Nader Haram: My name is Nader Haram and I am from Yonkers, New York and I play in a band called Haram. We have been a band for about a year and a half- almost two years.
Tamara Santibañez: Tell me a little bit about the band and how you formed.
Nader: We all came from all different places. Our drummer is from Australia and our guitarist Mike works at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, and I think James met Mike because he went into the coffee shop. It was kind of a broad stroke of luck that we even started. James had been wanting to start a band, so he and Mike started jamming and Mike hit me up and asked if I would ever do vocals and if I would want to try.
Tamara: Had you been in a band before this? Or no?
N: I had played in one band- I played guitar up in Westchester. So I took the offer, like why not try vocals. The first practice I sang completely in English. I didn’t have the concept in mind for Haram at all. I was new to vocals and singing. I didn’t like it at first, but I always thought of having an Arabic punk band- it was something I kept in my back pocket. I knew it hadn’t really been done before past a certain extent. I haven’t seen many bands from the Middle East or anything like that. I brought up the idea to Mike and I explained to him the perils of growing up as a person of color in this country and with a foreign name and he was like yeah, I think that would be a really cool thing to do in a punk band.
The first time we practiced with me singing in Arabic it just worked. There was just something about it where the music that he was playing, the way I was singing, it just flowed together really well. None of us expected that so we were just like- holy crap what did we discover? It was really exciting! We made the band without a name. My good friend Martin came on to play bass. I think our first show was in 2015 at the Acheron. John from Toxic State released our 7”. We are on Toxic State now and it’s been a really good opportunity. I try to thank him whenever I can.
T: When I saw your last show I noticed that you only speak in Arabic between songs as well as singing it.
N: When I start performing on stage I feel like expressing myself in that one medium as opposed to anything else. Part of me singing in Arabic for Haram is bending the language as I want it to bend with the music and also just using what I’ve learned in my life in a practical way. I know how to read it and write it. I went to Sunday school for mad long so it was something that gave me a purpose and not to be scared or ashamed to use it.
T: Do you not get a chance to use it too much in your daily life?
N: I do. In different places around the city mostly, or with relatives. Growing up with Arabic was tough. I was forced to keep it private, and I wouldn't talk about it much. Something I've always enjoyed is walking into a bodega in Brooklyn and hearing Arabic music, and speaking in Arabic with the people there. They're usually immigrants and I always learn something new. You can tell that these people feel an instant comfort when they find out you can speak their native tongue, it's an equally as satisfying and nostalgic feeling for me as well. I always ask about 9\11. I have a fascination of that day, and I seek to learn the different perspectives. That day changed my life.
T: 9/11 happened in 2001, so how old were you then?
N: I was in 5th grade, so I was pretty young.
T: Did you notice a tangible shift in the way that your parents expressed themselves after that?
N: It was a pivotal moment in my life. I was the first one pulled out of class when 9\11 happened. It was this huge thing that happened that I kind of blocked out of my memory for a while. I got pulled out of class and taken to the principal’s office. They had a cop that taught D.A.R.E. class at the school. That guy was like “hey, what do your parents do?” I’m giving you a condensed version. “Have they left the country recently? Are you forced to pray at home?” I went to Catholic school too, as a Muslim. So it was hard to juggle both of those monotheistic religions at the same time. They’re both intense in what they preach. I had this guy asking me all these questions. I didn’t see him as a threat then, this guy that just taught us D.A.R.E. or whatever. But then later in life I started thinking about how that was a huge turning point for me. That was when I felt like I was being surveilled, being watched and asked these questions that were very intrusive.
T: Have you felt that’s been consistent since that point?
N: Yeah, up until the start of the band honestly, which has done a lot for me personally.
T: Do you think that’s because it’s shifted the reality of what’s happening to you? Or do think it’s your perspective changing and you have a bit of your power back through having a platform to talk about it?
N: I think it’s mainly that I have a platform to talk about it now- but also through that I have the power to come back to me and myself. My internal struggle is kind of cleared in a way. Not entirely, but I think that it’s important for people to know this stuff- so when someone comes up to me after a show and confirms that they think it’s important it’s like wow, someone actually cares for it.
