On Being a White Male Atheist and an Afghan Woman in the Time of Trump

Azar Swan’s music has always reflected the dynamic between them. It will continue to.

VOICES is a new Talkhouse series in which artists will discuss current events through their own unique lens. For each article written, the publication donates to a charity of the musician’s choosing. Azar Swan chose the ACLU.
Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

Azar Swan is a band composed of a pale-skinned Afghan female born to moderate Muslim immigrant parents in Florida (Zohra) and a pale-skinned male anti-theist ex-Christian born in Iowa (Josh). Our shared experience of the political landscape has always bled into our relationship and into our music. Since our earlier incarnation, as Religious to Damn, our work has always reflected the unique fusion of our identities. We coined that band’s name to reflect the spectrum from religious reverie to Promethean rebellion, a spectrum on which we co-exist at different locations.

The song “Let the Fires Burn” by Religious to Damn illustrated this personal dynamic more than probably any other song we ever wrote together. When we wrote it, we were secretly engaged to be married (we broke up in 2009) and both struggling with how to reconcile our identities. How does an outspoken atheist convert to Islam? How does a Muslim girl marry an atheist? In the song’s chorus, we find our common ground in a rejection of eternal damnation and a resignation to our fate if hell turns out to be real: “They say there’s going to be a day/we pay for how we’ve gone astray/I pray you’re with me on that day/to dance in the flames.”

Seemingly irreconcilable things can have unexpected points of reconciliation.

When we reorganized our work electronically under the name Azar Swan, we allowed more political overtones to seep in. The title of our debut LP, Dance Before the War, and the lyrics to its title track were inspired by stories Zohra heard from soldiers. Some were Afghans fighting the Soviet invaders. Some were American Special Forces. In these stories, Zohra brought together the heartbreaking melancholy of men in an experience of human connection or joy on the evening before they were about to head into battle. The constant theme throughout all of our records has been that there are points of connection amid all the apparent disconnection. You just have to spend a little energy looking for them, as we have for so many years. Seemingly irreconcilable things can have unexpected points of reconciliation.

Zohra’s grandfather was killed by Soviets in Afghanistan; Josh’s grandfather was awarded a Purple Heart after being blown out of a foxhole at Anzio in WWII. Neither of us sees America as wholly evil or wholly good, but we’ve both appreciated the best of what it could be and hoped to be. In the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump, we have both wondered if our hope for what America could be has been dashed. We have wondered if we misjudged our friends and neighbors.

Despite having both spent more than a decade in New York City, neither of us fits the definition of the cloistered coastal liberal who lives in a bubble.

Despite having both spent more than a decade in New York City, neither of us fits the definition of the cloistered coastal liberal who lives in a bubble. We both grew up in the South, mostly in Virginia (it may not be that far south in latitude, but recall Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy for a time). One of us, Josh, recently moved away from New York and currently lives in New Orleans, where he regularly — and respectfully — interacts with a great many Southern conservative evangelicals. We are creatures of cities and nightclubs, of liberal values and libertine lifestyles, but we are not disconnected from Americans or Muslims who are more tethered to their specific traditions.

However comfortable the two of us may feel with the values, backgrounds and lifestyles of others, we wonder how uncomfortable others may be with ours, and we wonder how that discomfort might start to manifest in the coming months. As musicians, we have wondered if it’s even safe for us to tour — whether in the United States or in Europe. We have a festival date pending for a show in Germany next summer. The last time we were there, we had a bizarre run-in with some people who appeared to have sympathy for the new far right movement in Germany. We aren’t the kinds of people who are good at prioritizing self-preservation over the need to voice our rejection of such things. We were told things like, “Hitler never wanted a war,” and we responded by basically saying, “You’re fucking crazy.”

Upon returning, Josh wrote an article for The Daily Beast about what we’d encountered in Germany. So we have wondered ever since: if we tried to return to Dresden to play a gig, might someone be waiting for us with bad intentions? We mocked their politics in-person and criticized them in the press. Will gangs of PEGIDA-sympathizing thugs show up, eager to teach us a lesson? And we ask ourselves presently, might they show up at the festival site next summer, which is only a short drive from Dresden?

