Mourons pour des idées, d'accord, mais de mort lente
Alamut – Persian for ‘eagle's nest’ – is a fortified castle on a rock in northern Iran, of which only ruins remain today. The fortress is best known as the former seat of Hassan-i Sabbah, the founder of the Assassin sect. Those Assassins are very infamous. Their name gave rise to the word ‘assasin’ in French and English, which denotes a (hired) murderer. Indeed, the Assassins were known for their murders, which included the use of daggers and poison, something we will come back to.
There is a lot of debate about the etymology of Assassins. Marco Polo had linked the word to hashish, as a reference to ‘hashshāshīn’ or hashish smokers. Hassan-i Sabbah in particular was known as someone who would give hashish to his fighters to give them a glimpse of paradise, thus encouraging them to fight better. However, this version is controversial, and other sources point to the Arabic word ‘asas’ as the source, meaning ‘principle’. In this option, the Assassins would be principled people.
The story of the Assassins and their leader Hassan-i Sabbah certainly inspired the Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol to write his most successful novel: ‘Alamut’, which also became one of the most successful Slovenian books of all time. It was translated into 18 languages, and gained new attention after the terrorist acts of 9/11. I used a French translation from 2012 for this article.
The book was originally published in 1938, and so we gradually arrive to the reason that Laibach – who are mainly interested in the political and ideological dimension of the book – today use ‘Alamut’ as inspiration for a large-scale multimedia symphonic work. Vladimir Bartol came from Trieste, a city that is now in Italy, but which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War, just like Slovenia. Importantly, there was a significant Slovenian and Croatian minority in Trieste, of which Bartol was a member.
When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart after the First World War, Trieste became part of Italy. Attacks against Slovenes and Croats by fascist gangs followed. When Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, he pursued a strict policy of Italianization, in which Slavic languages such as Slovene and Serbo-Croatian were increasingly repressed, including the forced Italianization of Slavic-sounding names. This led to active resistance from Slovenes and Croats in the region. In 1924 the anti-fascist organization TIGR was founded, short for Trieste, Istria, Gorizia and Rijeka, with which Bartol also sympathized.
TIGR is known as one of the first anti-fascist organizations, and carried out several attacks, first against symbolic targets and individuals, and later against military targets. The organization was dismantled by the fascists in 1941. Members and sympathizers of TIGR subsequently fought with the Yugoslav partisans against the German occupier in Yugoslavia, but would be silenced after the war by the communist regime. Since the 1980s, however, more attention has been paid to the TIGR struggle.
The story of ‘Alamut’ is set in Iran, but the interpretation is framed in the fight against fascism in Europe. Bartol dedicated the first edition to Benito Mussolini. Hassan-i Sabbah is depicted as an unscrupulous leader who grandiosely manipulates his followers into fighting and dying for him. The link to fascism is quickly made. Later, the book was also mentioned in analyzes of communism, and since September 11, 2001, of course also of Islamic fundamentalism.
There is a second political event that is important in the interpretation of the book: the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia. Alexander was shot dead on October 9, 1934 while visiting France. France tried to forge a coalition against Nazi Germany, and also tried to involve Italy in the coalition. The Yugoslav king, a good ally of France, was troubled by this, because Mussolini also laid claim to Yugoslav territory. You understand that, in Yugoslavia, it was quickly assumed that Mussolini was involved in the murder, although it was committed by a Macedonian nationalist. But the Macedonian nationalists had ties with the Croatian nationalists of the Ustaše, and they were fully supported by Mussolini ...
I hope you can still see the forest through the trees, but rest assured: I will leave the history lesson at that. What interests us here, is that someone can adhere to an ideology so fanatically that he kills someone, knowing that he will lose his life in the process. That brings us back to Bartol’s book. In the book, Hassan-i Sabbah develops a cunning plan to force his followers into total submission. He pretends to be a prophet who holds the key to paradise. After a successful battle, he opens the door of paradise for three warriors who have distinguished themselves in the battle. They are given hashish, fall asleep, and are then led to the secret gardens behind the castle. In those gardens, they are welcomed by beautiful girls whom Hassan-i Sabbah has specially trained to serve the pleasure of men. After staying a night in the gardens, the fighters are given hashish again and are taken back to the fortified castle while sleeping.
Upon their return, the warriors proclaim that they have actually been to Paradise, thus reinforcing the myth of Hassan-i Sabbah as a powerful prophet. The aftereffects of the hashish and the memory of the girls make the warriors long for their return to paradise. Hassan-i Sabbah can now convince warriors to kill his opponents with a knife dipped in poison, which refers to the reputation of the Assassins. When Alamut is under siege, he impresses negotiators by ordering one warrior to plunge a dagger into his heart and another to jump from a tower, orders they follow with a smile on their faces. This creates the impression that Hassan-i Sabbah is invincible, because his soldiers are willing to die for him, and the siege is eventually lifted.
