David Bowie and his secret fans in Saudi Arabia

A teacher's attempt to dissuade schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia from liking David Bowie had the exact opposite effect on people like Rym Ghazal

David Bowie performance in Labyrinth earned him a new group of fans. (Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
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As a child, I fell in love with a goblin king. It was later that I realised that this funky singing king with long blond hair and cool eye make-up, who wore glittery renaissance-like jackets, tights and boots, was the singer David Bowie, who played Jareth the Goblin King in Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth.

We had a copy of the movie on VHS in Jeddah and we would sing along and get annoyed at Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), who rejects Jareth after she journeys through a maze to recover her baby brother (Toby Froud) from this dynamic goblin king. We liked his songs, we liked his attitude and we all wanted to be Sarah.

Apparently, we weren’t the only ones who had crushes on him or wanted to be like him. Bowie told an interviewer in 1992 that “every Christmas a new flock of children comes up to me and says, ‘Oh! you’re the one who’s in Labyrinth!’” It was my first introduction to Bowie, who died on Sunday at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer.

Before the release of Blackstar last week, there were reports that the title track for his final album was inspired by ISIL, which Bowie later denied.

Tributes poured in from around the world, for a man who always stood out from the rest, the chameleon who kept changing, an artist who celebrated the odd ones out and made it OK to be different.

I recall one of our teachers telling us to be “careful” not to follow strange “devil worshipping” characters out there. This Egyptian teacher at our girls’ private Saudi school then showed us a magazine that carried a photo of the red-haired Bowie as Ziggy Stardust.

To a group of youth, this was fascinating and cool, especially whenever anything is described as forbidden and strange.

A group of us were prompted to discover his music after that lecture and we have remained fans ever since.

This musician was also a fashion trendsetter and an actor, and he even liked cats (always a good thing in my view).

Over the years, references to Bowie in a Middle Eastern context would show up. One example is an image of him in a funky zigzag jacket next to an almost identical pattern shirt worn by one of the Arab world’s most famous crooners, Abdel Halim Hafez, dubbed “al andaleeb al asmar” or the tan nightingale. Posted in Reorient, an online magazine celebrating contemporary Middle Eastern artists and culture, the artist was regularly featured there, with the latest Tumblr image celebrating Bowie as “one of Reorient’s patron saints and greatest inspirations”.

Bowie sang one for this region and its desert, in a song called The Secret Life of Arabia from his 1977 Heroes album.

He inspired people here in the same way he inspired artists and people in the West. Fans from the Middle East paid tributes on social media, thanking him for his great music.

Often when someone is raised in a community that urges conformity, there will be those who want to stand out and be different. That is when people like Bowie come into play: they give that courage to just try something extraordinary and sometimes something magical.

He may have not reached the popularity of Michael Jackson and Madonna among Arabs, but this rock star had a solid fan base and sometimes people hid the fact they listened to him because he was so different.

For me, I can’t tell you how many times I tried to act powerful as a child and whenever I did, I copied Bowie’s magical yet evil laugh in Dance Magic Dance from Labyrinth as he sang and danced with a baby and puppets.

Rest in peace the one and only goblin king.


On Twitter: @Arabianmau