'People of Gaza are my teachers': UAE-based Palestinian blogger says this war is a wake-up call

Haifa Beseisso talks about the realities of brand-led collaborations, shadow-banning on social media and how she manages to speak up in a world that tries to silence her voice

by

Somya Mehta

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Published: Thu 4 Jan 2024, 6:35 PM

Last updated: Fri 5 Jan 2024, 7:37 AM

The journey of Fly With Haifa began in two parts. On one end, was a little girl with a dream to travel the world, to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds and forge meaningful connections. On the other end, was a young adult who faced repeated rejection, aspiring to be a television presenter. Combining the two, Haifa Beseisso decided to pick up that camera and give herself a show. On YouTube. A channel that now stands at over 800,000 subscribers and gives her a platform to own her voice. But it wasn’t much later on into her adult life that the content creator realised how much of her identity and the vision of her dreams was shaped by her roots.

Growing up as a Palestinian kid in the UAE, the lack of physical connection to her hometurf left a lingering feeling of yearning for connection all through Beseisso’s adult life. Meeting people from different countries, with her Keffiyeh proudly on her shoulders, exchanging cultural nuances through conversations, became her way of life. Dealing with rejections wearing a big smile on her face, became her way of life. “Maybe, it’s all related to the fact that I am Palestinian. We are always trained to be creative with rejections. We never take ‘no’ for an answer. It’s always a signal to take another route and get to the goal,” says Beseisso, who now, more than ever, is using her social media platform to connect with people from Gaza, and beyond, impacted by the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In a conversation with Khaleej Times, Beseisso sheds light on what it really means to be an ‘influencer’, the realities of brand-led collaborations and shadow-banning, and how she continues to speak her mind even when it may feel like the world (of social media) is trying to silence her voice. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did the journey of your social media platform Fly With Haifa begin? How did you decide this was your calling?

From a young age, I recognised that my power was in my vocal cords. I’d always use my speech to express my opinions, whether it was on the educational system or sharing poetry in my classrooms, I’d actively engage with the school system by proposing extracurricular activities and avenues to speak up. Early on, I harboured this desire within me to be a catalyst for change. I distinctly remember attending a cinema screening when I was 14 of a film that portrayed the Arab region in a very stereotypical and negative light — depicting Arabs as barbaric, as terrorists, surrounded by camels. Holding a bag of popcorn, I felt a surge of anger rise within me. That’s when I took the decision of wanting to actively challenge these misconceptions through the media.

I subsequently ventured into television work, aspiring to be in front of the camera as a host. When the desired opportunity did not materialise, I took matters into my own hands and started my YouTube channel, initially as a means to seek hosting jobs but I ended up discovering my profound love for the freedom of expression and movement. I started filming travel content for Fly With Haifa and my first question no matter where I travelled, would be ‘What's your dream?’ I would get people from different countries, such as India, China, Japan, South Korea, to answer this question and see the similarities or differences in their responses and how it echoes from the culture. In Japan, most people would say their dream was to travel, to fall in love. In China, a lot of them would dream about money. In Palestine, people dreamed of being free.

Through your travel experience of almost a decade, how have people perceived the Palestinian and Arab culture across the globe? What were some of the misconceptions?

During my first trip, which was to Kansas City in the US, I remember so many people, the American public in the streets, would stop me to ask questions about where I come from. Maybe they felt I'm approachable because I’ve always travelled with a smile. And I wear a lot of colour. This is actually really important to me because it acts like a bridge and welcomes people. They would ask me questions about my culture, about the hijab. People around the world have actually been very curious and welcoming, to understand our culture and our story. And that’s been the most important message through my work, especially to anybody from a misrepresented country or minority, is to keep your head up. Do not fall into the stereotypes yourself where you forget who you are because then you will invite that kind of energy. According to me, the real problem has always existed in the media, which seems to thrive on divisiveness.

KT Photo: Shihab
KT Photo: Shihab

At what age did you first visit Palestine?

I was 24 when I visited Palestine for the first time, and the last time. No one from my family could easily go there because it was never an easy choice. No matter the physical distance, it’s a place that has always felt like it is far, far away.

How would you describe the experience of visiting your homeland for the first time, in your adulthood?

To be honest, it was more painful than ecstatic. It wasn’t this great feeling that I was in my hometown for the first time, which you would expect it to be. I went there thinking I would touch the ground, smell the sand. But when I went there, I saw a lot of pain in the streets. I saw soldiers everywhere. I saw guns. I saw checkpoints. I felt the fear of the people walking around and it didn't make me feel good. For me, my country has always lived inside me. So, it was a strange feeling to physically be there. When you talk about a specific place that your ancestors come from, I don't know what that feeling entails. I always say that the Earth is my home. Maybe, as a defence mechanism or to feel that sense of connection, travelling the world became my calling.

I really do hope to go back to Palestine one day where I see my people living freely, with safety and freedom, where they can run, play, work, eat in peace.

Over the years, how have you established a sense of connection to your homeland?

