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How Khalas are Managing to Make Music and Expand Their Fan Base Amid the War in Gaza

posted on: Oct 7, 2014

As dusk falls, the guitarist and producer Abed Hathout sits in his apartment in Acre, northern Israel.

“It is said that this was the only city that Napoleon couldn’t conquer. It’s the only good thing that ever happened here,” he says with a laugh. I remind him: What about your band, Khalas?

“Good point,” he says with a smile. His Skype connection is resolutely clear.

In Acre, he says, “90 per cent of the people around are musicians”. Twenty-five per cent of them are Arab and many of those are Palesti­nian by ethnicity – just like Hathout.

But he is Israeli “by papers, yes”, he says. “I have an Israeli passport, Israeli ID. We were forced to have that. I have family here, family in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, scattered all around.”

Hathout lives two hours north of Gaza, but in his environment, the conflict is everywhere – and was certainly present during the attacks that raged between July 8 and August 26.

Everything the band does plays out against this backdrop – but it does not define the band.

The members of Khalas – the band’s name is the Arabic word for “enough”, as in “We’ve had enough” – are Hathout, the singer Riyad Sliman, the percussionist Fadel Qandil and the bassist Rooster (named after an Alice in Chains song).

They have been together since 1998 and released their first album in 2004. It “was mostly grunge, rock’n’roll and metal in Arabic”, says Hathout. “It sounds like any American and European band, except for the language. It sounds like Nirvana, in Arabic.”

Those similarities prompted a transition, sparked by their surroundings and a burgeoning sense of identity – and the need to communicate it.

“The second one, Arabic Rock Orchestra, we defined it as Arabic rock – not just singing in the language, but implementing elements of Arabic music and grooves into the metal,” he says. “I like to say that we’ve taken western rock and heavy metal, put it through our Middle Eastern filter and thrown it back at them.”

And was it easy finding this western rock?

“Not at all,” he says. “As teenagers, in 1994, we had to travel an hour to the nearest Tower Records, pick up the magazines, go through the CDs.

“We would spend days there, searching for new bands. In the north of Israel, it’s not like Tel Aviv. There was no ‘scene’. If you were an Arab trying to do that, singing in Arabic, it was impossible. We limited ourselves to our crowd and our people here were not the kind of people to listen to metal.

“It was a really heavy challenge. We had to build a scene, not just form a band.”

So they did. And musically, they fused the chug/lurch/crunch of grunge-metal with the exotic skirl of Middle Eastern melody.

“Here in the Middle East, we have a name, especially in Egypt – we have a huge fan base,” says Hathout. They are also building a fan base overseas.

Last year, the band toured Europe, playing 18 gigs in 30 days in Spain, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“The most amazing thing was the reaction of the crowds,” says Hathout. “Especially given we sing only in Arabic. Solid proof that when the music works, it doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you come from, your religion – you can see people on the dance floor, moving, grooving, headbanging.

“The feedback we got coming off the stage – people telling us: ‘Wow, we didn’t know you guys existed, you’re amazing!’ People getting hooked from the very first show.”

Of course, the events unfolding around Hathout and Khalas this summer make them one of the few metal bands playing near a war zone.

“It is hard – not just being a Palestinian and seeing what’s happening,” says Hathout. “From the human point of view. It’s a bad situation for everyone. And not just in Gaza – all the stuff that happens in the Middle East.”

The band members were not in danger during the Israeli air strikes, but Hathout has a friend whose uncle was killed in Gaza.

“If you don’t live inside Gaza, you’re not in real danger,” he says. “However, inside Israel, there were a lot of attacks on Arabs – or even left-wing Jews, just for being left-wing. But I didn’t feel [aggression], that was more in the area of Jerusalem, where you have more settlers. Here it’s a little more quiet.”

The band are not allowed to play in Gaza, or even enter it. “We would love to, but we can’t.”

The violence “did affect us a lot, though – especially in that I had to turn down five or six shows in the past six months”, he says.

“You’re not in the mood to play – and, also, I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to say: ‘OK, we’re gonna play this song for Gaza’ – it doesn’t work. We let the music speak.”

Hathout believes that “you can’t have a resistance movement based only on political things. You have to bring in culture. You have a life to live … and have fun.

“In Israel, the band’s audience is fully integrated, Arabs and Jews,” he says, despite the friction. “We’ll play in Ramallah and the next week in Tel Aviv. And the audiences are amazing – sometimes 50/50, sometimes 70/30, people standing together. Metal is unique in that way. Metalheads don’t have filters – if you’re a metalhead, we’re brothers.”

After the August 26 Gaza truce was brokered, Hathout says he was “really happy that it happened, but still sad that it took more than 2,100 people to die and thousands of families lost their homes to reach it”.

Mark Lepage
The National