Maha Jaafar, a UAE-based dentist, is one of YouTube’s up and coming stars, praised for her ability to unite Arab cultures by impersonating different regional accents.
The 24-year-old, who is of Sudanese-Iraqi heritage and graduated from Ajman University, has been named a fellow of YouTube's Creators for Change programme, aimed at boosting the profile of innovators whose videos promote "empathy and understanding".
YouTube faced many challenges over the past 12 months, Juniper Downs, global head of public policy and government relations, told the 2018 Creators for Change Summit in London. The video-sharing platform was criticised for failing to remove offensive material from its site in a timely manner. Amid the terrorist attacks of last year, YouTube was criticised by the United States and the United Kingdom for not taking extremist content down from its website quickly enough.
In December, the company then faced a PR disaster when one of its biggest stars, Logan Paul, posted a video showing the body of a suicide victim in Japan.
In an attempt to show that it is taking these issues seriously, YouTube has announced it will spend US$5 million (Dh18.4m) on Creators for Change, which aims to amplify the voices of stars who “counter hate and promote tolerance”.
Jaafar, who was raised in Sharjah and Dubai, told The National about her journey to fame and how she became a Creator for Change fellow.
“It all happened by coincidence; I was sitting through my final year of dentistry when I posted one video to have fun with my friends,” she says.
“The video went viral and I found people asking me, ‘Where are the rest of your videos?’ So I started producing more videos and putting them on YouTube because I decided it was the platform for it.”
Jaafar’s videos show her impersonating various cultures, mimicking Arabic accents from countries such as Iraq, Sudan, Egypt and Lebanon. She occasionally also takes on some English language accents. Her online success, which only started two years ago, has led her to being featured on a comedy channel in Jordan.
“People get confused where I’m from so that’s why it got really viral, so I started impersonating different characters doing comedy sketches,” she says.
Jaafar's videos have proved a hit among young people, who can relate to the issues she raises about growing up in the Middle East. However, she has also had positive responses from children and older people who subscribe to her channel.
“It talks to everyone, especially everyone Arab,” she says. “But that’s my goal for my YouTube channel, to spread culture and promote love between people.”
Like most YouTubers, Jaafar has also faced some criticism for reinforcing cultural stereotypes.
For example, in one of her videos she does an impression of a Sudanese aunt pressuring her niece into getting married while she is still studying. But she has avoided any strong backlash, by – in her words – being good at what she does.
“I do it [the accents] really well. If I’m doing an Egyptian, then they think I’m Egyptian so people don’t really get offended,” she says.
“I also work really hard to not be offensive. I have a very high bar where I decide what to post. I’m very careful.”
Speaking about joining the Creators for Change programme, Jaafar says her imitations bring people together.
“The programme is really about fighting hate speech, extremism and xenophobia. It’s to promote love, tolerance and understanding,” she says. “I imitate accents and I do different characters but – at the same time as making people laugh – I do it to connect different cultures together to show the similarities that we have.”
A huge key to Jaafar's success in a region where conflict is prevalent, is her deliberate avoidance of discussing political or religious issues. "It saves me a lot of hassle," she says. "In the Arab world, politics and religion are very sensitive topics because everyone has problems with everything. My goal is to connect people and not separate them, and once you start talking about these things people get separated. So it's very comfortable to avoid it."
The Creators for Change programme includes fellows and ambassadors who discuss social issues over direct politics, including L-Fresh the Lion, a Sikh hip-hop artist from Sydney who uses his music to connect with those who feel like outsiders, and the American satirist, Tasneem Afridi, who uses her sketches to challenge portrayals of Muslims in the media.
At the London event, speakers make a conscious effort not to use the T-word. US president Donald Trump, that is.
During the programme, Syrian refugee and award-winning filmmaker Hassan Akkad gave a harrowing account of his flight from the Bashar Al Assad regime in Damascus and his journey to London, while Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, injured in 2012 by a Taliban gunman, discussed girls’ education. Both speakers received standing ovations from the room of YouTube content creators.
Jaafar, who interviewed Yousafzai, spoke for many YouTubers in the room when she said she had been inspired by the Pakistani education activist’s words.
“I had actually tears in my eyes after I was finished,” she said.
The vlogger, who juggles balancing her comedy career with her busy day job as a dentist, has her own advice for those who want to emulate her stardom.
“Although I still feel like I have a long way to go, being here [as a Creator for Change] is a major success in my life and it’s a major honour,” she says. “I do this because I really want to, everything I produce and everything I put out there is genuine. I got here because I love what I do.”