T: I don’t think that you can underestimate the importance of this type of representation. This feeling of being somewhat disenfranchised and seeing someone who is like you in that position is so important to people. And language as well- hearing the language.
N: Of course, and that’s part of why- to go back to your earlier question about speaking Arabic on stage- part of the reason is that I want people that can understand what I’m saying to feel like they are being spoken to in their tongue even if they might not be so open about it. That’s something that I always struggled with myself. Another aspect to that is that there are a lot of English speakers that will come up to me after a show and be like “hey, what are you saying on stage? What do you sing about?” When we put out our demo it was all in Arabic. I provide no translations on purpose. I want there to be a mystique surrounding it- I want people that don’t understand it to come up to me personally and be like hey, what does this mean? I wanted to invoke some sort of curiosity in people. Of course there are people that appreciate traditional Arabic art and music and all that but there are a lot of people that are just starting to hear about it. And I think that invokes people to come up to me and be more interested in the culture and I could point them in the right direction, like read this book, look at this art, you know? I’ve had a lot of those conversations so far- I’ve been overwhelmed by the support in New York especially and I’ve learned a lot about myself and been able to teach other people different things.
T: Do you ever feel like people react with a sort of fear of the unknown towards not knowing what it is that you’re saying- not feeling like they have access to the meaning of your words?
N: A lot of people tell me that they feel terrified when I’m on stage and speaking in Arabic. Because then they will hear me speak in English and there’s such a difference- that I sound angry when I’m speaking in Arabic. I have heard that before- but all in all it’s been relatively positive.
T: I don’t know if this is just a punk rumor or not, but I was told that you were investigated by the Feds. Is that true? Tell me about that.
N: So it was a long story. We went on a Midwest tour in August (2016). The first day we are leaving for tour I get a call from a relative I used to work for. They say “hey, there’s two FBI agents here.” So I go “what do you mean? Are they CIA? Who are they?” They go “I don’t know- they’re looking for your work computer.” That first day we were going to DC, which is the nation’s capital- and I’m yelling in the van in Arabic and we are yelling at each other like “What the fuck is going on? How did this happen? Were they asking you anything?” They go no- they said something about your band. Apparently they took the computer and they left. I get off the phone, everyone in the van is petrified. No one knows why I was yelling and of course they don’t understand what I was saying. I go “I think I’m being investigated by the FBI.” And everyone’s freaked the fuck out- we’re driving to DC. We play the first show- no problem. The whole tour goes by, I don’t hear anything about it. We get back on a Monday, and then that Wednesday I get a call on my cell phone- “this is detective yada yada yada of the NYPD- we are at your house in Yonkers…” They had the wrong house. And they’re like “Oh all right, we just wanna talk to you. We wanna ask you a few questions.” I give them my address, I said come through- I’ll be outside, no problem. At this point I kind of expected this to happen. A lot of our imagery is purposely based on radical groups, like taking back or reclaiming our images to break their power. So they come through to my house. They have a manila envelope with them and granted, this is in Yonkers and these are two NYPD detectives. Plain clothes and badges hanging on their necks. I’m like “isn’t this out of your jurisdiction?” They were like “we were supposed to take you in, take you down to the precinct for interrogation.” Why, what’s going on? “Did you hear anything about the feds investigating your or anything like that? The FBI has been conducting an investigation on you for about three years.”
T: So even before the band?
N: Way longer. I've been dealing with this for what seems like forever now. NYPD is there and they’re like so the FBI gave us the information, we have to do a domestic investigation because they did a federal one already. They pull this crazy file out of a folder they have - they go “do you recognize any of the images?” It’s things like our symbol, a screen shot of our band camp, a screenshot of me walking down the street, like crazy shit that blew my mind. And halfway through this interrogation I was like no one is going to believe this. I better just keep my mouth shut. It’s a ridiculous story.
T: Were you afraid at any point? Were you like “they’re going to disappear me. No one’s even going to know”?
N: Absolutely. That was a huge fear. Like I said, they were at my parents’ house at first- they fucked up. I called my girlfriend I was like hey, I don’t know what’s going to happen. They’re coming but I want to let you know that I love you. If I disappear that’s it. Under the Patriot Act that’s what they can do- hold me indefinitely. They can hold anyone suspected of domestic terrorism threats in captivity for however long. They’re asking all these questions- what do you sing about? Is what you sing about radical in any way?
