Hannah Ziad. “Thanks to YouTube, I’ve built up my character." Goni Riskin

This Palestinian YouTube Star Is Captivating the Arab World. Just Don't Mention the Occupation

The tragic story that started it all and the crucial advice she got from her mother. With 740,000 followers, Hannah Ziad is the Holy Land's biggest YouTube star



“After three months of uploading videos to YouTube in English, I went to Mom, excited, and told her I had 13 subscribers,” the Palestinian YouTube vlogger Hannah Ziad says. “My mother looked at me and asked me why I was uploading videos in English. She said that there were already a lot of people doing that in English, but that if I uploaded in Arabic, people would take an interest in my story.”

Her mother was right on-target. Ziad, now 25, took her advice and today, three years later, she has 740,000 followers on YouTube and a total of 44 million views, as well as a flourishing Instagram page. The viewers, most of them young women, come from across the Arab world – from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Palestine. By comparison, the YouTube channel of Israel’s commercial Television News Company has 80,000 followers. A Ziad clip in which she jokes about sisterly relations has chalked up two million views. She might soon become known outside the Arab community, too: She’s one of the stars, along with three other YouTubers, of “Upload,” a charming series by Israeli film producer and director Barak Heymann, which will soon start broadcasting on Kan public television.

Why did you start off vlogging in English?

Ziad: “I felt that my Arabic wasn’t good enough, that people would think I was a spy because of the way I look. I was afraid that people in my neighborhood would laugh at me and criticize me. I was really scared when I did my first video in Arabic. But by the end of that day, which was also my 22nd birthday, I already had 1,000 followers. Since then I realized that I need to listen to Mom.”

That fear-driven moment was also the genesis of the greeting Ziad is identified with: She begins every clip with a cordial “Ahlan, ahlan” – “hello,” in Arabic – accompanied by a small hand gesture. “‘Ahlan, ahlan’ is a terrific motto,” she explains. “It’s how I open every video. The fact that I was scared helped me.”

Ziad, who holds dual citizenship – her mother is American – lives in an affluent neighborhood across the Green Line. She doesn’t want to reveal its name, or even say what city it’s situated in, because in the past another female vlogger, from Jenin, was hassled by neighbors. In her clips, she states only that she’s broadcasting from “occupied Palestine.”

Ziad has been uploading videos to YouTube for the past three years. Until a year ago, she made a reasonable living from the money Google, the owner of YouTube, paid her based on the number of views. The videos she produced with her home camera were watched by an audience of hundreds of thousands and earned her 6,000 shekels a month (about $1,400). But the good times have passed: Google has revised its algorithms, and these days she gets paid much less. The views generate only enough for pocket money, she says.

The inspiration to become a web star came from the British vlogger Zoella, whose YouTube success made her a millionaire. “Zoella is always talking about the clothes she bought,” Ziad notes. “I thought that I could also make videos like that. I’ll shop during the day and at night I’ll video what I bought. I thought that what turns me on would do the same for others.”

Others who have influenced her are “Two Sisters Tube,” mischievous sisters from Gaza who specialize in do-it-yourself videos and who have about 1.5 million followers. One of their classic clips sets out to examine what it’s like to eat spicy falafel with Nutella hazelnut spread. “They’re really exciting,” Ziad says enthusiastically about the sisters, “especially because people don’t expect videos like that from women who wear the hijab and live in the Gaza Strip.”

Ziad has two YouTube channels. The primary one, with half-a-million followers, focuses on “tips, fashion and whatever I feel like doing.” The second one, called “Everything about Hannah,” with 240,000 followers, deals with “things I do, if you want to get to know me better.”

In one video, Hannah asked viewers to tell her how old they are – most of them are apparently 10 to 15 years old. In general, the responses she gets are variations on “I love you,” followed by a slew of hearts. She vlogs on her first channel once a week, generally focusing on fashion and grooming – for example, how to comb one's hair quickly before school, how to make a crown of shells or how to apply makeup. The videos often slide into commercial content. Among her sponsors, Ziad says, is a Korean-style cosmetics company – and sure enough, in one of her clips, she demonstrates how to remove blackheads on the nose using one of the firm’s products, ponders whether to recommend it and in the end gives her okay.

