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DSC00776 - credit Mohamad Abdouni
Photography Mohamad Abdouni

On the road with Lebanon’s first all-women thrash metal group

A new documentary, Sirens, follows the story of Lilas Mayassi and Shery Bechara – two defiant thrash guitarists using music to rage against the country's social and economic crises

“At first, we just wanted to make music that we loved. Then everything started crashing down around us. So we used music to express our anger.”

Beirut-based guitarist Lilas Mayassi is reflecting on the formation of her band, Slave to Sirens. Founded in 2015, Sirens are Lebanon’s first and only all-female thrash metal group. They didn’t set out with a political agenda – but as fiery, twenty-something Arab women living under an increasingly corrupt government, their sound soon became a means for rebellion.

Slave to Sirens – in particular Mayassi, and her fellow guitarist Shery Bechara – are the subject of a new documentary directed by American-Moroccan filmmaker Rita Baghdadi. Over three years, Baghdadi chronicled the momentous obstacles and quiet minutiae of the musicians’ lives. Sirens, the result, is both a rock doc and many other things: a story of friendship and coming of age. “I wanted to show a nuanced portrayal of women growing up in the Middle East,” Baghdadi summarises. “[Of] Arab women being unapologetically themselves.”

In particular, the film unfolds against the fallout of Lebanon’s October 17 revolution. Major nationwide protests were sparked when, in 2019, a devastating blow of new taxes were dealt to a people already mired by economic meltdown and dwindling quality of life; by a government unable to provide even basics like water and electricity. When the Beirut port explosion hit in 2020, killing over 200 people and leaving some 300,000 homeless, it was “like breaking point for the country,” Mayassi describes over the phone. “Everything has been going backwards since.”

It is apt that Mayassi and Bechara, the founding members of Slave to Sirens, met at a protest in 2015, four years prior to the revolution. “It was against the garbage crisis,” Bechara recalls. “The first thing we started talking about was: ‘What’s your favourite band?’ And Lilas was like, ‘Slayer,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah! Slayer!’ It was as if we were at a festival.”

Both Mayassi and Bechara had been in bands before. But something had been missing. “I wanted to play fast paced riffs and the thrash sound,” says Mayassi (thrash is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal), “but it was too much for them.” So she went her own way. After finding Bechara, the pair recruited three more women: bassist Alma Doumani, drummer Tatyana Boughaba and singer Maya Khairallah.

“Every time we play, especially when we’re all together, that combined energy — it’s like a superpower, you know?” says Bechara. “It’s like no one can stop that voice. Our voice has to be heard.”

Mayassi and Bechara talk lovingly of Lebanon’s tight-knit metal community, who have shown them much support over the years. But the conservative nature of Lebanese society means their music is stigmatized, too. In the documentary, Mayassi recalls comments they’ve received on their videos online: words like “sluts,” “whores,” “satanic,” “abomination.” Bechara tells me they haven’t dealt with haters being so forthcoming in real life — though people might still “make the sign of the cross so that you don't you don't eat them alive.” In any case, the women don’t care.

“Every time we play, especially when we’re all together, that combined energy — it’s like a superpower, you know?”- Shery Bechara

Slave to Sirens released their first EP, Terminal Leeches, in 2018, which is available on all streaming platforms. In March of this year, they dropped the first song from their upcoming album, “Salome” — but the rest of the project has been put on hold as they work through a regrouping period. Singer Khairallah left the band this summer (they plan to announce her replacement soon), and bassist Doumani moved to Florida (though she still records her parts remotely). 

Like Doumani, Mayassi says that most of her friends have left Lebanon “to try to find a better life” now. Eventually, Mayassi and Bechara plan to follow suit: Mayassi to the US, and Bechara to the Netherlands. Any momentum from the 2019 revolution seems to have waned to the point where the women harbour no hope for Lebanon anymore. “[People] have a billion other things to think about,” says Bechara. “How to get food, water, electricity, internet, get their kids to school… They [the government] managed to break us in every way. We don’t have any more energy left.”

“It's heartbreaking to hear your parents tell you that there’s no future here and that you have to leave,” Bechara continues. “I can’t imagine how they’re feeling telling us this — telling their kids that they need to move really far away. But they love us that much that they are saying it. Because there is no future here.”

For a film about such a riotous artform, and with so much turmoil unfolding in the periphery, Baghdadi’s shots have a mesmerising gentleness to them. Sirens is about rage, and it is about rebellion, but there’s also something universal: a portrait of two young women navigating romance, fall-outs, and the pressure to have your shit figured out before you fully know who you are. “I always loved the coming of age genre,” says Baghdadi. “But I think it should be shifted to focus more on your twenties. Not your teens. Because that’s when you’re really coming of age: when you’re figuring out your boundaries, discovering your voice. That’s when you’re really becoming the human you’re going to be.”

Alongside generally worsening living conditions, anti-LGBTQ+ action from both the government and community has been rising in Lebanon. Sirens will not be released in the Middle East as a result. 

In one shot, towards the end of the film, Mayassi shows Bechara a picture of someone she made out with at a party the night before. As they grin and giggle on the side of the road, they could be any of us, anywhere – until a swarm of protestors come roaring down the road beside them, a giant banner reading “WE DEMAND THE FALL OF THE REGIME.” Mayassi and Bechara don’t even look up.

Today, as the pair gear up to pursue new opportunities and different futures, they say their creative vision remains constant. To them, thrash metal music has always been a symbol of hope: a message to the world that “you can do whatever the fuck you want.” 

“We want to be part of this band no matter what,” says Mayassi, resolutely. “We want to push forward no matter what.”

Sirens has been released by Oscilloscope Laboratories and is currently playing across theatres in the US. A UK release is yet to be announced