Eva Zu Beck is a travel blogger whose YouTube videos from Pakistan have been going viral on social media, showing hidden tourist spots and moments from everyday life that challenge misconceptions about the country.
When Zu Beck first came to Pakistan earlier this year, the image she had been presented of the country was of “barren lands with deserts.” She was told it would be dangerous for her, especially as a solo female traveller. “Those kinds of images go through your head, and it is only when you get here, and only when you start digging in, that you realise that this is not the truth,” she tells Weekend Review. “That this is not the reality. The reality is actually quite the opposite. It is not the country of hostile people, it is actually a country of the most hospitable people. And it is not a country of barren landscapes, it is a country of the most diverse landscapes.”
Zu Beck’s work is part of a much larger trend. Until about a decade ago, many people still relied on traditional media outlets like newspapers and television to find out about countries. However, a lot of the news agenda tends to focus on matters like security and political problems, while other topics tend to get sidelined. This information vacuum is being filled by online content providers such as Zu Beck.
Among her most watched videos on Youtube is the one titled “What Western Media WON’T Tell You About ISLAMABAD”. The video has clips of Zu Beck driving through the streets of Islamabad, a city she describes as the greenest capital city she has visited. Zu Beck enjoys a drink at a cafe and goes shopping to a western style supermarket, buying fair-trade coffee and noting the many American brands on display she hadn’t even heard about before. She tours local food outlets that includes a European bakery run by a Polish baker, a Belgian restaurant and a well-known international franchises such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s. She also drives to the nearby Margalla Hills with a view to the beautiful city vista.
It is a world away from the portrayal of Pakistan’s capital city in the US TV show Homeland. “They sort of portray Islamabad as this place with this small little buildings, everything dusty everything crammed,” she says. “Unfortunately, [it is] the kind of image people have of this incredible place. Whereas I want to show an image of Islamabad that I lived almost everyday, and that side is of a perfectly modern city.”
Other videos from Zu Beck include one where she tries biryani and goes horse-riding at the beach in Karachi. In another, she attended a mountain-top marathon race in the northern areas. In a more recent video, she can be seen donning an Ajrak, a traditional shawl from Sindh, as she explores Gwador, Balochistan.
The making of a Youtube star
Zu Beck studied French and German at the University of Oxford. Prior to becoming a travel blogger she worked in London for a few years at a travel media start-up called Culture Trip. When she joined she was the first employee and worked on the editorial side. As the company grew, she moved into social media and supervised the production of travel videos on Youtube and Instagram.
She quit her job in London in January 2018. “When I left I felt I wanted to do something independently, like create something of my own. I had realised through my work with Culture Trip that video has this incredible power to convey messages, and to speak to people and to appeal to people,” she says.
Although she had worked with a video team, she had never actually edited a video herself. After quitting her job she bought a camera and spent several weeks watching Youtube tutorials on cameras, composition and video editing software. She visited various countries that included Pakistan, India, Nepal, China and Mongolia.
As a video blogger, in the beginning she felt awkward walking around talking into her camera with everyone staring at her. “It is the strangest feeling,” she says. With time, Zu Beck got more used to it. What helped was to imagine that she was on her own talking to an audience of 100,000 sitting in her camera.
In Pakistan, her favourite place is Swat — an area that suffered terribly under the Taliban. But today it is a tourist destination. For Zu Beck the place represents a story of resilience and a warrior spirit.
During a trip to Swat she recalls stopping at a local store to buy a purple shawl to use for some photographs at a lake. The shopkeeper told her the shawl was part of a dress. As she didn’t need the dress the shopkeeper suggested she borrow it. “We sort of took it and we went for the lake, we took the shot, we took the picture and we went back to town and went into the shop again,” she says.
She wanted to return the dress and find out how much she could offer for the dress. “I was sitting there in that shop with my friends for about 10 minutes trying to convince him, just take something. I feel so bad. I probably have much more means then you have, I want to express my feelings. And there is just no way he was taking that money. He was just saying, all I want to do is for you to put that picture and share it with your friends, and share it with your family, and just say that we are good people. I almost cried at that point. This is much bigger then I thought it was.”
When she was a child, her Polish family moved to the UK. It was around a year before Poland joined the European Union in 2004. “[There were] only two or three foreigners in my entire school,” she says. “It was hard. I moved there without speaking much English. Then obviously when Polish people started coming to the UK, a couple of years later, there was this growing misconception that all Polish people are like plumbers. Or all Polish people are cleaners.”
The reality was quite different. “Polish people came to the UK, some of them with Masters degrees, with doctorate,” she says. “[They] did menial jobs because they were in this terrible economic situation in Poland. All they wanted to do was make a decent living. And yet they were picked with all these stereotypes being bashed around and accused of being less worthy perhaps.”
More recently with Brexit, Polish people in London have suffered more xenophobia. She mentions graffiti and attacks on Poles that have taken place.
“For sure that has shaped the way I look at places and people, and how they can be misrepresented in media very easily,” she says. “And how they can be misused and attacked on invalid, unjust grounds. So definitely one thing that drives me is I feel that justice needs to be done to places which are misrepresented. I am very passionate about this and I feel like this is why I am still here because I feel like my mission is not complete. There is a lot more work to be done, but it is that sense of I want people to have the right idea. I don’t want people to be wrong. I want people to know the truth.”
Social media audience
On December 17, in a partnership with local telecommunications provider Jazz, she launched an interactive travel show about Pakistan that will be featured across social media channels. “My mission is to cover places that are not very well known to both Pakistanis and outsiders,” she says. The show, which has eight episodes, will come out every five days until late January and will cover the southern parts of Pakistan — Balochistan, Karachi and Sindh. “The show is for digital [audience]... Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. It is made with a social media audience in mind.” In the introductory video to the series she talks about Pakistan not getting a lot of positive coverage in the western media, and says she wants to change that narrative.
Recently, she was with her production crew for the documentary they are making. They were sitting there having breakfast in a dhaba [roadside restaurant] in Lahore. A man came up to them and introduced himself as a doctor who works for the UN. “I am sure he couldn’t have known that I am already doing this work,” she says. “He turned to me and he said, you are here in Pakistan now and we are so glad to have you here. I have heard from so many people that Pakistan has a really bad image. When you go back to your country, or when you go back to your community, please tell people about how peaceful we are. That this is a peaceful place, that this is a beautiful place. Write an article, write a blog post. Just tell people.”
After leaving the restaurant when they got in the car, a man came running out of the restaurant and shouting. “We sort of turned towards him, what is going on? And it turns out I have left my purse, with my passport with my money with everything in the restaurant. And he came running back to give it back to me. So it was a pretty overwhelming morning,” she says.
Zu Beck gets a lot of messages from overseas Pakistanis. Some may have only ever been to their village in Sindh or to Karachi, and watching travel videos on YouTube motivates them to explore the country more widely. Zu Beck also gets many gets messages from foreign travellers asking for advice on where to go and what the country is like.
She feels social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube create an intimacy with the audience. “You are a piece of content in someone else’s hand, in their smart-phones that they are holding with their hands,” she says. “There is a lot of intimacy I feel in that relationship. This is also what makes blogging so rewarding. It is not like the news. It is much more intimate. Much more closer. This is where your personality shines through a lot more. I feel like bloggers are not actors, they have to be very genuine, they have to be real. Because people don’t see you as a big celebrity on a pedestal, they see you as a friend.”
Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.