Sponsors also lurk in the list of accessories she recommends taking on a trip abroad. It includes glue for false eyelashes. I’m not among the target audience for false eyelashes, but I can attest that the secret of the videos’ allure lies in Ziad’s natural, heart-melting charm. It also comes across in the videos that don’t deal with grooming, like the one about an inclination to laziness. In it, we see Ziad lying in bed and trying to turn off the light without getting up, by throwing cushions at the light switch. Finally she shouts to her sister to save her.

According to Ziad, her videos are not improvised but actually have scripts. The photographers are her mother and her sisters, although sometimes neighbors also volunteer to do the camera work. “People in my neighborhood like vloggers,” Ziad says. “They come and ask if they can be in the next video. Usually I ask my sisters to help, but they’re getting fed up with it. So these days the neighbors help even more.”

Her second channel is a kind of video blog in which she talks about her life. For example, about a family trip to Jericho, focusing on the hotel and pool there, or about her attempt (which failed) to upload a daily photo to Instagram. A female commenter from Syria wrote, “I love you,” Ziad relates. “It’s madness. There’s a war going on there. How do they even have internet?” she asks, astonished. “And if they do, is this what they watch? I was glad she wrote me, but the whole thing was also weird. I responded by telling her that I love her.”

Maybe they have fashion vloggers there, too?

“I never thought of that. But how can they even upload a video? It’s a war zone.”

Ahead of the annual Ramadan month-long dawn-to-dusk fast (this year, it fell during May-June), many of Ziad’s videos deal with the holiday, including an attempt to create a series of (cute) horror movies to help pass the time. In the wake of the “vlogmas” trend – Christmas-oriented video blogs – Ziad says she tried to create a “vlogdan” oriented toward Ramadan. “I photographed myself preparing things, what to eat ahead of the fast. There were good responses,” she says.

A visit to Tel Aviv to meet with Israeli vloggers proved enjoyable. She had a cordial conversation with local YouTube star Shachar Soikis (180,000 followers), she recalls. She assumes that he thought she was an American when they met, because of her English, and was flabbergasted when he saw her channel afterward for the first time and realized she’s Palestinian. “I hope there will be more Palestinian vloggers,” she says.

Ziad also has admirers off screen. During our meeting in a café – for which she arrives wearing false eyelashes and a pink hat – someone recognizes her and comes over. “In Arab cities, people sometimes don’t let me leave,” she relates. “In the Old City of Jerusalem, with those narrow alleys, they can really close me in. I can only pass unnoticed if I hide myself somehow. So it’s more convenient for me to meet in Israeli areas, where I’m not so well known. It’s mostly girls who come over and want a picture with me, but at parties I go to as part of my livelihood [her name appears on invitations to help sell tickets], it’s mostly boys.”

Additional revenues come from sponsoring ads of Palestinian, Israeli and international companies, and from showing up as a YouTube celeb at the above-mentioned glittering parties – especially in sin city: Ramallah. For half a year Ziad hosted a television program about technology on the Musawa channel. Still, to pay the bills she also works as a secretary in an Israeli hotel that's part of an international chain.

She won’t accept sponsorship from just any company, she says: “When a company approaches me to become a sponsor, I check to make sure they’re not connected to any political organization. If I find out that it’s something political – Palestinian or Jewish – I won’t work with them.”

What do you mean?

“For example, I didn’t accept Hoodies [sweatshirt manufacturer] as a sponsor, because of their ad with [Israeli supermodel] Bar Refaeli in a burka. I didn’t like that. They say that to take off the burka means freedom? They should have made clips of a woman with a burka and a woman without a burka shaking hands, because each chose what’s best for them. Or a guy with a kippa shaking hands with a guy who’s not wearing a kippa. If an Arab woman wants to wear a burka, that’s her right, just like I have the right to wear what I want. Should a Jewish woman tell me, a Muslim, what to wear?”

Ziad says she is a YouTube devotee. “I like to express myself. Thanks to YouTube, I feel that I’ve built up my character. The girls in high school were abusive to me. I don’t wish on anyone what I went through. They spread lies about me, they tried to ruin my life. Today those same girls, who wouldn’t even say ‘Good morning’ to me before, brag that they went to school with me.”