In reality, Hassan-i Sabbah does not believe at all in the teachings of the Ishmaelites, the sect he leads. Only the highest initiates know that the teaching is fake, and that the true credo of the religion is: ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’. When a clever warrior – who completed the mission to assassinate the sultan's vizier – discovers that the paradise is fake and sets out to take revenge on Hassan-i Sabbah, the latter knows how to persuade him with the actual nihilistic teachings of Ishmaelism. Ultimately, the warrior leaves with the plan to further spread Ishmaelism by also posing as a prophet.
This is all excellent material for Laibach, you're probably thinking. But how did the Slovenian avant-garde band come up with this project? You may remember that Laibach played in North Korea twice in 2015. The performances in one of the most totalitarian regimes in the world were of course remarkable, especially for a band that has dedicated its entire career to exploring the power of ideology and totalitarianism. Upon their return, the group members joked that next time, they wanted to perform in Iran. That was just for fun, but when the American publisher of ‘Alamut’ suggested to Laibach to do something with the book, the idea was taken seriously. In addition, an agent of Laibach had told the group about the experimental music made in Iran until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Laibach has traveled to Iran three times so far, hoping to perform ‘Alamut’ in the capital Tehran. They met composers, musicians and singers, but also representatives of the regime. The former Minister of Culture of Iran – incidentally a fan of the Slovenian post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who is very close to Laibach – was even very enthusiastic about the project. But with the new, very conservative government that came to power in 2021, relations are less good. Ivan Novak – Laibach's chief ideologue – said that ‘something happened,’ without specifying what. Still, talks remain open, and Laibach hopes to play in Iran in 2024. The premiere of ‘Alamut’, which was originally supposed to take place in Tehran, took place in September 2022 in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
Now four new performances are underway. There was a performance in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia where Laibach is obviously very popular. (By the way, did you know that Laibach is simply the German name for Ljubljana, and that the use of the name caused a lot of controversy in the 1980s?) But there was also a performance in Trieste, the Italian city where author Vladimir Bartol came from. Another performance will follow in the Croatian capital Zagreb, where Laibach has performed a number of historically controversial performances. But the main performance takes place in Frankfurt, because Laibach is a guest at the book fair here, as part of the special attention that Guest of Honor Slovenia is enjoying this year. And that is why Slovenian President Nataša Pirc Musar is also present at this solemn performance.
When ordering a drink before the performance, the bartender says that he heard the rehearsal and that it is very ‘special’. This was obviously not meant as a positive remark, although he looked like he had some experience with alternative music. It didn't scare me, though. I had already heard a few sound fragments from the performance in Ljubljana, and I knew that it would be very experimental. This is immediately apparent in the opening song ‘Overture (Doing The Great Human Experiment)’. The RTV Slovenia Symphony Orchestra takes up almost the entire stage, treating us to a soundscape of dissonant sounds that are quite characteristic of the entire evening. The wind instruments enter from the sides of the hall and move through the audience towards the stage while playing.
The second song ‘Secret Garden’ – I hope you understand that the titles refer to the story of ‘Alamut’, in this case to the gardens of the castle where Hassan-i Sabbah has set up his fake paradise – also features the Iranian influences in the spotlight. Two Iranian composers contributed to the work: Idin Samimi Mofakham and Nima A. Roshwan. The orchestra is led by Iranian conductor Navid Gohari. The third composer is Luka Jamnik, a Slovenian who has often written music for Laibach. I hear very Iranian sounds, but I cannot tell whether they come from a harp, dulcimer or xylophone.
But the most impressive is the Iranian choir, consisting of three women and one man: the Human-Voice Ensemble from Tehran. They sing alternating with each other, partly improvising and partly basing their chants on Persian poetry by Omar Khayyam and Mahsati Ganjavi. Given the large-scale protests against religious rules in Iran – as a result of the murder of Mahsa Amini in 2022, prosecuted for not wearing her headscarf correctly – I think it is important to note that the ladies from the choir sing without a headscarf. I hope this will not cause any problems upon their return, because an Iranian wall climber who took part in a sports competition without a headscarf in 2022, disappeared from the radar for a while upon her return.
Although we've had atmospheric music until now, things get louder in ‘Fedayeen (The Axe Is Sharpened)’. The hard percussion in combination with blaring horns is reminiscent of Laibach's early industrial work in the second half of the 1980s, when they mixed militaristic drums with bombastic symphonic arrangements. In ‘Transition (Die Sterne über uns sind stumm)‘, we hear the Iranian choir again. I would like to note in passing that a six-piece Slovenian choir is also participating: the Gallina Women's Choir.