T: What did you tell them?
N: I said absolutely not - I’m glad that you’re here, so now I can explain to you. That’s all I really want out of this whole thing is that you should just approach me. And I was really disappointed in both the FBI and NYPD because the the lack of homework they did before approaching me is embarrassing. They only had one person that spoke Arabic or something I guess?
T: They didn’t have anyone translate the content before they spoke to you or anything like that? That’s pretty unbelievable.
N: It’s unbelievable. I asked them straight up, I wonder why you’re asking these questions. How come you can’t find some of this stuff on your own? It reminded me of the D.A.R.E. cop years ago- how long has this been happening to me? That this has to continue happening? I quickly got out of there, like thank you for coming, I’m glad I got to talk to you guys. They said, “at first when we came up we thought we had the wrong guy, because we saw your tattoos and in the picture we had we didn’t see anything”.
Like what do you mean you had the wrong guy? I don’t look foreign or something? What were you looking for? You expect a full beard and a headdress or something? What were you looking for?
They’re like “no no, we just thought blah blah-you seem pretty angry” - I guess the way I was talking was pretty loud. I said, if I was white I don’t think you would be here. I swear to god this is what came out of their mouths: “if you were Latino or Black or anything else we would be here too!”
I was like of course you’d be here if I was anything else too.
One thing they said was they had an undercover at one of our shows in Brooklyn that witnessed radical behavior to cause them to investigate me. Which I don’t buy for shit. The other guy who’s been talking the whole time gives me his card. “You do me a favor- you see anyone acting up…you be in the field.” He gave it to me and I was like “I won’t,” but I put it in my pocket. I was happy I said that, I felt proud of myself. I gave that card to Eugene from Crazy Spirit.
T: So what did your parents have to say about it all?
N: They don’t really know too much about the band. I try to keep my family out of it. Me and my family haven’t been on the best terms. We are good now but I was into punk at a young age, and my parents are the type of people who believe you come to a country, you find a job that you’re good at and you stick to it until you die.
T: That’s something I wanted to ask you- did getting into punk divide you from your cultural origins and from your family?
N: Absolutely. I think the work ethic of the culture has nothing to do with music. Music and art are seen a hobbyist type of thing- it’s not something you do for money or something you do for a living. So it’s not particularly shamed but it’s not legitimized at all.
T: I think that’s a common experience. I felt similarly when I got into punk, like it’s not Mexican to be punk. Especially if you live in a place where you’re not seeing yourself or your people being represented in punk. Let me ask you this- do you think that being punk and looking very punk the way that you do confuses people’s idea of you, especially if they’re someone like a clueless police officer thinking they’re looking for their stereotype of a terrorist and then they show up and you’re a punk guy with a mohawk and tattoos?
N: Absolutely. I walk through Grand Central on many occasions and have gotten stopped because of the headband I wear [with Arabic writing on it]. They’ll be like “Hey what does that say? You look like a fucking blah blah blah” like nah, I’m from New York- fuck off! I’m doing what I want to do- I’m not threatening anyone. But also having that identity definitely does a number on my first impressions, you know what I mean? I pride myself on being someone that listens to people. I think when someone looks at me they might not find that. They might feel threatened or scared. So sometimes it gets in the way.
T: Do you feel like punk and being in this band was the first time that you could externalize your cultural identity more visibly? Prior to that did you feel more pressured to assimilate?
N: My whole life has basically been a struggle of assimilation- how am I going to live here with this identity, with this culture, and be raised here? To me a lot of people are like you look white, you look Italian, you look like something…but then as soon as I say my name is Nader- it’s foreign to them. Punk has made me find a way to balance my rebellious side as well as my culture that I don’t have a choice in.
T: Do you worry about how things will change now? Now that Trump has been elected to be president? Especially with the recent waves of hate crimes and anti-Muslim rhetoric.
