He's white on the outside, brown on the inside, and has a heart of gold. We speak to the man setting the Middle East alight with his cross-culture funnies: @MaxofArabia...
I've never been quite so ashamed of my horribly khawaga-based accent, retained still after nearly a decade in Egypt, than when confronted with a ginger white man making fun of it on Snapchat in perfect khaleeji prose.
I am referring to a gentleman who is globalisation personified, who has gained more than half a million followers on Instagram, first by simply shocking the global community with his verbal juxtaposition and then by inspiring them with his shots of travel-inspired awe. Just don't call him an influencer.
Much like Lawrence Of Arabia, people also assume him to be a spy. With passport stamps and multi-lingual assets like his, it's easy to see why his trips west usually end up in thorough interrogation. Born to a British mother and American Father (both teachers) in Botswana, he then found himself living in Zaire, then the UK before moving to Kyrgyzstan, then Yemen where he was evacuated in '94, eventually returning there for high school and ending up at University in Sharjah before finally landing a marketing job at P&G in Dubai – the city where he currently resides; a city where he's regularly recognised in the streets, usually followed by a phone camera in his face asking him to do that thing he does.
So what is that thing he does? It would best be described as an audiovisual tickle of the senses, short video clips of him describing his daily life and the places he goes in the purest of khaleeji accents. And it's funny, it's fresh, and it's the kind of commentary only a nomadic TCK personality type can conjure up from a life time experiencing the world around him through foreign eyes.
Two years ago he posted his first Arabic video, and has since grown a momentous following of fans, been featured in an award-winning Coca-Cola advert, and founded a successful streetwear brand. He's invited to every event under the sun, the social media famous want to be his friends, and he's offered big money sponsorship deals left, right, and centre. Alas, the world of 'social media influencer' is one of very few he is unwilling to explore. To quote Lawrence of Arabia, "The best of them won't come for money, they'll come for me."
In this exclusive CairoScene interview, we take a walk around Downtown with @MaxofArabia and discuss turning social media followers into something meaningful, wanderlusting, co-existing, and, of course, doing that thing he does...
What have your experiences in Cairo been like so far?
I like Cairo; its an assault on the senses, I think, for anybody, especially if you’re coming from a sterilised society like Dubai, and there’s a good side that most people don’t see. Whenever you travel anywhere like Egypt, India, or somewhere like that, you have no doubt that you're definitely there.
How do you feel it has affected your character growing up in all these different places?
I’m very grateful for it because I think if I grew up in the States I wouldn’t like who I am, to be honest. Nothing against the States; I love it as a country. There’s a lot of Americans that I really like. The government and how the country’s set up just doesn’t make people want to go outside their borders, it doesn’t make people learn about the world, it doesn’t let people really explore, and I think that sucks. Because again, the States is huge, right? So if you live in New York and you want to go skiing, you go to Vermont. If you want to go to the desert, you go to New Mexico. Everything you need is in the country and the government doesn’t motivate people to leave. So you can be 50 years old and not have a passport and you’ve done everything you want to do in your life,, and you think yeah, America is the world. I know where that perspective is coming from, but I think living outside and getting the proper perspective of the world is the best thing.
The places I lived in are very varied and different. I was born in a hospital with one bed. Living in Yemen, we had weeks without electricity. Dubai is like the most first world country/city you can go to; everything works exactly how it's supposed to! So I think one of the benefits is now you can throw me pretty much anywhere and I'm fine with it – I can deal.
When and why did you start putting up your own content online?
My online journey probably started off on Twitter, and from Twitter it migrated to Instagram when that launched, and it was pretty much a visual diary of travel and outdoors until two Ramadans ago. I posted my first video in Arabic and people went ape shit! People were very shocked when I talked.
I'm sure people must be generally shocked when you speak in real life...
Yeah, there are lots of instances where people have been shocked, but I never thought having followers was something to want; I never cared. I never looked at someone with followers and thought it was something useful, but when I first started, when I did my first video, it was like 'why are Arabs shocked when a white person speaks Arabic'? All Arabs speak English and no expat is shocked by that. You’re sitting here in front of me, you’re Egyptian, your English is better than mine. It's not anything unusual and I don’t think the opposite should be either, but people thought it was highly entertaining, because I went almost overnight from 300 followers to 100,000 followers.