The ugly duckling story?

“Something like that.”

Intifada or eyeliner

Hannah Ziad’s success story rests on a tragic foundation. Eight years ago, her father, the Palestinian entrepreneur Ziad Jilani, was killed by Israeli Border Police. Amira Hass published several articles in this newspaper about how Jilani died. What emerges is that after prayers on Friday, June 11, 2010, Jilani, who owned a successful business selling massage chairs, started to make his way home. On the way, he called his wife so she would get the girls ready for a trip to the beach. But stones thrown at police officers on a busy street in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of East Jerusalem struck his car. Frightened, Ziad tried to flee, lost control of his car and wounded four Border Policemen lightly. Thinking he was a terrorist, the Israeli forces started firing in all directions, even though the street was packed with people on a Friday afternoon. A 5-year-old girl in a car was shot and injured. Jilani turned into an alley where relatives lived, got out of the car and started to run. Policemen pursued him and shot him in the back, and he collapsed. Even though he no longer posed a threat, a Border Policeman shot him in the head twice at close range.

The media reported that it had been a ramming attack. The Justice Ministry unit that investigates police officers decided to close the case, and three Supreme Court justices ruled that it was a reasonable decision. Moira, Jilani’s widow, received compensation, but never got an apology for her husband’s killing, which the family characterizes as “murder.”

Thus, at 17, Hannah had to cope with her father’s death, with accusations of terrorism and with the results of the proceedings taken against the shooter. Her schoolwork suffered, she recalls, and her mother was devastated. But it was her father’s death that led her to become a fashion vlogger. Her professional name, too, comes from her father’s first name.

“I was inconsolable after my father’s death,” she says. “The YouTube videos kept me going. I was already traumatized by the abuse I took in school, because my Arabic wasn’t good. And then came my father’s murder. I had to get it all out of my gut, and it was an opportunity to talk the way I wanted to.”

Making fashion clips for the internet seems like an unusual way to mourn.

“That was my way. That’s how I fight for the place of my happiness. I want to talk about good things, there’s no need to think about bad things. There are religious people and pro-Palestinians who want to use me like a playing card, but I don’t want to have anything to do with politics, only to talk about hairdos. There’s a minority who are angry at me, who wrote ‘You are not a Palestinian.’ Or, ‘Why don’t you tell people what’s being done to the Palestinians?’ But this isn’t a YouTube news channel. I don’t think that just because someone is a Palestinian, he has to be political and occupy himself with the intifada. A Palestinian can simply live, too.”

The father’s tragic demise led to two decisions in the family that were opposites, to a certain degree: Ziad became a fashion star, while her mother, who wore a hijab during the days of mourning, decided to go on wearing it.

Hannah recounts that, “My sisters and I were frightened when we saw Mother in the hijab. My father fasted during Ramadan, but none of us was actually religious. Mom always went around in short clothes, and we were angry at her over the change. In time, we started to get used to it. But since she started wearing the hijab, it’s been harder to be in Israeli areas, especially in Jerusalem. She feels more comfortable in Tel Aviv, which is less racist toward us.”

“After the death I was against the whole world,” says Hannah’s mother, Moira, 53. “I fought to prove to everyone that Ziad was innocent. I lost touch with the girls somewhat. They thought I wanted to get them to wear the hijab, too. I said that Father wouldn’t have agreed to that. I’m a believer, but religion is less important to me – it’s people who are important to me. Even though I chose Islam [she converted before her husband was killed], I don’t agree with everything. I am a feminist, and I’m irritated by people who don’t shake my hand and don’t look me in the eyes. I don’t trust them. I pray, but I meditate more. It’s all the same thing, really.

“From my point of view, to wear the hijab is activism,” she adds. “When I sit on a bus now, no one sits next to me, except for older Mizrahi [Jews], who saw Muslim women in their childhood. The Russians don’t care, either. One time I was on the light-rail train [in Jerusalem] and an American woman with six children and a stroller got on. I was sitting and there were four empty places next to me. They all stood and looked at me like I had a bomb. Are you stupid or something? If I had a bomb, you should have gotten off. I guess that’s how blacks in America probably feel.”

