The Two Faces of TikTokers Promoting Syrian Tourism

How young influencers are putting a Gen Z-friendly sheen on postwar life under Assad

The Two Faces of TikTokers Promoting Syrian Tourism
Screenshots from TikTok, illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

“Get ready with me to go clubbing with this bitch!” commands a recent TikTok posted by an Arab International University student named Patricia. In the clip, two college-aged women in one’s childhood bedroom apply bronzer, chat and listen to music as they prepare to go out to a party. Both wear the uniform of a 20-something in 2023 — denim and a going-out top — and one sports a tattoo along the blade of her collarbone.

The scene is a familiar one for young women everywhere, but the setting is not: The women are getting ready to go clubbing in Syria, a country that not so long ago was embroiled in a bloody civil war that killed upward of 500,000 civilians and displaced more than half of the country’s population of 21 million. According to a 2023 report on Syria by the U.N., 15.3 million people will require humanitarian assistance over the course of the year, including 2.1 million internally displaced persons living in last-resort sites; critical infrastructure and many essential services are on the brink of collapse; and an economy crippled by high inflation and sanctions has made essentials like food and clothes wildly unaffordable. The report explains that people in every one of Syria’s 270 subdistricts are experiencing humanitarian stress, and conditions in 203 areas are classed as severe, extreme or catastrophic.

To recap: Things in Syria aren’t great. But Patricia isn’t here to talk about all that. With more than 106,000 followers and counting, she’s one of a handful of young creators on TikTok who have begun to gain global followings with promises to show the “real” Syria, one that is remarkably different from the Western media’s depiction of a war-torn nation led by a maniacal dictator. In her videos, Patricia goes to techno parties on rooftops, hangs out with friends and explores the streets of Damascus.

“The media doesn’t show the beautiful places in Syria,” Patricia says in one video. “That’s why I started uploading in the first place, because I was like, people don’t know what Syria actually looks like, they think that it’s only damaged and there’s no beautiful places, we are not cultured, we don’t have fun and we just live in a war. No, it’s not like that. It’s actually the opposite of that.”

Tara, a 19-year-old Damascus native who’s studying psychology at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., has a similar perspective. Having grown tired of the ignorance her American peers would display when she would tell them she was going home to Damascus for the summer, Tara began creating TikTok videos of how she spends her days to show her friends what living in Syria is “really” like. Her videos, which show her going to the gym with friends, eating at trendy restaurants and vacationing on the beach at Latakia, quickly gained steam, netting her more than 30,000 followers.

“I just want people to know that Syria is really, really beautiful,” Tara told New Lines. “And as much as it went through the years of war, problems, it’s still here. And for me, it’s as beautiful as ever.”

Narrated in English and with an eye for dispelling stereotypes, the videos of the lives of Syria’s young TikTok creators are clearly meant to be consumed by a Western audience — and, judging by the comments sections, that’s exactly on whose “For You” pages they’re appearing. After all, close observers and certainly Syrians themselves have long known how the other half lives — that is, the wealthy and educated, often dual-passport holders, who were hosting lavish weddings at the Damascus Sheraton even as Raqqa fell to the Islamic State group. This elite is not representative of the majority of the country, or even of a significant minority. (The social milieu in which Tara and Patricia run is so small, in fact, they recently found themselves creating TikTok content at the same rooftop techno party.)

Though the divide between rich and poor existed long before the uprising started in 2011, the war has exacerbated income inequality and all but decimated the middle class, leaving wealth in the hands of those closely aligned with the regime as the rest of the country struggles. A 2019 study, conducted by the Damascus University economics professor Raslan Khadour, found that increasing inequality is a major reason that Syrians’ trust in one another and the government is falling, and that the distribution of wealth and income is feeding the country’s instability. The results of Syria’s economic disparity are evident in the two most popular kinds of Syrian TikTok creators: those like Patricia and Tara, who show life among the upper crust of Damascus, and refugees both inside and outside the country who have used the platform to beg for digital gifts they can cash in for basic necessities.

While the comments section of TikTok is not a place where issues of privilege are likely to be adequately debated, some followers do try. In one video, Patricia decries the difficulty of receiving free brand gifts due to the sanctions on Syria, to which one commenter shot back: “People are dying and omg they don’t have brands thats [sic] sad.”

“You think that I don’t know that there’s people that are dying, there’s people that don’t have a home because of the earthquake or because of the war, whatever it is?” Patricia responded. “Do you think that I don’t know that there’s people that are dying because of hunger, because they cannot afford food right now, because it’s really expensive? Do you think I don’t know that?”

The media shows plenty of the negative side of Syria, Patricia argues, which is why she doesn’t show it. “And if I only talk about the damaged parts in Syria, and if I only talk about how people are dying because of hunger, I’m going to get a lot of hate and saying that, ‘Oh, my God, she’s so negative. Oh, my God, she’s only documenting negative parts.’ So what do you want me to do? Literally, whatever I do, I’m going to get hate.”

The woman has a point.

