Haifa Beseisso: Dubai’s YouTuber who challenges stereotypes with one rap song at a time

Haifa Beseisso
Haifa Beseisso’s travel vlogs and music videos are internet hits and attracted worldwide recognition for raising awareness against stereotypes. Image Credit: Ahmed Ramzan/ Gulf News

Dubai: Dreams are known as the royal road to the unconsciousness but for YouTuber Haifa Beseisso, dreams are a reflection of people and their culture – a catalyst to help us learn from one another.

Thirty-year-old Beseisso, a Palestinian-American who rose to fame thanks to her travel blogs, gives credit to dreams for helping her find her voice and becoming the social media influencer she is today.

One of the first vlogs she ever posted on her YouTube channel Fly With Haifa consisted of Beseisso travelling across Asia, while visiting nine countries in 40 days. Her theme for the blog was asking people to reveal their dreams, “because you can get to know about the country and the culture through people’s dreams,” she explained.

Her vlogs soon became an internet sensation as viewers were instantly attracted to Beseisso’s message, which aimed to break cultural barriers and stereotypes. Nowadays, the Dubai-based media personality is more than just a traveller, a fashionista or an activist, as she describes herself as a woman inspired to keep the dreams alive.

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Beseisso recollects the journey of how she became a media sensation from her beginnings as an internet a broadcasting network, and how she was inspired for the rap song Stereotype World, which catapulted her into international fame.

Starting out as an intern

The charismatic social media star first stepped into the world of broadcasting in 2012 after graduating from the American University in Dubai with a degree in digital production and storytelling. Beseisso was hired as an intern at a leading broadcasting company based in Dubai and shortly after, was employed full-time, where she was able to work her way up to assistant producer, co-producer and producer.

“I would work on travel and technology shows, and that’s what helped shape my journey. I didn’t find travel but travel found me because by coincidence, I was taken along to every travel show that they created. In the beginning, I didn’t want to take the travel job but with my mom’s encouragement, I took on the challenge because we didn’t know if I’ll get this opportunity again. So my mom’s a big part of my journey,” she said.

During her travel shows, Beseisso made sure to take her camera everywhere she went and record selfies during her free time. “And since my dream came true, I thought I could ask people in different countries what their dreams were, and record them.”

“I am one of these people in this generation who are aware of the power of the media, and shifting minds and awareness, and since I was young, I knew I wanted to do something about it, and not just receive. I wanted to act. And I was always serious about my intentions,” she said.

Before launching her popular channel Fly With Haifa, Beseisso decided to first test the waters.

“I started my YouTube channel a year before I quit my job because you need time to test the waters and to prepare for the next steps, so I could stand instead of drowning. So I did five videos that year and then some random people would pop up and show support, while others would just stalk me to say I’d never make it. I was tested by both.”

It did not take long for directors to recognise Beseisso’s talent, and she soon got her first invitation as a travel influencer from the Jordan Tourism Board. She then went on to visit other parts of the world, including Zanzibar, Kerala and Ethiopia, and by this time, was gaining online traction for her attempt in breaking cultural barriers and stereotypes.

Hosting the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Concert

There came a moment when Beseisso could no longer stand the portrayals of Arabs in western movies, and it was then that she decided to speak out.

“Every time I watched a movie, Arabs were portrayed as barbarians and I would get really mad. So I wanted to do something about it, and that’s why I spoke in English in a lot of my videos because I wanted to speak up and show my culture to the rest of the world.”

Her vlogs and music videos soon went viral and gained international recognition for raising awareness against stereotypes. Beseisso’s hard work and determination also led her to become the first Arab YouTuber presenter and host for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Norway, where she was presented onstage by late night host Conan O’Brien.

“It started with me being very passionate about showing who we are as Arabs to the world, and I was able to do that with music videos,” she said, while pointing out that the next pivotal moment of her career was being chosen as a YouTube ambassador.

In 2018, she released the music video for Stereotype World, which was part of YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative aimed to address the misconceptions about the Middle East.

Shifting focus to women’s rights

Beseisso’s focus has now evolved to spreading awareness on women’s rights, as well as highlighting social issues faced within Arab cultures and communities.

“I started with telling the world that the Middle East was amazing and the narrative was just one-sided. But with my growth and my thinking, especially growing as a woman, it started shifting and I wanted to shed light on some of the issues within the culture and the community,” she said.

When COVID-19 hit, the pandemic forced Beseisso to take a back seat and slow down as the whole world went into lockdown. The year 2020 turned out to be the year where she was able to go through a deep meditation experience, disconnect from the algorithms of YouTube, and reflect on life.

“COVID was crazy because it made me face reality, and made me realise what was not healthy within the systems, and it affected me. I went through a depression. We have a lot of rights as women that are actually taken from us, which is a reality I never faced.

“Honour killings and domestic violence was higher [in some countries] as everyone was in lockdown, and girls opened up to me about committing suicide. It gave me the responsibility to work on myself on how to handle these situations.”

Beseisso’s comeback was made with the 3aib (shame) song, released on March 8 to mark International Women’s Day. This special project is one that she holds close to heart as the song was made by the people, for the people.

“I posed a question on Instagram and asked my followers what they were ashamed about, even if it was something that didn’t make sense. My question box exploded, girls and guys would share a lot of things, from eating ice cream and running in the street to laughing and riding a bicycle. There were lots of random stuff.”

Within 10 days, Beseisso wrote the lyrics from her follower’s answers, filmed the video, posted the music video online, and sure enough, the song blew up the internet.

“The project was bigger than me. The Shame song is not my story, but we need to speak of the stories of the girls that are screaming out [for help]. I’ll continue to talk about social issues with a series of more videos, and use the power of music,” she said.

“I want to create a support system to help people, and to have real influence by setting up zoom sessions with a therapist and my followers. I want to give back.”