Whether you want to learn how to cook bamia, dance to Cheb Kamir, tell jokes that only your cousins will understand, or find out more about the history of where you/your family are from, one social media platform has become the unexpected meeting place of communities in diaspora, namely the youth looking to reconnect to their roots.
Farrah Jaber, a 21-year-old Palestinian, confronts the daily devastation of not being able to visit her besieged country, but in some ways, TikTok offers a sort of coping mechanism.
“For people like me who are unable to go back to their home country, it allows me to feel connected to my culture by [being able to watch] both influencers and my own family members who are in Palestine,” she says.
The flurry of content from first- or second-generation immigrants and third culture kids has offered a sort of reconnection while also helping communities find their voice and own their rich heritage, history and culture in a public way that has inspired others to do the same.
I asked 40 diaspora youths if TikTok helps unite them with their communities, and 60 percent said yes, adding that the content on the platform allows them to learn without the shame, guilt or embarrassment of not already knowing. The 40 percent that voted no had either been able to visit the countries where their roots are, or already had more confidence and understanding of where they come from.
For me, being from Iraq, Armenia and England has always been difficult growing up. As much as I appreciated the blessing of being from such diverse and incredible countries, it also led to many identity crises. The feeling of inadequacy and not fitting into all three communities made it more difficult to embrace my heritage.
For so many people like myself, there has been this feeling that we need to block certain elements of our ethnicity as a reaction to systemic racism on the one hand, and the glamorizing and idolizing of the Western world on the other. From beauty standards to pop culture to heritage, cooking techniques, and so much more, Western narratives have dominated global culture. But in the last couple of years, it feels like things are starting to change.
Accepting, appreciating and celebrating your roots is becoming the way forward and the content created by people on social media platforms like TikTok is part of this progression.
“This connection enables us to relate to and appreciate our culture in such an intimate way that hasn’t really been available before,” says Farrah. “It’s comforting to see others speak about political issues that I don’t see represented Western media, such as the murder of [Palestinian-American journalist] Shireen Abu Akleh. And on a lighter note, it’s nice to be able to relate to Arab humor.”
TikTok has more than 1.5 billion active users, after seeing a surge in engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic. While it has pros and cons like all social media apps, there is one obvious difference in the way it has opened up a space for expression, discovery, and representation, and the MENA diaspora is no exception.
Iraqi content creator Tiana Damien lives in Australia, and she is one particular content creator who is popping up on my “For You” page. Her videos range from ‘‘Middle Easterns trying to pay the bill” to “How to tell if a song is Iraqi” and more.
Being in the diaspora is not always easy, the confusion you feel towards your cultural identity can lead to a form of loneliness that not everyone can understand. Even more so when the countries you come from are war-torn, this barrier of not having the privilege to visit has a ripple effect, one that can at least be soothed by being connected to an online community that understands the struggle.
Platforms like TikTok have genuinely helped me learn and engage with my culture more and show me how much of it I know and belong to already. Often I’ve wondered how different I would have felt growing up in one of my motherlands. Now I see the positive of how much easier it is for me to now be part of all three. I used to feel like I needed to pick one, but now I embrace them all.
It helps to see content creators like Tiana embracing the power of the online community and creating ways for the diaspora to connect with their culture and communities without feelings of judgment, loss or apprehension.
“I’ve developed a deep appreciation for and sense of belonging to my culture over the years to the point where I felt secure enough to set up a platform where I could inform and enthrall audiences about it,” Tiana says of the Arab community she’s created through her content.
TikTok’s popularity is thriving in the Arab world, with the highest growth seen across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The app also ranks at the top downloads in the regional Apple and Google stores. Saudi Arabia sees the highest reach at 78.3 percent.
Content creators in the MENA region are popular at home and abroad, connecting with diaspora communities around the world. This works both ways, with the diaspora also engaging with people from their motherland while also educating non-Arabs about our different cultures. In many ways, it is giving Arab communities a chance to tell their own stories, countering the lack of representation in Western media outlets.
“I witnessed how beautiful and rich in history our culture is and developed a deep connection to my roots and felt a sense of belonging in my community, where I could be my truest self without experiencing discrimination or judgment,” says Tiana. “I will continue to promote that awareness through my [content] so that future generations will know and feel that they are a part of a wonderful community, full of love and support.”