know that we do not have to hide anymore. That I will be a voice for the people that are ashamed, until my death. I’m angry beyond explanation that fear crippled my life and the life of our communities. And that we reacted in a fearful way. I am angry at us all. I hate us for it, but I understand. Now is the time to rebuild our courage together and to be proud once again.
In closing, Haram is an unceasing fight against racial abuse and humiliation, the unimaginable massacres of our world, past and present. For the disadvantaged, the people of color, the transgendered, the homosexual, the abandoned, the orphaned, the impoverished, the wrongfully executed. The victims of war, the bullet-ridden, the barrel-bombed and chemically gassed. Those in mourning, those in despair.
Everything about Haram is haram. This is my fight. And I am a proud Harami — stop me if you can.