I don’t feel like you should go through living life doing something that anybody else can do. If it's something that only I can do, then I think that’s where I add value.
What kind of videos were you doing at first?
It’s a cultural commentary, kind of poking fun at things that aren’t necessarily wrong but don’t really make sense. For example, people when they travel, they travel really well… We’re going to go business or first class, we’re going to stay at the most expensive hotels, but the parents always tell the kids don’t touch the minibar because it's expensive!
It's stuff like that; if you live in Dubai and you see a car you can tell who’s driving the car by the car.
Do you now see the value in having followers? Attention is currency after all...
I think it's valuable to the extent that you do something valuable with it. I think this is where a lot of social media’s gone wrong now; there’s people who just want followers to have followers. It's like I’ve got 50k followers - I'm important all of a sudden, but what did you do to get 50k? And what are you doing with that 50k?
In some ways I think it's good to have followers because if I think my voice is valuable and I have important things to get out there, then obviously I need a bigger audience, right? I think it's been corrupted, though. When I started, the first time I thought 'I want followers' was when I started getting close to 10k. I had 3,000 before things kicked off and all of a sudden, within a week, Im reaching 10k, and its like Im gonna get ‘k’ instead of ‘9999’ and I was like oh, this is awesome! All I want to do is get the ‘k’ and then I'm done for life, I don’t need anything else.
. وايد متحمس على الفلم اليديد من x-Men apocalypse. اذا انتوا في دبي بيبدا العرض اليوم .. وسوا فولوا حق @empire_movies عشان تعرفون اخر الاخبار عن الافلام اليديده. 📽🎞📽🎞👦🏼👨🏻🎞📽🎞📽 Super stoked that the new X-Men Apocalypse is finally coming out. If you are in Dubai it opens in movie theaters today, and make sure to follow @empire_movies for exclusive updates and movie news. Special thanks to @balooshi for his cameo #XMenME @balooshi @balooshi @balooshi
And you didn't have any particular agenda when you started?
In the beginning I was launching a brand with one of my friends and we were giving the influencers at the time hats and t-shirts and stuff, and I was getting more likes and comments and everything from them, so in every video of my first 20-30 videos it was all my own product - Snapbacks, t-shirts, beanies, and hoodies.
At what point did you decide 'I can actually do something with these followers' and what was that thing that you wanted to do?
I think it was kind of not really what I decided, I think it was what people decided for me, and it's where I saw value and where they saw value. Because it's fine to be entertaining, but there are a million other people that are entertaining. So I quit my job last February for a combination of reasons. One of the reasons was I think anybody could’ve done my job if they had the same ideas as me.
I don’t feel like you should go through living life doing something that anybody else can do. If it's something that only I can do, then I think that’s where I add value. So the main three things I saw with my Instagram were, for one, promoting the Middle East to expats, and Arabic language to expats because, especially in Dubai (Egypt less so), there’s a huge divide between the expat population and local population, and it's not for any reason – it's not like there’s anything wrong with the locals or expats, but they just don’t mix.
I know people who have been in the UAE for 20 years and they don’t speak a word of Arabic and they never will learn Arabic, and I think it’s a shame. It's just superficial things that prevent people from being friends. I also want to promote Arabic culture to Arabs, because now with globalisation and the impact of media there’s lots of Arabs that no longer speak Arabic like they used to. I have friends that will make me read their messages. It's like you’re 100 per cent Arab and you’re not concentrating… I think Arabic is such a beautiful language and one of the reasons I think it's beautiful is because it reflects so much on the culture. If you look at the number of different ways that you can welcome someone in Arabic...
We usually use all of them before the conversation has started...
Right? And if you go to Alaska and you talk to the Inuits, they’ve got 50 different words for snow. It shows a lot about their life… Here it’s the same thing - very welcoming people. I think that’s beautiful. Another thing I want to promote is to allow people to see the beauty of their own country. In the UAE there’s really nice diving, there’s really nice mountains, there’s all kinds of stuff, and nobody knows about it. People think 'okay, we’re going to travel' and they leave and go to Europe or the US, and to me that sucks. I think highlighting that and highlighting the importance of culture, because if a random expat is excited about our culture/language and country, then why aren’t we just as excited?
What's your biggest pet peeve you have for people online, social media for instance?
