Changing narratives and fostering inclusion with Yalla! Let's Talk
Mays Alwash, also Canadian but of Iraqi heritage, found a way to connect to her hybrid identity, shaped by the experiences of herself and of those around her.
Coming together to express their Arab identity, the two created Yalla! Let's Talk, a safe space for Arabs across all walks of life to connect, share their stories and promote their creativity. Tolerance is at the heart of their ethos, by creating a space for Arabs of all religions, sexualities and other walks of life.
"Everyone has a different definition of 'Arabness'. I barely speak Arabic, but I heavily identify as Arab through food and common values such as hospitality to guests and other lived experiences," Hani told The New Arab.
"For me, my Arab identity has always been complex because as a Palestinian who was born in Kuwait, I heavily identified with Palestine, but when I was in Canada, I was more aware of the way growing up in Kuwait shaped my identity. It's never straightforward," he added.
For Mays, who speaks Arabic fluently, language is rooted in her identity. "I relate to my Arab roots through my language and food, but when it comes to whether I identify more through being exclusively Iraqi or Arab, I'd say I embrace the wider Arab identity," she said.
Without having a strict definition for what it means to be Arab, the co-founders decided to embrace all interpretations of Arab identities and embraced inclusion and tolerance as their ethos.
|Without having a strict definition for what it means to be Arab, the co-founders decided to embrace all interpretations of Arab identities and embraced inclusion and tolerance as their ethos|
The start of a movement
The original idea for Yalla! Let's Talk was a talk-show style YouTube channel, Hani explained.
"My idea was to have a YouTube channel to have open dialogue about under-represented issues in the Arab world, but that idea fell flat. Mays came and suggested to take it to the real world through hosting events so we worked together on them, which became very successful," Hani explained.
"In 2018, we started off with events Toronto, but as they became more popular, we began to expand out to other cities, such as Montreal, Ontario and London in the UK," he added.
Mays explained the events were usually podium events and mini conferences which grew each time.
"By February 2020, we were able to host an Arab conference which had an attendance of 400 people."
They expanded into hosting more intimate casual events called the YLT Café, in which they partnered up with local cafés for Arabs to gather and discuss anything and everything.
They grew fast and so did their impact. Then the pandemic hit and it seemed that their mission took to a standstill.
"What happened during the pandemic was our community actually rallied behind us and our cafés turned virtual and global," Mays explained.
"Their support is what gave us the success we have today."
An emotionally available space of support
Inclusivity is at the heart of Yalla! Let's Talk. For them, no topic is off limits and their aim is to make sure every Arab is able to come as they are and find acceptance and support.
"We are very diverse, but all have similar struggles which bring identities together. Even as an Arab Canadian, my micro-community has its own struggles, but we are all humans, navigating life. Being from different communities means we deal with our struggles in different ways," Mays explained.
|We are very diverse, but all have similar struggles which bring identities together|
Identity can also change ways universal experiences of life can be dealt with. "When you enter your 20s, life issues take a toll on your identity as well. Stuff like dating and career can have culture specific connotations and through understanding, we work through them together," Hani said.
The two foster an environment inclusive for all people. LGBTQ+ members of the Arab community are embraced with open arms and their space is one for introspection to figure out how Arabs as a collective can do better with sensitive issues such as gender, race and topics that seem taboo in the Arab world.
"We had an event for Valentine's Day called 'Yalla! Let's Talk, Ya Romancy' for singles and couples. Inclusion was at the heart of our event and we had Arabs who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community speaking openly and feeling free to be themselves," Mays said.
Over 1,000 people signed up for the event.
Yalla! Let's Talk also use their social media to promote Arab content creators by reposting their work and collaborating with influencers. Their Instagram page currently has over 50,000 followers and is continuing to grow fast.
They explained their mission is behind their rapid growth. For them, their intention of supporting content creators and to addressing issues that Millennial and Gen-Z diaspora Arabs relate to is their main reason behind their rapid growth.
They collaborate with TikTokers, especially ones who are up and coming to give them extra support in boosting their reach, which in turn exposes Yalla! Let's Talk's own audience to relatable content.
"Our social media growth came organically because we wanted to create a platform to support Arab creatives within our overall mission of creating an open space for all Arabs. When they win, we win," Mays explained.
The topics they cover has created backlash, especially by more conservative members of Arab society. For Mays and Hani, this is just a part of the job.
"If someone disagrees with us, they should feel comfortable to speak their opinion. This happens at the café all the time and we have some very productive discussions," Hani explained.
"What isn't tolerated is hate speech," he added, saying they instantly block and delete hate comments targeted at any of the influencers they work with or would be offensive to some.
At the heart of Yalla! Let's Talk, is the open environment for all Arabs, which has led to them being condemned by some religious people for discussing things that may seem Islamically unacceptable.
"We are not a religious organisation; we are Arabs from all walks of life. There are Muslim Arabs, along with Christian, Jewish, Atheist and Agnostic and we make sure the space is for everyone," Mays asserted.
Their open approach to 'Arabness' has also allowed them to garner a following of Arabs inside the Arab world as well.
"A lot of the Arabs who live the Middle East also have complex identities. They can live in an Arab country different to where they're from and still be diaspora, or could just go to a private British or American school and have Western culture rub off on them in that way," Hani said.
"From there, they don't relate to us directly as Western Arabs, but through connecting with like-minded people and co-creating a safe, intellectual and emotionally intelligent ecosystem within the Arab sphere," he added.