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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Adam Saleh: the rise of a Muslim YouTube star

The American-Yemeni performer Adam Saleh has become a role model - and heart-throb - to young Muslims in the West. We trace his career from restless kid to internet sensation.
Adam Saleh’s videos incorporate humour, pranks, moments with his family and skits that tackle serious issues involving Muslims. Courtesy Adam Saleh
Adam Saleh’s videos incorporate humour, pranks, moments with his family and skits that tackle serious issues involving Muslims. Courtesy Adam Saleh

It was pandemonium. Unsuspecting locals in the British city of Birmingham would have been forgiven for thinking a member of One Direction was making an impromptu visit earlier this month – such was the sudden rush of hundreds of screaming teenagers who flocked, after a Twitter post, to swamp a rather shocked young man who happily posed with them for selfies.

The young man’s name is Adam Saleh and the American video blogger came to face to face with his international fame – so much so that police were called in to give the young chap some breathing room.

So who is he? And why is he one of the biggest Muslim YouTube sensations?

Some background

Saleh is a 21-year-old American of Yemeni descent and hails from the New York borough of Brooklyn. Since 2012, he has been using social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and Tumblr to spread the peaceful message of Islam – while having some fun along the way. His YouTube channel, TrueStoryASA, run with his partner-in-crime Sheikh Akbar, has more than 600,000 subscribers and he has uploaded nearly 90 videos. His Twitter account, @omgAdamSaleh, continues to grow rapidly, with close to 90,000 followers.

The Beginnings

Like most restless kids, it was sheer boredom that initially drove Saleh to create crudely shot videos on his mobile phone in which he discussed the comic side of being an American Muslim. Underneath the humour, however, was a desire to break the misconceptions surrounding his faith. Interviewed as part of a 2012 photojournalism essay conducted by Columbia University, Saleh spoke of the painful childhood memory of a former friendship cut short due to the friend’s discovery of his Muslim background. “He saw that my mum had a headscarf and realised that I was Muslim,” he recalled. “Ever since that day, he never spoke to me again. He tried to avoid me at all times.”

The YouTube videos

Saleh’s videos are a mixture of intimate family moments, public pranks, impressions and skits dealing with serious issues. Take them all together and it forms a great indicator of the interests and topics followed by social network-savvy young Muslims. In a 2012 video, Arab Facebook Parenting: For the troubled Arab teen, Saleh dresses up as a conservative mother who records a video message to her daughter to confront her about her Facebook posts disparaging her parents. “I have an iMac computer, five thousand dollar, and you put the block on me on Facebook?” he says in a heavy Arab accent. “But I am not a khabla [stupid], I have my ways.” His most popular video, uploaded in November last year, has racked up more than 11 million views. It follows Saleh as he conducts a social experiment to see whether public misgivings about his ethnicity would take a back seat if he was driving a brand-new Ferrari.

Star power

You know you are doing well when the comedienne Ellen DeGeneres takes notice. The talk-show host and star-maker picked Saleh as a finalist for her Dance Dare competition. A popular feature of her television show, the talent quest encourages people to be filmed dancing behind unsuspecting members of the public. Saleh’s non-rhythmic high jinks were broadcast on the show in May 2012. His skills have also been acknowledged by the regional broadcasting industry – he was invited to be a guest speaker at the Arab Media Forum in Dubai in May, where he discussed his career as a “new-media personality”.

What now?

While his own television programme could be a tempting proposition, Saleh seems perfectly happy in the YouTube and social-media landscape. For one thing, it preserves his total creative control, with new material arriving at a time of his choosing and not to a deadline set by someone else. Saleh has also become a live performer. He and his crew can now be booked to recreate the TrueStoryASA experience on stage. Judging by the fan reaction in Birmingham, however, don’t be surprised if your future selfie with Saleh may be spoiled by the burly hands of a security guard.

• To see Adam Saleh’s videos, go to www.youtube.com/TrueStoryASA

sasaeed@thenational.ae