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Saudi Arabia’s bootleg music shops

At the end of 2017, US hip-hop star Nelly played a men-only concert in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; US country singer Toby Keith headlined a similar gig earlier in the year. These shows were flagged as landmark progress, in a strict Gulf state where music was apparently deemed “haram”. It’s certainly surreal to watch clips of Nelly pumping up a party where females are banned; in fact, pop culture has long reigned in this Kingdom – and its 1980s powerhouse was the Saudi bootleg cassette shop.

In autumn 1988, my mother, my seven-year-old sister and I (a 13-year-old girl and music fanatic) moved from London to Al-Khobar, in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia; we were joining my father, who’d started working in a local hospital. I’m not sure what any of us were expecting. My Iraqi Muslim parents were both doctors and equals; suddenly, that equality evaporated. I recall a headrush of sensations on the night we arrived: the heat and blazing traffic, the leering or judgemental looks from strangers – and the weird sense of sanctuary when my Dad took us to a cassette shop on King Khalid Street.

This shop was like countless others I would frequent over our time in Saudi: a nameless, shack-like unit, walls lined with cassette albums across all kinds of genres. These were unlicensed, or bootleg, recordings, and they spanned the very latest Western releases to obscure catalogue titles. I’d been dying to hear the new Pet Shop Boys album, Introspective, but at that first shop, I chose tapes by Eurythmics and bizarre Italo-disco act Radiorama: my soundtrack for a new home, new school, new rules.

Saudi’s cassette shops had a distinctive smell, of scorched plastic and desert dust. The cassettes were sold in chunky “heatproof” plastic cases: the ideal format; vinyl would warp in

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