It was a perfect summer’s day, but the young man sitting on a sofa in front of the television was oblivious to the weather outside that July afternoon in London.
He was preoccupied with a more gloomy view – a glimpse of his own mortality given by his doctor if the 32-year-old didn’t drastically change his lifestyle.
Few who know of Royal Jordanian have any idea that 10 years ago the YouTube star was obese, suffering from stress and burnt out from 18-hour work days.
Famous for hiding his identity behind the moniker of the flag carrier airline of Jordan and his face inside a motorcycle helmet, the blogger made the revelation during a recorded Zoom conversation set up by The National with his idol, Mick Doohan, the five-time MotoGP world champion.
In what was part of his first press interview, RJ, as he is referred to by his legions of fans, spoke about the moment of realisation that he could no longer indulge in scuba diving, a favourite pastime.
“I knew I was totally unhealthy,” he said. I’d just been away in Italy and I couldn’t get into a wetsuit, and I couldn’t dive. I thought, ‘I’ve got to start walking’, and there’s a park near by. It was 100 yards away, and I couldn’t even walk that far. I just couldn’t do it.
“Mentally and physically, I was completely and utterly devastated. I came back, I sat on the couch and I remember saying to myself: ‘A year from now, you’re going to do an enduro tour’. In one year, I got back into shape and I went and did that tour. And it saved my life.”
An enduro, for non-motorcyclists, is an off-road adventure of fierce physicality – the term comes from the word endurance – and riding them has been RJ’s passion, pretty much since he fell in love with bikes at the age of nine.
Not being able to swim in the deep was the first jolt back on to a healthier road, but his desire to ride motorbikes provided the inspiration, as has so often been the case in his life.
Back then, though, the prospect of losing 42 kilograms seemed about as likely as him becoming an internet motovlogging sensation with more than 1.4 million YouTube subscribers.
But RJ focused rigidly on his goal, “dropped the chicken wings” and started walking, first 100 metres, then 200, then 90-plus kilometres a week. Twelve months later, he was in Spain and managed to endure a single day in the dirt on a Honda CRF450-X.
“I was shattered. I was dead,” he said. “It’s the first video on my channel, that day, and it’s called The Three Hills and you can hear my breathing when I went up that last hill. And I felt like I’d conquered the world, and I was back.”
Far from being part of a masterplan to court multimedia stardom, RJ recorded the ride with a helmet-cam as a video postcard for his mother.
Separated by geography, RJ would send her videos of his adventures, which she struggled to open on her computer. “One day, I said to her, ‘Do you watch YouTube?’ And she said, ‘Who doesn’t?’ So I said I’m going to set up a YouTube channel,” he said.
Rather than just one view by his mum, however, the motovlogs posted on his RoyalJordanian YT channel inexplicably started receiving 10 views, then hundreds, and thousands. Many of the videos, called Daily Observations, are of RJ's commutes to work in London. At first glance, it can be difficult to figure out what all the fuss is about.
But they are strangely appealing and, as RJ intends, meditative, as he skilfully lane-splits and filters through the capital’s traffic, and performs random acts of kindness, as well as high jinks like fist-bumping bus drivers or frightening pedestrians with an unexpected twist of a throaty throttle.
His mother lived to see the start of the social reach that she helped create unwittingly but she passed away seven years ago, well before her son’s tally of posted videos climbed to 1,130, with a total of 307 million views.
Among those viewers, there is much speculation about the significance of the Royal Jordanian name, his accented English, and fondness for motorcycling trips in the Middle East and North Africa. He has ridden in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Dubai, through the Atlas Mountains and the desert in Morocco, and Egypt, about which he says that “if you can ride in Cairo, you can ride anywhere”. But Oman stands out.
“There are places that I’ve ridden because of the incredible riding and places I’ve been to because of the incredible people, and I can tell you Oman is one of the best places ever,” RJ said.
“And people say ‘but there’s nothing there to ride, it’s just straight desert roads’. It’s the whole experience; the people, the way they treat you, the way they open their country to you, even though they don’t know you, the way they make you feel.”