It’s not that these creators haven’t suffered from the war or that their perspectives aren’t worth listening to. They have, and they are. Their content should be considered within the full context of Syria’s current reality, alongside the videos of displacement, starvation and regime violence, which aren’t as readily pushed into personalized TikTok feeds and are much more dangerous to capture and publish.

Whether wittingly or not, many young Syrian influencers on TikTok are putting a Gen Z-friendly sheen on content that happens to sound a lot like pro-Assad propaganda. And the content that influencers like Patricia and Tara are posting isn’t appearing in a vacuum: It’s cropping up at a time when Assad himself is on a nonapology tour of sorts, with the Arab League accepting him back into their good graces and global powers like China (many fear TikTok is ultimately answerable to the Chinese government) arguing on the world stage that U.S. sanctions against the regime should be dropped.

The Syrian government is also making efforts to grow its tourism sector, after the war halted it entirely for nearly 12 years. “We are now aiming to regain the tourism income from (Gulf Cooperation Council countries) to Syria,” Nedal Machfej, Syria’s deputy tourism minister, told Reuters in May. “We used to have millions of our friends and brothers from GCC countries in Syria, especially in summer.” In late 2022, Syria introduced 25 different new tourism projects, and has actively recruited a number of popular travel influencers from countries like the U.S., Ireland and France who vow to reveal the “real” Syria. As the human rights researcher Sophie Fullerton wrote in a Washington Post opinion column last year, recruiting travel bloggers “is ingenious since most travel influencers consider themselves apolitical, and their audiences are mainly interested in sights, sounds and flavors. The conventional tone of such videos is cheery, with little room for reminders of tragedy. To the extent that the videos acknowledge Syria’s destruction, it becomes part of the aesthetic, adding a hint of danger and pique to the adventure.”

The American YouTuber Drew Binsky boasts over 3 million subscribers. After a visit to Syria in 2019, he published a series of videos about his trip. “SYRIA IS AMAZINGGGG!” he wrote in a caption for one. “After 3 years of making $10 episodes in over 30 countries, this one in Syria is my favorite one yet!” The video shows everything you can get for $10 in Damascus, without acknowledging the dire economic problems that allow his $10 to stretch so far. These Western travel bloggers frequently skirt the political situation in Syria entirely, focusing on the country’s culture, food and art without stopping to reflect on the broader situation of the country. In an article about Western YouTube creators traveling to Syria, the Spanish travel blogger and Syrian tour organizer Jose Torres told The Guardian, “I will not say anything bad about the government, of course, because I’m risking detention. In which country where you go often, where there’s no freedom of speech, would you start saying bad things about the government?”

The punishment inflicted on Syrian citizens for speaking out against the government would be much harsher than simply being banned from traveling there, so it’s no wonder Syria’s TikTok creators also avoid addressing the issue. “The situation in Syria is pretty good now,” Patricia says in another video. “I can totally say that it is safe now. The only thing that is not that good you can say is the prices of things. We are still economically damaged. You can say right now we are suffering from the consequences of the war, you know what I mean? So everything is really expensive right now and we have sanctions applied on Syria as well so that sucks too. But in general it’s pretty good, life is pretty good here, and there’s a lot of people that ask is it safe to come to Syria nowadays: Yes it is safe and there’s a lot of beautiful places in Syria that you can visit, a lot of clubs that you can go clubbing, you can have fun here.”

Like Patricia and Tara, many of Syria’s TikTok creators have a deep desire to proudly show off their country, bucking racist and Islamophobic stereotypes and taking control of a narrative that often depicts Syria as on the brink of collapse. It’s an act of resistance against a negative global narrative, a way to remind the world that a country is its people, not its government. (Democrats who plodded ashamed through four years of the Trump administration should understand better than most the desire to distinguish between the people’s beliefs and the president’s.) After a decade of war, it’s also more than understandable to want to celebrate your nation’s resiliency, especially when its rich history stretches back many thousands of years, to the dawn of civilization. But that desire to show only the positive side of Syria often conflicts with the reality facing the majority of Syria’s population, who after years of war and natural disasters are struggling to find food, work and shelter. Like Tara and Patricia, many of the Syrian creators being pushed on TikTok are wealthy, educated and from religious minorities, a demographic typically (albeit sometimes uneasily) aligned with the Assad regime. They have not only enough money for food, shelter and clothing, but enough disposable income to dine out at restaurants, pay for gym memberships and go on vacations. They studied at pricey international schools and went on to attend private universities with hefty price tags. It’s as if the children of New York City’s elite took to TikTok to share “a day in the life of an American,” then showed themselves working out with a private trainer and shopping at Louis Vuitton before taking an Uber Black car over to Carbone for dinner.

Multiple narratives can be true at once, regardless of what Twitter might say. Syria’s young TikTok creators are making content that feels like a genuine reflection of their experience, yes, and are likely doing so with innocent intentions. Yet that experience is not only an uncommon one but one that also happens to align with the regime’s preferred perspective. After all, no TikTok account can represent the views of an entire country, especially one as fragmented as Syria.

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