Meet the Indian vlogger turned accidental war correspondent in Sudan

Indian vlogger turned accident war correspondent in Sudan
4 min read
13 June, 2023

When the armed conflict in Sudan began in mid-April, some global television networks aired visuals of a panicked young man doing a sort of gonzo journalism amid the gunshots in the backdrop of a smoking Khartoum. He was not a journalist nor was he Sudanese. 

In a half-a-decade career as a travel vlogger, Maheen S, 23, had his share of troubles; he was arrested and beaten by the Taliban in Afghanistan, faced minor aggression from the morality police for his company of fellow female travellers in India, had to travel with smugglers of arms and drugs in Iran, and faced sexual advances from men of many countries.

But nothing in his weaponry, comprising a pen knife and pepper spray, could have prepared him for what he would face in Sudan, a country he crossed a month before the conflict. 

"For many of his followers, Maheen's vlogs have normalised places largely demonised by mainstream media coverage"

Growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the Indian state of Kerala, Maheen, or hitchhiking nomad as he is known in the world of travel vlogging, didn't plan a travel career. "I was sure I would travel a lot as it has been a passion since childhood," Maheen told The New Arab from Addis Ababa last week over the phone. 

When the security situation worsened in Sudan, Maheen fled to Ethiopia, partly pressured by his family. This ended his brief career as a war correspondent. Maheen says he had contributed visuals and tele-ins to some 25 news channels across the world. "Only one news channel offered me to pay" for his Sudan dispatches. 

Like most travel vlogs, Maheen's are not highbrow. At times, his narration can tread into political incorrectness. But his audience doesn't seem to mind. For them, he's a brave heart who steps into the dangerous minefields of the unexpected in the faraway places they can never go or even think of.

According to Maheen, most of his followers, 95% on YouTube and 65% on Instagram come from his home state. 

Meet the Indian vlogger turned accidental war correspondent in Sudan
Maheen's content veers between the exhilarating and the precarious [Hitchhiking Nomad]

For many of his followers, Maheen's vlogs have normalised places largely demonised by mainstream media coverage. They are mostly Arab or Muslim countries. He's been to Nepal, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. At the time of publishing this writing, he is in Djibouti. 

Still, some viewers may feel he's airing commentary without fact-checking or due diligence. Sometimes he translates what he understands from the talk he's having at the moment. He mispronounces the name of a food or things he sees.

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Sometimes you feel he's putting the lives of legally imperfect men who give him rides in danger. But Maheen says he has his subjects' permission and they themselves want to be seen. In an Uzbekistan mall, he sees film posters portraying Bruce Willis. He says he's familiar with the face but can't tell whose. 

Sometimes you feel he's unnecessarily shrewd in his focus on hitchhiking, trying every trick to avoid taxis. At the same time, he has a disarming innocence that, at times, might've saved him from danger. 

For Maheen, the research is best done on-site. He has a reason: "I want to travel for another 30 years and remain curious. He says he wanted to cover all countries before settling into life. "After that, I'll spend another ten years revisiting all those counties." 

Before each travel, he finds friends in the respective countries, relying on the cheapest transport modes, mostly hitchhiking. He uses dozens of travellers' phrases in the visiting place's language. If the situation demands nuances furthermore, he uses voice-translation apps. Despite bracing for camping and self-cooking, many of his videos show him being hosted by total strangers.

"I think we shouldn't judge him too harshly. He's spontaneous and has no prejudice," says Althaf Ahammed, a Doha-based content producer. "Three things stand him apart. His age, mode of transport, and his huge appetite for risk. I haven't seen or heard of any young man covering such a long list of dangerous countries at such a young age."

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Maheen's a college dropout, having ditched his degree education twice. He says he has no role model other than the travel writings he read in school. His family supported his journeys but preferred he stays out of dangerous places. 

When the videos him featuring the Taliban came, he says, the crime branch of Kerala Police visited his home three times for questioning. As a result, he claims his passport is 'blacklisted' even though there's no travel ban.  Maheen doesn't seem to care. He says he has "no link with any groups and nothing to fear or hide."

He advises future hitchhikers to start slowly in their own countries and later in neighbouring countries before expanding to different continents.

AP Muhammed Afsal is a journalist based in Doha, and his reportings have appeared in Thomson Reuters FoundationAl JazeeraMiddle East Eye & Al-Monitor.