Asking this question about Germany and neo-fascism feels very natural to us as Americans, for obvious reasons. But we never would have dreamed that we’d have to start asking these questions about America. We now must, and we have been asking one another this week. Even though Zohra was born in Tallahassee, Florida, and looks more “white” than many white people, will the wave of anti-Muslim sentiment bring harassment or harm to her? How will Josh’s avowed leftist sympathies and militant atheism meet with the new wave of alt-right white nationalists? Their main media exponent, Steve Bannon — now Trump’s pick for Chief Strategist — is on record in a Skype conference with the Vatican claiming that “the church militant” must rise up and combat the wave of secularizing youth, which he sees as key to the civilizational decline of the West.

We have been wondering about the children who look up to and depend on us — Zohra’s nieces and nephews, Josh’s daughter — asking whether staying in one piece on their behalf isn’t more important than touring and openly voicing dissent through our art. We have been wondering if the Arabesque imagery that we sometimes use will now become a heat-seeking signal to alt-right bigots who, unfortunately, do help populate the metal, noise, goth and industrial scenes with which our music is most associated. We played our first show four years ago. We wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told us then that any of this could become a liability. We wonder as we collaborate on these thoughts for this article: is what we’re saying right now perhaps helping single us out for future trouble?

If one thing has become clear since the election results came in, it is that acts of open bigotry and intolerance we never thought possible in our communities are becoming commonplace.

If one thing has become clear since the election results came in, it is that acts of open bigotry and intolerance we never thought possible in our communities are becoming commonplace. And few music scenes have trafficked as heavily in themes of brutal misogyny and extremist white nationalism than those with which we currently associate. We’re lucky enough to call some of the greatest practitioners — and indeed some originators — of power electronics and metal our friends and creative collaborators. We do not designate these sub-genres as inherently immoral, and we are not ill-informed about the history and artistic methods of each.

Our specific communities are not rife with prejudice; in fact, plenty of our friends suffer insults precisely because they are intellectual people who wear skinny jeans, read philosophy, and got an elite liberal arts or art school education, and because their views track pretty closely with what the self-flattering “true” fans of extreme music deem “P.C.” But even this community (including us — well, Josh at least) has sometimes chosen to give a pass on the appreciation of openly racist music, using postmodern distance to appreciate certain aspects of musicianship, innovation and symbolic radical rejection of the mainstream. So when it comes to the breakdown of the politics of a given audience at a noise or metal show, it’s safe to say that if you want to find the alt-right radicals, some of them are gonna be around. They never spoke up before, but will they start to?

We call each other regularly, anyway, but in the past weeks, the phone calls have been more tearful than ever. Some Trump voters like hearing things like this, and that should tell you something. But we’ve reassured one another, and we’ve listened to one another. We’ve also offended one another. Since we’ve known each other for more than a decade, we’re not unaccustomed to it. We have a tendency to handle the offenses we sometimes cause one another with the stubbornness of siblings. But recently, we’ve been better at saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to. You’ve helped me see why what I said was insensitive.” And we’ve renewed our commitment to our music and the importance of carrying on our creative lives without bowing to intimidation.

Azar Swan is proof that a white male anti-theist, vocally opposed to Islamism and a natural opponent of the Islamic religion, can have a lifelong loyal friendship with a female Muslim who just wants to be treated with dignity and respect. Over the years one of us listened to the other’s criticisms of religion and theocratic politics; the other listened to how it feels to be treated like a second-class person for being Muslim or a refugee — how it feels to try to create a life outside the normal path for an Afghan-American woman while still respecting family and tradition. We fight a lot, but in the end we listen and put loyalty above all, and therein lies our strength.

We don’t have to say we’d take a bullet for one another, because figuratively we already have, hundreds of times over the years. We’re not eager to make the figurative literal, but we will if we have to. Our music has always reflected this dynamic between us. It will continue to.

Josh Strawn is currently one half of the electronic duo Azar Swan and the lead singer of the moody metal supergroup Vaura. He was closely involved with the now-defunct Wierd Records label and party, at which time he fronted the post-punk band Blacklist and played in the psychedelic doom folk band Religious to Damn with Azar Swan co-conspirator Zohra Atash. He has contributed written works of political and cultural commentary to various publications including Flavorwire and Slutist.

Zohra Atash is a singer, songwriter and musician. Her projects are Azar Swan and Religious to Damn. She is an irregular columnist at slutist.com. Her family founded and runs the Nooristan Foundation. You can follow Azar Swan on Twitter here.

(photo credit: Julia Comita)