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Protest Song Of The Week: ‘What Is This Hell​?​’ by HARAM

Haram is a New York City hardcore band whose debut EP شو بتشوف؟ (“What Do You See​?​”) was released in 2016 by the underground punk label Toxic State. The band’s vocalist is Nader Haram, a Muslim American from Yonkers, NY whose family moved to New York in the 80s to escape the Lebanese-American war.

All of the lyrics are sung in Arabic, which Nader has said in interviews is a way to reclaim his lived experiences.

“My culture, I feel like, was ripped out of me and destroyed in a sense because of where I grew up and the experiences I had,” Nader says in a new short film created by the website Circa. “The things that I experienced growing up, post-9/11, were really dark. We really took a hit as a community and no one wanted anything to do with us.”

On September 11, 2016, Haram (which means “forbidden” in Arabic) played a show in Brooklyn, where Nader told the crowd, “Fifteen years ago today, we as New Yorkers were exposed to the darkness that already existed in this world, but we have grown and we are strong.” (The whole set can be watched here.)

In the Circa documentary, Nader describes a visit from the Joint Terrorism Task Force, who once showed up at his house with an envelope of information about his band. They questioned him about his life, his parents, and his values. “Just the fact that it was in Arabic was enough to arouse their suspicion that Nader was doing something wrong, which he’s not,” one of his bandmates comments in the film. “And they didn’t even bother to translate the music to know that it was anti-extremist and secular and all this stuff.”

What Do You See is made of four blistering, high-speed punk songs. The first track begins and ends with Nader’s voice over a muted riff, before erupting with frantic drums, guitars that sound like sirens, and urgent, echoing vocals.

The final track is also the EP’s longest, clocking just under three minutes. The title translates to “What Is This Hell?” and the lyrics translate to, “All the children are dead on the beach. All the children are living without parents. All the children are scared. What is this hell?”

“I remember seeing one famous image of a kid, head first in the sand, dead on a beach in Italy and that destroyed me,” he said, speaking about the lyrics to Circa. “I cried for days after seeing that. Imagine trying to cross the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat. And like half of you make it, if you’re lucky. You get there and there’s nothing for you there.”

“That type of world is something I’ve always fought against in my life and to know that it’s real and to know that it’s more prominent than ever now is something that I’ve found to be worth singing about,” Nader added

“What Is This Hell?” builds slowly, just ominous drums and creeping riffs, before bursting into some of the record’s most expressive howls. Over just about three minutes, the song shifts between dynamics, winding its rage into moments of eerie calm and unrelenting chaos.

Listen to the full “What Do You See?” EP with “What Is This Hell?” as the fourth track:

A sign carried at the D.C. March For Truth has tinges of homophobia. Photo by kellybdc on Flickr.
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Liz Pelly

Liz Pelly