Anything that people do just for attention and likes or whatever, I think is wrong. You should be doing something that you’ll be happy with now and 10 years down the road. There’s nothing that I'm going to post now and then go back and be like 'yeah, I wish I didn’t post that'. That goes for the average person, but it also goes for the people who have lots of followers. Now people have seen that you can really monetise Instagram, so some people will sell their souls and promote anything and represent anything as long as they get paid, which is terrible because, in the end, if you look at it properly, you’re a brand. If I look at myself as a brand I'm not going to do anything that would harm my brand in whatever way it is.
If you look at the number of different ways that you can welcome someone in Arabic... I think that's beautiful.
Tell us about the opportunities you've found coming your way as @MaxofArabia.
The majority of brands approach me, I don’t think I've ever approached a brand except once because it's a brand that I loved and I wanted to be associated with them and I thought I can add to them. So it wasn’t about financial gain or anything, it was just about a love relationship and I wanted to take that forward. Normally people drop me an email or drop me a line and are like 'this is what we are and this is what we want to do', and based on what they want/who they are and who I see myself as, I decide whether it’s a yes or a no. I would probably say no maybe 60-70 per cent of the time because people see a number and they see a reach and they see a person, and they’re like 'we’ll use him to get to this' and it's like no, if it doesn’t represent me, if it's not something that I would be happy buying anyways or doing anyways, then I'm not going to do it.What's the weirdest request you got?
Weirdest? You get all kinds of weird requests. Lots of people are like, Max, how much do I have to pay you to promote my snapchat? It's not even a business! So it's like I don’t even know you, I don’t know what you post, I'm not going promote your snapchat. I recently got verified, okay? So that blue star, it changes nothing, but everybody wants that star, right?
That day I got like 15 calls from influencers who hadn’t talked to me in years like 'Oh Max! Whats up? Yeah? Long time no see, yeah? We should go and do lunch or something…' Beating around the bush. Then they go 'Oh yeah, I notice you got a blue star. How did you get it?' And Im like really?! Seriously? We haven’t talked in over six months and you’ve never called me in your life.
Did you play it off and were like talk to me when you have a blue star?
Nah, man, I was just like send me money, this is my bank account, right? 50k and we can start talking. What are they going say? Max ripped us off? I tried my best, I'm sorry it didn’t work.
You did the Coca-Cola ad...
To be completely fair – and they knew this – I don’t drink Coca-Cola. I don’t drink soft drinks, I don’t think they’re good for you. But the Coke ad to me was a very strong message and it goes with the territory. I expected it to go big and because of that it's like the concept of it to me is beautiful, especially because of who I am. Are you full time doing what you do now?
No I'm doing that and I'm starting different brands, because to me Instagram isn’t a job. I'm making money off of it, but unless you’re doing something bigger with it then what's the point? For me, when I feel like Im doing well with what I've got is for instance in Ramadan when we do a load of charity work and, if they need volunteers and I post that they need volunteers, they’re like 'Max please don’t post again, we got too many volunteers we can't handle the phone', which is great! Stuff like that makes me happy, right? Highlighting destinations that I think are worth going to. If I show the beautiful side of Egypt or if I show the beautiful side of Jordan or whatever and I get five people to go there, then I'm happy. But if it's just being famous for being famous, which is like 99 per cent of the so-called influencers now, and they do nothing and add zero value and are just in it to be famous, it's not a reason.
Are you thinking of bringing what you do to TV?
We shot a pilot for a travel TV show. My next step is to do YouTube because I think it's one of the few things that are very very stable and, because of Instagram, if you look at it as a timeline your content gets lost. So I can have an amazing video today but, if you don’t look at me the next five days you’ll probably never see it. YouTube for me is more eternal; I watched videos from like the first days of YouTube and they’re just as relevant now as they were then.
What kind of places do you dream to explore?
Everywhere! There is nowhere in life I don’t want to go. I've lost count, Ive been to 58 countries or something similar to that and I love everywhere!
Is there any specific place that stood out to you?
Sub-Saharan Africa to me is probably one of my favourite places because the people are such happy people! And I think especially in the world we’re living in today, happiness is a commodity that lots of people don’t have. Not because they shouldn’t have it but because they choose not to. I recently went to Nigeria and I did a week at the children’s hospital there. These kids have nothing and they’re THE happiest people Ive ever met in my life.
Follow @MaxOfArabia on Instagram here
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb