Credit: Sallie Pisch

From heavy metal to revolution and back again

As we filmed Cairo's underground metal scene, we saw the Egyptian revolution firsthand

The 2011 revolutionary fervor in Egypt awakened the irrepressible energy of the masses, evoking memories of uprisings from a generation ago. For those of us who grew up during the Cold War era, weaned on end-of-the-world movies such as “The Day After” and “World War III,” the sight of so many people coming together to topple an impregnable dictatorial system ignited our imagination, enabling the dream of a different and more open future. As we found ourselves filming some of the key events of the Arab Spring, little did we realize that many of the young people that we had come to know as metalheads would direct an uprising that shook and inspired the world.

When we first met the Nour family in 2006 in Cairo, they were living in a nightmare of political persecution. Teenage brothers Noor and Shady lived daily with a reality no American teenager could imagine: Their father, Ayman, was tortured and jailed for running against the long-serving dictator Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections. Their mother, Gameela, was hounded by security agents for trying to carry the party torch in his stead. Yet instead of running away or hiding in silence, the boys sought refuge in free expression, via the loud, underground, increasingly transgressive Cairo metal scene. The Nours later became the main subjects in our documentary film, “Before the Spring, After the Fall.”

As with so many Muslim metalheads across the region, Noor and Shady were drawn to metal almost therapeutically — and the heavier it was, the better. Shady took to the brutal vocals that defined extreme metal, while Noor embraced the rhythms of the bass. If you knew where to look, this underground scene was taking the lead in organizing an emerging counterculture. By 2008 “metalians” (as metalheads in Egypt call themselves) were mastering the online world, learning to create alternative spaces for activism — organizing and congregating beyond the prying ears and eyes of Egypt’s authoritarian political culture. By 2010 they were ready to help lead the most striking revolution in a generation.

As profound as the changes of February 2011 were — including the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign — we also knew this was the beginning of a long process that would turn ugly before it bore any fruit.

That November, as we returned for the third — and what we imagined might be the penultimate — shoot of our documentary, Egypt’s political life had deteriorated. Ayman, although out of jail, was barred from politics. Gameela had stepped into the fray by running for a seat in the Legislative Assembly. On election night, officials of the ruling National Democratic Party literally stole the ballot boxes. We filmed as Noor and Shady chased party operatives down the street while Cairo descended into chaos. “You can say whatever you want to say,” one of Mubarak’s political stalwarts told them. “But who’s going to hear you?”

Millions of Egyptians, it turned out — although we did not see it coming at the time. Back in New York, we began editing and planning a final trip to film a battle of the bands. We thought the story was nearly wrapped up, and the revolutions we captured were symbolic. And then Tunis imploded after the fatal self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

As we watched this personal protest of a fruit vendor in Tunisia ignite an entire region, we knew we had to get back. At the Cairo airport, we witnessed everyone clamoring to get out, while we dove deeper into the chaos. We arrived at our hotel on the edge of Tahrir Square on the day of the Battle of the Camel, Feb. 2, 2011, when Mubarak’s supporters rode into the crowds swinging machetes, trying in vain to dislodge the protesters. Day after day, moods swung wildly: One moment it appeared as if all was lost; the next, victory seemed close at hand. It seemed as if dozens of documentary filmmakers had descended on Tahrir, but we realized that we were in a unique position. We had captured the story’s first act, the frustrations and repressions of years before that motivated so many to take to the streets. So whether we were standing in the square or watching from afar as battles flared up in the months that followed, the entire episode felt viscerally real.

Shady Nour marching to Tahrir Square.
Credit: Sallie Pisch

As profound as the changes of February 2011 were — including the end of Mubarak’s 30-year reign — thanks to the kids we had been filming, we also knew this was the beginning of a long process that would turn ugly before it bore any fruit. In fact, as the glow of Tahrir hung in the air late into the spring and factions jockeyed for power, Noor realized what lay ahead, warning, “Getting rid of Mubarak was the easiest part of the revolution. Getting rid of the corrupt mentality that’s in all of us is going to be the real challenge.”

History has proved Noor right, sadly. Today as Field Marshal–turned–President Abdel Fattah El Sisi consolidates his power and the United States announces the full resumption of military aid, hundreds of activists and journalists are being detained, tortured and sentenced to long prison terms after Kafkaesque trials. Last week Al Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed were given seven and 10-year sentences on trumped-up charges — unsupported by any evidence — that they aided the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The crackdown and regression to the days of the Mubarak regime are deeply dispiriting. But judging from the determination, fearlessness and perseverance of young Egyptians who shared their lives with us, the walls of injustice, which they continue to chip away at with loud guitars and fearless politics, will soon come tumbling down.

The film “Before the Spring, After the Fall premieres on PBS’s “Global Voices on Sunday, June 29, at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a distinguished visiting professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is a co-editor, with Mathias Mossberg, of “One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States.”

Jed Rothstein is an Academy Award–nominated and Emmy-winning filmmaker. His films have played in film festivals around the world, enjoyed special screenings at the United Nations and been broadcast on HBO, PBS, the Discovery Channel, IFC, Channel 4, the BBC and elsewhere.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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