Or ultra-Orthodox Jews in places with anti-Semitism.

Moira: “Exactly. I never felt hatred like that [directed at me] until I started wearing the hijab.”

Before Jilani’s death, the family was thinking they might try their luck in the United States. “Dad wanted to go to America, and I thought about going to Tel Aviv University,” says Hannah Ziad, who speaks some Hebrew and prefers hanging out in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “In western Jerusalem, everything is fine until they hear you speaking Arabic. I don’t like that. I prefer to go to Dizengoff [Street, in Tel Aviv] or to Jaffa.”

Even though all members of the family have dual citizenship and could move to the United States, it’s more important for Moira to be part of Palestinian society and to continue to foster Ziad Jilani’s legacy. “Mom’s sister [in the United States] keeps saying we should leave. They think there are tanks in the streets here,” Ziad says.

Where will you be in another five years?

Ziad: “If there’s no war, I’m here. If there is, go look for me in Texas. But there’s no doubt that I will always want to live next to Mom. Even if I marry, I won’t leave and I will go on being with her.”

What would you say to the person who killed your father if you met him?

“I don’t care about him. Why give something to an evil person? I don’t want to think about him. I just think he’s not humane, to destroy the life of a person who never did anything to you. He took the life of someone who helped me so much and inspired me.”

'Still a Muslim'

Moira is very supportive of her daughter’s occupation. “I am very happy with anything that will allow my daughter to move ahead and makes her happy,” she says, adding, “I’m proud of her.” Still, she admits that she herself rarely watches the videos. “I don’t speak Arabic well enough to understand them,” she explains. “People call and say they like Hannah. On the street, people say to me, ‘You’re Hannah’s mother, give me an autograph, take a picture with me.’ I explain that I am not Hannah. It’s a bit awkward. I’m happy for her success but also worried. I also hear about cases of ‘honor’ murders in the Arab society. Women in certain areas here have to cope not only with the Israeli occupation but also with the male occupation.”

Hannah Ziad doesn’t like to talk about the criticism she gets; Moira is more forthcoming: “Some of my husband’s family were against what Hannah does on YouTube,” she says. “They called and asked me to demand that she remove certain videos. I even thought about moving to Pisgat Ze’ev [a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem], where it’s cheaper to live and where it would be more convenient for Hannah. But Hannah didn’t agree, she said there would be racists there, that there would be a problem with my hijab. I said I would wear a hat, and she said I must not take off the hijab for anyone. I was very proud, and also surprised. To those who don’t like the way she dresses, I say, 'Who cares what she wears?’ Look at how respectful she is of people. At least she’s still a Muslim. If people keep pressuring her, she will become an atheist. I told them, you’re not going through what I went through since my husband died. Don’t mess with me.”

One of Ziad’s most interesting videos was shot in 2015, in both Arabic and English versions, and drew 900,000 views. In it she reveals 50 facts about herself. It starts off calmly. The first fact is that her feet are size 37 (U.S. size 7), though she buys size 38 shoes. Her favorite color, not surprisingly, is pink, but she also likes green. But when she gets to fact No. 11, she matter-of-factly relates how her father was killed and that the person who shot him is free. She then proceeds to inform viewers that she likes sushi and that her family is raising 10 dogs and 13 cats (now they have 17).

This is characteristic of the fusion Ziad creates, which attaches importance to even the small things in life. Of her love for animals, she notes that in the past, Arabs didn’t raise dogs, but today it’s a trend. “Many young Arabs today are buying dogs,” she says. “But it’s more to show that you have money or that they can protect themselves. We in the family usually adopt from the street.”

Ziad is currently working with a designer from Bethlehem on a fashion line for an online store. “I want tops and sweaters, merchandise branded for the channel.” She’s thinking about studying fashion and dreams of becoming a fashion designer. A year ago, she was flown to a Google YouTubers conference in London. Now she’s dreaming of organizing a Palestinian version of “Rewind Israel,” which sums up each year in the country in Hebrew via YouTube.

“Why not do ‘Rewind Palestine’?” she asks. “We could also combine, and do Palestine vloggers versus Israel vloggers.”

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