Inside #arabtiktok: Arab diaspora content creators reconnect to roots

ILLUSTRATION_ARABS_TIKTOK
7 min read
06 October, 2022
The social media platform TikTok has become an essential tool for millennials to creatively comment on global phenomena. Through whimsical and playful takes, Arab creators have been able to bridge gaps with the diaspora over their shared identities.

TikTok is a cultural phenomenon that has galvanised the Arab community, with the hashtag #arabtiktok reaching over 17 billion views.

Through #arabtiktok, Arab content creators parody the typical Arab immigrant experience and the behaviours and customs of their wider community.

The platform is enabling young diaspora Arabs to embrace their heritage and find a sense of unity with other Arabs around the world.

"There are Arabs all over the world on TikTok, and TikTok allows us to connect our culture in so many ways. From content on food recipes to music to comedy, we’re all able to find joy in our culture on one platform"

Sam Fakih, is a 26-year-old Lebanese American based in LA who started making TikToks mocking the everyday stereotypes people often have about Arabs.

He credits starting his page due to the challenges many millennial Arabs like him faced growing up in America. "Growing up in the 2000s people made many jokes about Arab culture and religion, and sometimes it felt like bullying. I was often the ‘Arab’ at school or social events which took a lot of getting used to."

Lebanese Americans, like Sam, are the largest Arab sub-group in the US making up a large part of the estimated 3.7 million Arab population in the country.

Their roots can be traced back to the onset of the civil war in Lebanon between 1975 to 1990, which led to large waves of Lebanese migration to the US. This included Fakih’s parents who came to the US in 1976 in the hope of a better life.

@samfakihh Who has the best zaatar? 😂 #arab #lebanese #arabtiktok #arabtok ♬ original sound - Sam Fakih

His most popular videos include him having humorous exchanges with his parents, showing how although many Arab parents on the outside appear cold and strict, they have strong emotional bonds with their children which they express through dark humour, giving outsiders an insight into Arab family dynamics.

Since celebrating his difference on a global platform like TikTok it has helped me find confidence as an Arab. He says the experience "has made me feel proud of my roots and educated me on who we are as Arabs."

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For Jesse Jaurji, a half-Egyptian and half-Iraqi content creator based in Toronto, his dual Arab identity led him to struggle to feel fully integrated into the Arab community. "I was one of the few kids growing up at my church that didn’t speak fluent Arabic. I often felt like I didn’t really fit in with my own community."

Arab Canadians, like Jesse, are one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in the country. 

Like many Arabs, his family has a history of emigrating to different countries fleeing war in the hope of a better life. His father was born in Iraq and later moved to Lebanon as a child before settling down in Toronto to escape the civil war in his late 20s. Similarly, his mom moved from Egypt to Canada in her 30s simply to also find a better life.

"Through TikTok and humour, you can explain complicated conversations in a way that is appealing to the youth and understandable to the vast majority"

His TikToks imitating his family members have been a way of showing the commonalities he has noticed between his Arab peers. By posting his clips online he wanted to find a way to resonate with other young Arabs. 

His most popular clips involve him acting in Arab re-enactments of popular tv shows and franchises such as Harry Potter and The Godfather, even going so far as to imitate the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial as an ‘Arab’ lawyer.

Although they are for comedic purposes, the body language and mannerisms in his parodies widely resonate with many other Arabs due to their authenticity.

His experience as a TikToker has been a rewarding experience helping him to grasp just how large and diverse the Arab community is. "There are Arabs all over the world on TikTok, and TikTok allows us to connect our culture in so many ways. From content on food recipes to music to comedy, we’re all able to find joy in our culture on one platform," he explains. "It’s amazing to know that so many of us have had similar experiences in middle eastern culture."

@jaurji I mean…it’s a good point 🤷🏽‍♂️ #arab #arabtiktok #immigrantparents #shakira ♬ original sound - Jesse Jaurji

Female Arab representation is an important issue for Mishkas, a 26-year-old Palestinian-American based in St. Louis Missouri.

Her TikTok clips show her lifestyle as a Muslim woman including her solo travelling, showing new hijab styles, and celebrating Ramadan with her peers.

She started using TikTok during the COVID-19 pandemic, and she soon realised the power of the platform for expressing herself and her cultural identity, helping to empower other Muslim women along the way. 

As a proud wearer of the hijab, it felt important to Mishkas to represent Arab Muslim women like herself instead of relying on problematic depictions by the media. "I’ve been able to bring more awareness to the modest fashion world and show how, as a Muslimah, we aren’t oppressed or restricted as the western media conveys us to be."

@theadventurehijabi

 

♬ original sound - Officially Mish

Mishkas and her family are part of the Palestinian diaspora, a wide-reaching group comprising an estimated six million who live outside of their native homeland. It comes as no surprise that Palestinian migration spans not only countries in the Middle East like Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, but also as far as the US. 

In the US, Palestinian Americans are another major Arab American population group aside from Egyptians, Lebanese and Syrians.

A significant number of Palestinian Americans are concentrated in New York, where Mishkas’ father moved at 17 after leaving Palestine. Mishkas’ father left, she describes, "to pretty much pursue the American dream. He started in a humble job and then worked his way up."

She credits the app as also helping her to learn more about Islam and navigate the sometimes unclear boundaries between religion and culture.

Growing up in Western culture may have felt at odds with her Islamic upbringing, but like many other young people, she has come to find a space for herself where she can navigate between the two to practice her faith in a way that feels comfortable for her.  

"I often found myself really walking on a thin line and often questioning what is religiously appropriate and what is negative and culturally influenced."

It is through Tik Tok she was able to find some answers to her questions and feel closer to her faith. ‘Through TikTok, I was able to find a happy medium. It was empowering to see just how beautiful our religion is. it has brought me even closer to my deen and to Islam."

@kinda__halal ♬ YES MOM BY TESSA VIOLET - Tessa Violet

Like Mishkas, Palestinian-Canadian Lara Radwan found herself taking to social media to help empower thousands.

She created her blog Kinda Halal and TikTok with the mission to connect the community.

Growing up as a Palestinian, she often hopped around. Lara attended 13 different schools across the world and moved to countless countries, such as Canada, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Spain.

"Many third-culture kids like me can often feel disconnected from the communities we’re in and yearn to better understand our roots and heritage. So I created an online community that not only helped me find that connection – Kinda Halal has helped reinvigorate thousands of people’s own relationships and journeys with their culture and Islam."

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Her content is a mixture of cultural awareness, politics, news, education, entertainment, and religion.

With many people shying away from their heritage, Kinda Halal takes a light-hearted approach to bring up some controversial conversations. From social discussions, political debates and news, to one's own Muslim journey.

"Through TikTok and humour you can explain complicated conversations in a way that is appealing to the youth and understandable to the vast majority," she explains.

She balances this with more serious and urgent posts raising awareness of Gaza in Palestine and other matters like the hunger crisis in Yemen and the Muslim concentration camps in China.

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Lara emphasises how she is able to weaponise her platform to help others, educate, bring awareness and raise money with the non-profit organisations she collaborates with.

Among Sam, Jesse, Mishkas, and Lara, there is a sense of determination to redefine how Arabs are portrayed and for them to be expressed on their own terms.

"We’ve seen in the mainstream how we have been stripped from our voices in the media," Lara adds.

"Take the Palestinian movement on the news, for example, we don’t have much control or input in the media. Our voices are often taken away through media manipulation, shadow banning and censorship. Apps like TikTok are helping us take back the narrative and ensuring our voices are heard."

Kushie Amin is a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Metro, Glamour (UK), Refinery29 and The Independent.