He is frequently asked where he is from and usually answers “Earth”, saying that he neither believes in nor likes territorial lines drawn on a map.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud about where I am from,” he said, “and I appreciate that people are proud of where they are from, but at the same time the problem is that it can set us apart.”
Wherever it was that he grew up, he was given a bicycle as a child and his immediate thought was: “I’m exerting so much effort for so little movement, there has to be a better way.”
When he saw his neighbour on a motorcycle, he knew he’d found it. RJ’s father bought him and his older brother a 100cc bike that they were supposed to share on alternate days.
It was those first jerky rides and tumbles into the dust off a tiny children’s Suzuki dirt bike that led to the grown-up enduros across the Mena region and in South America, as well as South Africa.
When RJ’s brother decided that he didn’t want to stick to the deal and refused to hand the motorcycle over, their father responded by buying RJ a bigger and better model: a Yamaha DT360.
Now he owns eight bikes and is a motorcycling evangelist, albeit in the form of a helmet-wearing shunner of celebrity.
“If I take off this helmet and I start speaking to the camera, like 99.9 per cent of social-media people out there, then it becomes about the person and I want to avoid that,” he said. “I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about the love of motorcycles, and how that can actually affect your life.
“So I find motorcycling therapeutic. I mean, I call it my relief, my medicine in this crazy world. And this is what I’ve tried to portray.”
During one Daily Observation, RJ stopped his bike to help an elderly man who had fallen on the footpath. The video went viral. In some ways, it is an unremarkable vignette, and yet there’s something cockle-warmingly human about it that struck a chord around the world.
RJ said it represents not just who he is as a person, but something more. “As bikers, we always look out for each other, and people think that we are these bad, leather-clad people, these outlaws, and they don’t think that, you know, we are the minority on the road, so we always look out for each other,” he said.
“And that’s how it gets built into us to help other people, and that old man was just a typical behaviour.
“Some vicious people said, ‘You did it because of the camera’; you know, I don’t really care what people think. I would do it a million times over.”
Anyone suggesting that he might set up a video to garner more followers clearly knows even less than most about RJ. Fame has chased him, and he has run from it and its benefits.
He refuses lucrative sponsorship offers “on a daily basis”, although YouTube does force money on him because of the high volume of views on the platform.
Despite his ever-present helmet, RJ and his bikes – particularly his beloved, barking loud Husqvarna Nuda 900R – have become so widely known that he’s often recognised and treated like a superstar.
The genuine joy and admiration of fans in his videos when they realise it’s him, including even London’s Metropolitan Police officers, is a delight to watch.
“It’s very satisfying, and 50 to 60 per cent of my viewers are non-riders,” RJ said. “I can tell that from the comments: ‘I don’t ride but I love your videos’; ‘I don’t ride but I can feel how you feel’.”
Receptionists seem to have a hard time picking him out, though. When he goes to high-level meetings with Fortune 500 companies for his day job, he is invariably mistaken for a motorcycle courier.
This never happened during his near-fatal slump, when he was buying designer suits to try to look the part and one BMW M-series car after another in an attempt to recreate the thrill of being on a bike.
RJ has come to hate a stereotype as much as a border. These days, he turns up wearing his motorcycle boots and leather jacket, impervious to whether anyone thinks he is there to pick up a package or can’t afford a car.
“Now I don't care,” he said. “Many times I will go into reception and the first thing said is, ‘Who ordered this person?’ Or ‘Which delivery?’ What do you do? I mean, I say I'm in to meet so and so, and then their whole attitude changes because so and so is most probably ‘somebody’ in that building.
“I will just walk in, slam my helmet on top of the table and start talking because this is the problem with people these days. You know, you should be judged by your knowledge and the person that you are.”
It is something RJ's viewers seem to understand. They may not know the identity of the mysterious leather-clad character or where he comes from, and yet millions regularly tune in to watch this motorcycling crusader in action. Same bike-time, same bike-channel.
* The full Zoom conversation between RJ and Mick Doohan can be viewed on The National's YouTube channel here