Laibach chief ideologue Ivan Novak told us in the run-up to the concert that Hassan-i Sabbah’s two meditations are the most interesting pieces, because they are the most ideologically tinged. They are also the only two songs with real lyrics. In the meditations, Hassan-i Sabbah explains his view of the world. Of course, the despot is played by old hand Milan Fras, who stands on a platform behind the orchestra. ‘Meditation I’ is about the search for truth. We know that we can only perceive the truth through our senses, but we also know that these senses often mislead us. Conclusion: ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’.
In ‘War (Every Death Brings A New Victory)’ – the title again refers to how Hassan-i Sabbah manages to profit from the human sacrifices he asks of his fedayeen – another new group emerges. About fifteen accordionists from the AccordiOna Disharmocic Cohort slowly descend the stairs of the hall to the stage, making a lot of noise on their instruments. I haven’t paid much attention to the beautiful background projections until now. In this song, Laibach returns to their ‘Slovenian Guernica’, a work of art they had made to accompany their record ‘We Forge The Future’, the account of a concert in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. The most important work in the museum, the Guernica, was recreated based on drawings by the Slovenian partisan Nikolaj Pirnat about his battle in the Second World War, which led to a very beautiful result that decorated the cover of the album at the time.
‘The Doors Of Perception’ – the title is a nice nod to Aldous Huxley's book of the same name about his experiences with drugs – is about the experiences of the fedayeen who are offered hashish. You can imagine that the music sounds very psychedelic. ‘The Metaverse’ brings us the well-known atonal symphonic music, but also tries to make a link to the present, because Laibach announced early in the performance that history is repeating itself today.
‘Meditation II & Epilog’ closes the performance. Milan Fras now takes his place at the front of the stage and declaims: ‘Iranians, are you ashamed of your origins? (…) Do you prefer foreign rulers?’ Milan sings in Slovenian, but the band projects subtitles in English and German. At first, I thought this was a reference to a political speech, because Laibach set speeches by Tito or Jaruzelski to music several times in the past. But after I leafed through ‘Alamut’ again, I knew that it was indeed based on statements by Hassan-i Sabbah from the book.
The song ends with the line ‘see you in hell.’ This sentence also comes from the book. When Hassan-i Sabbah sends an assassin to the sultan's vizier, he carries a letter containing a dagger soaked in poison. The warrior will wound the vizier with the dagger, and once the latter opens the letter, the vizier understands everything. The message of the letter: ‘See you in hell’, signed: Hassan-i Sabbah. The vizier knows he will die from the poison, but tells the warrior the full truth about Hassan-i Sabbah, and instead of sentencing the murderer to death, he sends the warrior back to Alamut to take revenge. This will not work, because as I mentioned earlier, Hassan-i Sabbah convinces the warrior to participate in the deception he has set up.
This is how the piece ends. Afterwards, Laibach chief ideologist Ivan Novak takes the floor to thank all the participants in this huge project, and the Slovenian president who is present. I have to be honest: it was an impressive spectacle. But I will not hide from you that the enormous Jahrhunderthalle in Frankfurt was only filled for a third, by about a thousand people. Laibach would undoubtedly have liked more attendants. I understand that the now older Laibach fans cannot simply free themselves up for an international concert on a Thursday evening. They have work and children, and are no longer exclusively devoted to their favorite group.
This spectacle, however, is about exclusive devotion. Even more: exclusive devotion until death, to ideologies that promise us paradise. An afterlife, as religious ideologies do, or a paradise on earth, as fascism or communism pretended to bring us. That is why Vladimir Bartol’s ‘Alamut’ is still relevant today. It is good that Laibach – who have made their life’s work analyzing ideologies and totalitarianism – has turned this work into a beautiful multimedia symphonic performance. The intention was to have a CD version of ‘Alamut’ available by this concert, but as is often the case, everything has been delayed. Laibach promises to release the record in the coming months. And I'm telling you right now that you absolutely must get your hands on a copy, because what I saw tonight was exceptionally powerful.
I would like to dedicate this article to Bas Mercx, also known as Dein Offizier, who died of leukemia on August 18, 2023. Bas was a big Laibach fan and once wrote a review of a Laibach concert for Dark Entries. I have had many online conversations with Bas, mostly about Laibach, but also about the American industrial band Zwaremachine, in which he played percussion. Shortly before his death, he asked me to come to the concert of Zwaremachine in Heerlen in September, as support act for Front 242. Bas was very proud of this performance, and although he knew he was terminally ill, he hoped to be able to experience the show. Fate and his serious illness decided differently. Bas will continue to hold a special place in the hearts of friends and family, and among many Laibach and Zwaremachine fans.
I would also like to thank the German book editor Alexander Nym, who recently released a book on NSK State: ‘Weapons Of Mass Instruction’, and who sent me a lot of information about Laibach and ‘Alamut’.
Photo: Valter Leban