For a lot of us Palestinians, one of the first things our parents teach us is where we’re from. I grew up with the stories, listening to my grandparents talk about Palestine, hearing Palestinian music, eating Palestinian food, watching the news. The news is a big part of our childhood, it is always on. It's like your loyalty, you need to keep seeing what's happening back home.

Even last night, when I was watching stories from Motaz [Azaiza], who’s been actively covering what’s happening back home, as incredibly painful as it was to see people killed, displaced, injured with all the brutalities, I could see the respect in their eyes for themselves, their dignity, their loyalty towards their land, which is immortal. I’ve never felt more connected to my hometown. It’s made me even more persistent to fight for my people, and be proud of who I am and where I come from. I’ve learned a lot from them. Every kid, every man, every woman from Gaza, have all become my teachers.

Is survivor’s guilt an intrinsic part of the Palestinian identity?

There's a lot of survivor's guilt, which runs so deep in my system. It’s not just since October 7, 2023. I had it even when I was travelling across the world. Ever since I began my career, I’d always ask this question that why am I here? Why am I allowed to travel? Why am I free when my people can’t leave Gaza? How do I get to do this and not them? In our story, it's never just about an individual, it’s always about the collective. Ever since I began my content creation journey, I’ve always asked myself, ‘How am I making other people feel through my content? Am I showing them something I have that they don't? Or is it inspiring them?’ I remember I got a message on Instagram once, when I was in this amazing suite in Switzerland and I got a panic attack, questioning why I was allowed to enjoy these privileges? I posted something about it on social media and a girl from Syria, amidst the ongoing war at the time, messaged me saying, ‘Haifa, please keep posting because I can live through you’.

Over the years, messages such as these have kept me going because every Arab, in their power, gives hope to others who are not. The survivor's guilt is always there, showering, brushing my teeth. Even today, looking like this, I think, ‘How do I get to live like this? Am I betraying my people? Am I being selfish? Am I indifferent? Should I be there fighting? Should I give up?" It's a constant battle with myself.

How are you coping with it?

Creating content on social media, spreading awareness about the war, the atrocities, of what is really happening back home, has really helped me because I feel like I’m able to do something and use my platform for something that matters. You feel better when you create because you release the energy from your system. Otherwise, all you’re left with is this extreme sense of helplessness.

Have you received any backlash for the content you’ve been posting? From audiences or the brands you work with?

Many brands have been understanding, even though I have pushed the dates of all of my brand campaigns because I cannot do something that doesn’t feel right at the moment. A lot of my campaigns are usually about spreading joy and excitement and posting those things, at a time of such a crisis, does not feel right to me. I have heard from other brands that want to start new collaborations, saying they don't want to work with creators ‘who talk about Palestine’. Some brands are saying, it’s alright to post on ‘stories’ but not on the ‘feeds’. It's so confusing. At the end of the day, we work for ourselves and for the people. And the people want to hear about what is going on, we cannot be disassociated from reality.

I am very proud of every creator from the Middle East who is talking about Palestine because through that, we give each other permission to continue to speak up. If there are so many of us, you can't alienate one. I'd rather not take deals or work with companies who don’t have a clear voice or are hiding because I don't stand for that. And if I didn't talk about Palestine now, then everything I've been talking about for the past 10 years, would’ve been a lie. I stand for humanity before the seventh of October and every day since. We’re not on social media just for show; we're here for our voice.

It’s not the first time in my career where I have been faced with this situation, where I’ve had to risk everything I’ve built so far, in order to honour what I stand for. I have always been posting about Palestine and will continue to do so. Maybe I will risk it all and it will all come crumbling down but maybe, it will lead to something bigger than I even imagined.

Have you experienced shadow-banning, wherein the algorithm has impacted the reach of your content, due to being vocal about the war on social media?

Yes, but this is not new for me because I have been talking about Palestine for a long time, through different aggressions and wars that have taken place. I have experienced shadow banning for a long time, to the point where when I would tell people, they wouldn't necessarily believe me. Now, it's trending, and everybody knows about it but I am an expert in it. I have reached a point where all I care about is creating content I'm passionate about and that I stand for. My passion can break the algorithm and it will. I don’t want to create from a place of fear.

While some content creators have taken a stand through not posting their regular content, some have also said that they can’t stop posting because their livelihood depends on it. What are your views on this?

It's like a triangle. As influencers or content creators, we do need the support of agencies and the audiences. Together, we can create change and we need each other for it. We are all responsible. So, I agree with those creators. I also want to do the same, I want to continue working with brands. People don't realise that this is also a job and it pays bills. Having said that, it’s still very hard to navigate. The war has been a wake up call. It has made me reflect on how dependent influencers can be on brands and the virtual world, which is not really sustainable. It has been a wake up call to branch out to other forms of income and not be so dependent on brand-led collabs.

How do you plan to branch out from social media?

This year, I want to go offline, meet people at events and retreats, and create things with them. I want to travel with them. The war has matured me in so many ways. Questions such as, ‘Who are the real heroes? Who do I look up to? Who are the celebrities?’ These are all really big questions that the war has made me reflect on, and the people of Gaza have been my teachers.

somya@khaleejtimes.com


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