How a blond American kid became a huge star in Saudi Arabia – Brian Murphy/The Washington Post
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Say the name Joshua Van Alstine in Saudi Arabia and the likely response is a blank stare.
But mention his Web-born persona, Abu Muteb, and chances are good that you will get a knowing nod or a wry smile for the baby-faced American military brat. He slings Saudiaccented Arabic, wears traditional Arabian robes, mixes comedy and commentary, and may be one of the Arab world’s most improbable celebrities.
The Internet age is awash with tales of head-scratching stardom and viral oddities. Yet amid this modern mash-up, Van Alstine is a niche within a niche. He rode a wave of YouTube videos that were not even a blip at the college he attended near Dallas, but were monster hits in Saudi Arabia and eventually caught the attention of the kingdom’s rulers.
An email arrived in May 2013 from the Saudi leadership asking whether he would consider moving to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. He accepted.
“This whole thing has been wild. Really crazy,” said Van Alstine, whose videos — some with more than 1 million views — also landed him on one of the Middle East’s most widely watched television channels.
Last week, he was recruited by Qatar state television to help cover the country’s National Day celebrations.
“Hang on a sec,” he apologized during a phone interview from Qatar’s capital, Doha.
“Okay, I’m back. I had to take some photos with fans. Like I was saying, it’s nuts, dude. It’s sometimes hard to take it all in.”
To get the full measure of Van Alstine’s journey, it is important to know what the 25-year-old is not.
He is not a native speaker of Arabic. He is not of Arab descent. He had never set foot in an Arab country until he was in his early 20s.
But he is Muslim, raised in the religion of his Turkish-born mother as the family bounced between Turkey and the United States with the deployments of his father, an Air Force enlisted airman who rose to the rank of chief master sergeant.
One stop was in San Antonio shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when he was in grade school.
“For the first time, I felt I wasn’t accepted,” he said. “Here I was, a white Muslim in America. Many Americans rejected me because I was Muslim. The Muslims in America — Arabs, Pakistanis and others — rejected me because they saw me as just American. I felt really isolated.”
That was, until he fell into a clique of Saudi students at the University of North Texas. He started picking up Arabic and the distinctive Saudi dialect. One day in late 2011, from his parents’ basement, he decided to make a video challenging Westerners to seek a better understanding of Islam. He posted it on YouTube.
Then he made another one, with a lighter touch, about hanging out with the Saudis. And another.
No one noticed on campus except the Saudi students. They tweeted it. Back in the kingdom, the posts went into the memeosphere in one of the region’s most vibrant social media landscapes. Here was something entirely new: a blond American winging it in Arabic with a Saudi flavor. Americans are well used to foreigners expropriating U.S. culture and slang. But for Saudis, it was a hoot.
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding, right?’ ” he said. “I was anonymous at home and like some kind of star in Saudi.”
In early 2012, someone from the Saudi royal court tracked down Van Alstine on Facebook and invited him to visit. Van Alstine arrived just after the death of the No. 2 to the throne, Crown Prince Nayef, in June 2012. Because he was on a royal-sponsored visit, Van Alstine was added to the mourning events.
He joined the royal delegation to pray in Mecca and was part of a gathering with senior princes and others at a palace in Jiddah. Among them was the future Saudi king, Salman. Van Alstine kissed him on the forehead, a traditional display of respect by younger men for elders in Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
Van Alstine also paid homage to his sponsors by taking the nom-de-Web Abu Muteb, a nickname of then Saudi King Abdullah, who died nearly a year ago and was succeeded by Salman.
Van Alstine returned to the United States and kept cranking out videos for his YouTube channel, Americanbadu, or the American Bedouin. One video — a reply to a woman who professed to be fan of the Saudi soccer club al-Ittihad — has more than 1 million views.
In May 2013, the Saudi Ministry of Education emailed him a job offer to help develop a new TV channel. He packed his bags.
To be sure, Van Alstine keeps it tame. The Saudi social media space is packed, but not with anyone who crosses red lines such as criticism of Saudi rulers or policies. Offenders are quickly silenced and sometimes jailed.
His comedy keeps to the safe ground of mild observations: the pidgin Arabic of many South Asian shopkeepers or the bewildering array of Saudi hand gestures. He can also get preachy and more than a shade of propagandist. In several posts — with a Saudi flag in the background — he has railed against Muslim-bashers in the West or defended Saudi Arabia against criticism of rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.
“I don’t feel conflicted at all,” he said, insisting that he does not try to overlay Western values on local standards. This bit of self-preservation has earned him some detractors.
His father, Brian Van Alstine, said he was always aware of Joshua’s affinity for the spotlight. “But I’ve also tried to temper his enthusiasm with the reality that not everyone will understand or tolerate his point of view the same way,” he added.
Van Alstine’s sweet spot, however, is his natural state: a semi-goofy American with a toothy smile who favors traditional Saudi robes and headgear and models himself as a Bedouin soul mate.
“He’s weird, but in a likable way,” said Ibraheem Alkhirallah, creative director at the Riyadh-based video production company Telfaz, which featured Van Alstine in one of its most popular Web shows, “Temsahly,” which features a sock-puppet crocodile who interviews Arab celebrities or has adventures around the region.
The centerpiece of the awards wall at Telfaz is a YouTube plaque for the first 1 million subscribers to “Temsahly” — among the show’s more than 100 million views. The Van Alstine episode has been watched more than 1.8 million times.
It is another glimpse into one of the Middle East’s fastest-evolving online cultures. Saudi Arabia ranks among the world’s leaders in per capita usage of sites such as Twitter and the WhatsApp chat network. Millions follow YouTube comedy shows such as “Temsahly” and the satirical “La Yekthar Show.”
“Saudi society can be a lonely place,” said Fahad Albutairi, the popular comedian who created “La Yekthar,” or “put a lid on it” in rough translation. “Liberals and conservatives, men and women, wealthy and struggling — all had really no way to really connect. With social media, we can tear off the masks and tear up the stereotypes.”
The same wave carried Van Alstine. But his image really took off when he appeared in 2013 on a 15-episode series on Middle East Broadcasting, the major regional television network, during the super prime-time viewing season of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. In the show, Van Alstine is living with a traditional Saudi family.
“I arrived as a dopey American and then out-Arabized the Arabs,” he said.
After his short-term TV gig, Van Alstine is setting up shop in Doha. He plans to resume his studies and seek new outlets in Qatar, which is among the region’s media hubs as the base for the Al Jazeera network.
“They say that life is unpredictable,” he said. “If anyone disagrees, I have the perfect answer. Take a look at me.”