Interview with TikTok Influencer: Saif Shawaf – content creation, anxiety & family

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With over 4.8 million followers on TikTok, over 400K on Instagram and tens of thousands on Youtube, Saif Shawaf is well on his way to becoming an Arab Influencer household name. 

Saif started his career almost 10 years ago, a Youtuber, a successful viner (remember vine?), and he was even in Nancy Ajram’s music video for the song Aamel Akela, before he took a break. He’s now back on social media and has been blowing up on Tiktok. 

We sat down to catch up with him. 

How did your social media rise begin? 

It all began a few years ago when I decided to post a video of me singing a Beyonce cover on Youtube to raise funds for Syria. 

Many of us migrated from Instagram to TikTok this year, but what made you join the train? 

I saw the potential. I love creating content, and I used to do it on vine back in the day. It was a simple way to create funny content and share it with the world. 

The production value of your videos is unmatched. Which one has been your favourite to create?

Definitely the one with the sound from The Town. My sister enters the house, supposedly after a boy hurt her feelings and lip syncs to Ben Affleck’s famous  I need your help can’t tell you what it is you can never ask me about it later and we’re gonna hurt some people.” And us four brothers do the “whose car we gonna take?” I feel like a lot of protective siblings really related to that. 

You’re 28 and one of the most famous Arab TikTokers out there. An ongoing joke is that the platform is claimed by Gen Z with Millennials asking what they’re meant to do on there. Have you felt, at any point, that you were too old for TikTok? 

Not right now. Maybe a few months ago, but now since everyone is home during lockdown and started joining TikTok initially out of boredom, the demographic is not just 15 years olds anymore. TikTok is for different age groups and interests.

Tell us more about the Shawafys.

I’m blessed to have amazing siblings. We care about each other, and we never bring each other down. Never. We’re just a normal family. My mom is often cooking and my dad is on his phone managing his business. But it’s never a boring moment.

We get a glimpse of them through your videos, I think everyone following has a favourite Shawafy. How did you manage to get your family so involved? 

The only people who really make TikToks in the house are me and my brother, Salman.   The way we started was actually because Salman wanted to motivate and support me. He really was my number one motivator and would always offer to help. He was nice enough to always offer holding the camera for me too. He then started appearing in my videos and really enjoyed the content creation process. He was a natural at it, so the production value is massively down to him and his eye for quality content. I was excited when he started his own account. 

My siblings and I really enjoy the process of creating. I also think the fact that we are four boys and one girl appearing in the videos is relatable to a lot of big Arab families. The funny thing is, we also have two additional siblings – another brother and sister – who are married and overseas. We’re a big family.

How supportive are your parents? 

They are as we say “nos o nos”, so “half/half” or 50/50 about it. With the number one reason being the evil eye. They worry about their kids being in front of the camera and what that means from the evil eye of envy. Sometimes my dad would point out that when we do videos together, some people might also feel upset that they wished they had that – a big family, that is.  

How did you convince your parents? 

Well….we didn’t. We did them secretly. 
Actually, no I’m not serious, they know we do it. But we have the type of relationship that if it does bother them, they will speak to us and we can have a conversation about it. Like I said, “half and half”. 

How do you think your content helps the Arab community?

I’d like to think we’re breaking stereotypes. I think every Arab I’ve encountered on social media is doing their part for that. We are all making people understand who might not understand. At the end of the day, I really hope people just look at my content, and see themselves in me. Like they can do it too, type of thing. 

What would you like to achieve for yourself with TikTok? 

I consider myself to be a creative soul. I need an outlet. If I don’t create content, I feel low. What I hope to achieve is to be my creative self and share it with people on all platforms, and perhaps inspire them to do so as well. 

You mentioned feeling “low”. Has the platform ever impacted your mental health? 

When I started TikTok, I told myself: I will never let a TikTok or content that flops impact me. Like I’ve noticed, some people get annoyed because they don’t go viral every single time. And you can never guarantee that, even if the content is solid. For me, if I get views, I’ll be proud of myself. If I get 1 view, I’m still proud of myself. As long as I’m happy with the process that’s all that matters. 

You’ve been starting to create content about your experiences with anxiety. What motivated you to do that? 

Mainly because I know that many people are going through the same thing I’m going through. Anxiety has always been common, and even more so for our generation now. I really would love to talk more about it, especially as an Arab I feel it’s not addressed as much or as openly. We always tie it with religion, or lack of religion, or the need of spirituality. I just want to offer my own experiences and what helped me, because who knows who it might help. 

The first time you came to a Yalla! Let’s Talk. event in 2018, we sat down and you openly talked about your anxiety and how it stopped you from creating content. How has that changed since then? 

I don’t think that the Saif back then could have survived and done what he’s doing now. I’ve grown a lot and luckily have gotten the help to manage anxiety. 

When did you know that you had anxiety? 

Like many, I realised it during my teenage years. My heart would beat fast – like for no apparent reason at all. I later realised along with the heart palpitations, I’d feel scared. The anxiety would present because I was afraid of the future. 

Did you tell your parents? 

Not at first. But after years of suffering alone, I decided to tell them. I was worried, because I had reached a point where I couldn’t fall asleep without a panic attack. My heart would just race. When I told them, they were understanding, and even helped me find useful resources. 

What advice would you give someone who is suffering from anxiety? 

I know not everyone can have their parents direct them to resources. I acknowledge that it was a very blessed and favourable outcome. I know some families who have children with mental health issues, and might suggest reading the Quran. I know that it’s a beautiful and spiritual way to help people. But, what if that doesn’t work?  My advice is to seek out resources. Find someone to talk to, and get the help you need. Don’t keep it inside. Even if it’s not family at first, the burden always feels lighter when it’s shared.

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