Salam Katanani is not just another a female vlogger, talking about make-up or fashion. From her residence in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, she presents modern science to the Arab world. Addressing culturally controversial topics, like the big bang theory and evolution, her audience has grown exponentially in the past year. Currently Salam has over 70.000 followers on Instagram, 150.000 on Facebook and almost 30.000 on YouTube.
Salam was born in Damascus, Syria in 1988 and raised between Syria and Jordan, until secondary school. In 2001 she moved to the UAE with her family. Now she is a single mother working hard to survive in a country that has no facilities for people in her situation, with a full-time job and a successful vlog. Salam is highly respected for her science vlog and she gets a lot of exposure online, but also in mainstream media like national TV and magazines.
How is it to vlog about science in a place that is culturally so religious?
Salam: “There are some challenges. I sometimes have to be cautious with how I present information. I make sure I always maintain neutrality and present facts objectively. As it counts everywhere in the world, you always have to be respectful towards any point of view. It is also not right to compare science to religion. This is a false equivalence fallacy, when you compare two things, that appear to be equal, but can’t actually be compared. One is purely based on belief and the other is based on experiments and facts.
‘It’s not right to compare science to religion. It’s a false equivalence fallacy.’
There are some subjects that are very difficult to talk about, like evolution. People are somehow okay with the theory of the big bang and the world just exploding from what appears to be ‘nothing’, but they don’t like the idea of having common ancestors with life on the planet. Such subjects might sound like they’re taking away their human privileges as mentioned in the holy books. So I talk about natural selection and about the processes, but I’m not calling a spade a spade. For example, once I described why sometimes you feel like you are falling when you are going to sleep. I talk about this from an evolutionary point of view; why we needed this reflex in the first place and how it evolved, but I just say that a long time ago we used to be in the jungle and it was an important reflex when we were sleeping in trees to hold on to something. On the other hand I care about maintaining my credibility and I won’t change the facts to accommodate any ideologies. So if something is important for the subject, then I have to mention it.”
Do you face a lot of criticism?
Salam: “There are some controversial subjects. I talked about dogs once. How they come from wolves and that we artificially-selected them. That caused quite a debate. But I don’t care. I don’t give a shit. I know my facts. I’m quite hotheaded and might sound careless when I talk. People are getting used to it though. I also don’t give any value opinions. My followers ask about my private religious beliefs, but I don’t talk about myself. I don’t talk about what I think. I just talk about things from a purely scientific point of view.”
Do you think it is even harder for you because you are a woman?
Salam: “Sometimes. Many people assume, if you’re a woman on camera, you’re trying to show off your titties. Some people think that because I am a woman, my subjects are really ‘feminine’. That’s why, in my videos, I try to look as neutral as possible, when it comes to objectification. I always try to wear things that are not considered provocative. I just get straight to the point and I’m more into the ‘boyish’ way of talking anyway. It can be tough for girls sometimes, but on the other hand people are starting to get used to it. People were surprised to see that a girl could also be a nerd. And that I like science instead of make-up.”
‘People were surprised to see that a girl could also be a nerd.’
So you are sort of a pioneer in this region of the world
Salam: “It’s special because there aren’t many people like this in the middle-east yet. There are a couple of YouTubers who present pop science too, but as a girl I think I was the first. And now many more people start trying it. They ask me: how did you start, what can we do?”
Do you get recognised?
Salam: “Yes, I get recognised a lot in Jordan, when I go there.”
Your main fan base is in Jordan?
Salam: “Yes, it is in Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, that area. The amount of people here that know me now is growing slowly, because the local people from this area, are generally not very much into science education. It’s quite a different mind-set.”
Many of the local people I’ve met in UAE seem to have studied abroad though. I would expect them to be broadly interested in many ideologies.
Salam: “That’s true. But there is definitely a difference in the culture.”
What did you study?
Salam: “I graduated High school. We moved to the United Arab Emirates because of my mother’s job. During the last year of high school my father passed away and I had to start working immediately to help my mother and sisters out with the expenses. So I never had a chance to study unfortunately.”
And what if you would still want to? Is that a possibility in the UAE?
Salam: “No I don’t have the resources here. Only if you have a lot of money, but I can’t possibly quit my job, because I’m already living of a minimum. That’s why it’s very hard to maintain, to have a job, my vlog and to be a mom. If I didn’t have a job I could spend much more time on my videos, but so far I am not making any money with it. So for now I still can’t afford to stop working, let alone to start studying.”
Do you think, if you get a sponsorship you would go to study?
Salam: “Only if I could still manage to take good care of my daughter. Schools and houses are very expensive. My mom is in Sweden and I’m alone. So I would, definitely, but I need to secure my family first. I also try to take care of my mom as much as I can.”
‘I try to look for people that give me something I have never seen or thought of before.’
Where does your inspiration come from? Do you have any idols?
Salam: “That’s a difficult question. It can come from people I meet in the street, who’s ideas I like. It’s not about being famous, or that sort of thing. To me intelligence is not about being scientific or smart. Some people have emotional intelligence, while other people don’t know how to interact socially. It all depends, and I try to look for people that give me something I have never seen or thought of before. So I don’t really have someone in specific. I love a lot of scientists and I read a lot about them.”
What age is your vlog suitable for? Is it alright for kids?
Salam: “I think mostly people in their twenties. Between 18 and 30. It is suitable for kids too, sure. I don’t curse and the way I talk is very easy to understand. They like it because it is very close to their language. I know I have younger followers too, but the largest age group is between 18 and 30.”
Your vlog is fully in Arabic, do you ever consider doing it in English?
Salam: “Well, the thing is that one of the main reasons why I started doing this, is the lack of science content in Arabic. There are many English options for example on YouTube. There are many people with the interest of making science more accessible to the public, making it sound easy and simple, but that is not in the Arab world. Especially in education. Schools present science in a very dull and boring way that makes people dislike it. By the time you are done with high school you just don’t want to hear anything about science anymore and that was one of the reasons why I started.
The way I talk is also difficult to translate. It’s very slang. If I try to translate the jokes or the stories to link the stuff together, it’s not going to be as good and as natural. Some things you just can’t translate. If I try it I’m sure that people will understand, but they will not be able to relate to it as much. And it will not be as funny. So that’s another reason.
I don’t know what will happen in the future, but for now I will just continue in Arabic. People like it and I enjoy it too.”
Do you reach a large part of the Arabic world with your way of speaking?
Salam: “Yes. For example, if I was Moroccan, or Algerian, I wouldn’t be able to reach this many people. Their dialect is too different for many of us to understand. But my accent is quite understandable for everyone Arabic. They can tell that I have a very authentic Mediterranean accent. They will know that I am either from Palestine or from Jordan, from my accent. But they can still relate, because we have a lot of things in common in our culture. The situations like the way people deal with marriage, girls, this is quite universal, but we have restrictions in the Arab world and most people will understand. I’m not sure about the west, like Morocco, because they have a very different accent and we don’t understand them, but they usually understand us. I have followers from there as well that appreciate what I’m doing, so I’m guessing that they understand.”
If you are looking for commercial exposure in the Middle-East, Salam is still open for sponsorship, as long as the advertised subject matches her topics. In case you are interested in cooperation with Salam, please contact us.