N: I’ve been really fucked up over it. the first week he got elected obviously it was a shock to everyone. I bought every newspaper that came out that day- it was this manic period for me. This is my worst nightmare come true. Someone that enables racism and racist rhetoric in this country is at the top politically and everything worked out for him. He has the Senate, Congress and House all Republicans and Supreme Court justices. I think we are fucked as a nation. The Muslim community is really in the shit now. As soon as he got elected I felt like I was preparing for a war. I was grabbing all my stuff, I made a backpack just in case shit went down. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not just Arabs- obviously Muslim and Arab people are seen as vehicles of violence for some reason and I think it’s because of the media. Our war in Iraq- both Desert Storms. The Syrian civil war has been completely terrible for the last 5 years- a lot of people stopped paying attention to that. That’s something I try to talk about a lot with people if I’m asked what affects me today in the world. The Syrian civil war brings me grief every day. Sometimes I feel like I can’t have a normalized life. Where you wake up, go to work, come back and chill. It’s always on my mind. What am I going to do? What can I do? The grief and the darkness of the world is always at the forefront of my mind. It hinders me in the sense of just being happy day to day.
T: Well, I think not letting it effect you is an enormous luxury that not everyone gets to experience.
N: I’m kind of grateful because I see a lot of these people-they walk around, they don’t really care about shit. All the shit’s happening around them and they are the center of attention in their world. I’m kind of grateful that in retrospect that’s not what I ended up like. If you feel like fighting and you feel there’s something you can do then do it.
T: You’ve spoken on what you try to put forth with your band in general, but if you were to implore people to do something- whether it’s people in the punk scene or people in America as a whole- what would you ask of them?
N: My only fight is unfortunately for one people that I feel is threatened right now. Which is Muslim Americans and Muslims in this country. I feel like everyone could just keep an eye out for abuse, racial abuse, domestic crime and everything like that. Just keep an eye out. I said my main concern is Muslims and within that there are a lot of transgendered Muslims that have a huge problem. There is a huge sect of them in Pakistan that have been hung for being gay. Any minority being threatened in a community…if you’re a true punk and someone that actually believes in it, you have to stand up and defend that shit. Or you know what? Go home and listen to Discharge all you want. You’re not gonna do anything. I don’t think that you’re punk if you wear a studded jacket. There’s a lot of people that I’ve met in my life outside of music that have a punk mentality. If you’re human, if you’re threatened, I’m there for you kind of thing. It’s that neighborhood mentality, I’ve felt that way my whole life. You put your people on your back and you fend for them all you can.
I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen. That’s really what scares me the most. Will it come to a point where I have to pick up a rifle and fight? I don’t know. I’m willing to fight for anything. I’ve dedicated my life to this. I feel like it’s the only way I can express myself and show other people that they are safe. Death has always been a part of my life. Many lost to war overseas. So now to be here still…I’m really grateful to be here and to be doing what I’m doing. I think the only way for people to be aware is to ask questions if you want to learn. Don’t be ashamed of who you are.
Since this sit down with Tamara, news of the full extent of Haram's work and the investigation pending has inevitably reached my family. A day I have been dreading. I asked Tamara to omit a portion of this interview so as to fulfill their request and their concern for safety. They have decided to cut ties with me completely as to avoid any issues for them by proxy. I respect their decision.
They do not respect mine.
In my life, I have been pressured. A child that unpredictably disappointed the expectations of immigrant parents. This is not a rare story. This is a reality that many of us face. It was the first time that I asked myself if it was all worth it. I was met with an immense amount of grief.
I picked myself up after a few days.
This was me. This was all of what I believed in, that my heart was in, that describes what I feel for others, who then in turn describe how they feel to me. A community that bonded closer than blood. Nothing will stop that. People confirm my cause, people that have had almost exact experiences. People that thank me and call me a hero. I've cried hearing these things. Most of my life I've been called a disappointment. A failure....a faggot, a weirdo, a waste.
Many people will refuse to understand the values of what we stand for. It's not for everyone. If you let those people stop you, shame on you. You have been defeated. If they let you go for that, shame on them. Move on. No matter who they are. That is what I've learned.
I am writing this to illustrate to anyone reading that you are not alone. If you have been condemned for expressing yourself, I am here for you. We are all here for you. Do not let anything stop you. In the end if you lose it all, you are who you want to be. Find comfort in that.
I have lost it all for Haram. The pain of loss will be filled with the beauty of progress. I have grown, I have failed and learned from failure. Victory or death, for what I have been through, either would be appropriate.