Dubai-based Palestinian vlogger Haifa Beseisso has always been about challenging boundaries, whether they be social, geographical or cultural, but her latest project, which premiered in Los Angeles this week, sees her blurring the genres of rap and vaudeville in a musical that intends to address misconceptions about the Middle East. “It was always my childhood dream to show the world the real Middle East,” she tells Grazia en route to LA. “What I see in the movies has always upset me and I don’t believe is true to who we are.”
The result is a seven-minute video called Stereotype World. The endeavour took four months to conceptualise and film across the region, which saw her shoot in Dubai, Egypt, Morocco and Sudan as part of YouTube’s Creators for Change programme – a global initiative that supports vloggers tackling social issues and promoting awareness, tolerance and empathy on their channels – of which Haifa is one of 50 ambassadors for 2018.
She explains, “We chose the countries based on proximity, where was easiest for the crew to get visas, and which locations were most historic and dramatic – such as the Egyptian pyramids and the Blue City in Morocco.” Keen to make sure more regions were represented beyond those the crew travelled to, Haifa adds, “Although we didn’t film everywhere, people from countries including Palestine, Iraq, Somalia and Algeria wore their national dress.”
And while we’re on the subject of Middle Eastern representation, she points out, “By the way, there is a debate over whether or not certain countries are part of the Middle East. Our message as young people is: we don’t care about barriers or politics and just want all to share the same message together.” World leaders, take note.
The video begins with Haifa declaring that the impression of the Middle East transmitted to the rest of the world by mainstream news channels is what she believes to be “a beautifully crafted and measured lie.” Red velvet theatre curtains part to reveal snake charmers and belly dancers portrayed in a vaudeville-style in a music-hall setting to reinforce the idea of artifice. However it’s the girl rap featuring Haifa flanked by influencers from Morocco, Lebanon, Dubai and Saudi – including Grazia Girl Gang Ambassador for Entrepreneurship Sara Al Madani – all chanting, “So, yalla, yalla, yalla, yalla, let’s put an end to all the stereotypes, inshallah!” as message of empowerment that’s setting Instagram alight. “It was very important to us that the people we included were authentic, with good energy,” she adds, referring to the cast list that spanned all ages from “the littlest ones” to the hajjat, which is a respectful Arabic term for elderly women.
Filming Stereotype World was not without its challenges, though. Flights were missed, Haifa got kicked by a camel, and the crew ran out of money in Morocco and were taken in and fed by the locals.
Haifa sees this project as an opportunity to help rebrand the Middle East. “The message I’m sending to the world is not to believe all they see in mainstream international media as a one-sided story.” She cites the biggest stereotype as the fact that women don’t have a voice. “It’s so important because I believe everything these days is about branding – personal brands products, countries and sometimes even religion. So being an Arab and a traveller, I was upset about how Arabia was portrayed. My mission is to show the truth.”
• This feature is also available in Arabic. Click here to read it.