'Shawarma King' Nasser Al-Rayess has Arab-American comedy wrapped up
For many Arabs growing up in the diaspora, finding your place in the world where you feel you truly belong can be a struggle, as your identity inevitably becomes a mix between the cultures of your motherlands and that of where you live. Call it the age-old Third Culture Kid identity crisis.
For Syrian American stand-up comedian, social media star, and fan-branded ‘Shawarma King’, Nasser Al-Rayess, the tale reads similarly. Except, Nasser found his refuge through comedy, which helped him come home to himself as he accessed, connected to and embraced parts of his cultural identity like never before.
"I want to make Arab culture mainstream… we’ve already been pushed away too much, it's time to bring our culture to the forefront and say, you like it? Amazing. You don’t? Then move to the side"
With an intention to revolutionise Arab-American comedy, Nasser – who has amassed over 150 million views across TikTok alone – is striving to push Arab culture into the mainstream entertainment world, as he continues to captivate audiences on his journey of unapologetic self-acceptance.
“I want to make Arab culture mainstream… we’ve already been pushed away too much, it's time to bring our culture to the forefront and say, you like it? Amazing. You don’t? Then move to the side,” Nasser told The New Arab.
His interactive comedy show Habibi Nights – which he has toured in Dubai and is soon taking across the US – provides a unique experience that combines comedy, music, entertainment, and audience interaction, to create a traditional Arab ‘sahra’ – gathering.
“Sowing the Arab culture” throughout the show is also important to him, as he strives to hold his shows in venues that offer traditional Arabic food and argileh – hookah.
“There’s no way I could have a comedy show and people are eating chicken tenders… you’re gonna be eating shawarma!” he says laughing.
“The whole set is about discovering who I am being an Arab-American, the jokes that come out of it, and the identity crisis, the back and forth between, am I Arab [or] American enough,” Nasser stated, explaining the show is all “about the audience having a good night.”
However, forming this connection with his cultural identity took time. Living in a post-9/11 America and attending a Catholic school with no ethnic or religious diversity, the Muslim comedian felt the need to push his Arab identity “to the side” to divert any negative attention his family feared could arise from it.
“You do what you need to do to succeed,” he told The New Arab, explaining events like the Boston Marathon bombings made “fitting in” harder, as he would become the butt of his peers’ racist jokes.
However, attending an international college, and growing closer with his cousins who grew up in the Middle East, allowed Nasser to witness people being met with acceptance while being unapologetically themselves.
“It started to bring me back into [thinking] you can be who you are and still be accepted, you don’t have to change the way you say your name or the way you talk… my cousins really played a massive role in reminding me the beauty of that,” Nasser told The New Arab.
“That to me opened a door… by the time I graduated I realised I am so proud to be Arab, and that only grew,” he added.
"I want my kids to grow up in a world where they don’t have to choose between being Arab and American, they can just be Arab American and be proud of who they are"
Before graduating in 2018, Nasser was used to creating media content for his schools and the extra-curricular activities he was a part of. However, post-graduation, he started to create content for his own channels.
It wasn’t until Covid hit in 2020, that he began to make videos about his cultural identity, and following his success realised he found his niche.
Creating such content naturally brought memories of what it meant to grow up as an Arab, flooding back, which further strengthened his connection to and confidence in his Arabness.
“Throughout this entire process I’ve got more in touch with who I am and being Arab than I did before, it’s a process still, there’s still different ways the diaspora’s affected by an identity crisis, but now I’m so much more confident in who I am."
Talking about culture through a comedic lens has recently made Nasser more conscious about making what he calls “low-hanging fruit” jokes, such as calling out “toxic Arab men or women”. Despite acknowledging that he too is privy to making such content, he voiced concern that such videos could reinforce harmful stereotypes and “self-inflicted hate” and says he is reconsidering some of his content as a result.
“I’ve done this and I’m trying to do better by making content that’s more positive for the culture… when we make jokes about ourselves… they don’t push us forward,” he says, stating he would rather move towards focusing on relatability in terms the way Arabs were raised and the “beauty of the culture.”
A series of videos Nasser is also loved for, as the “Shawarma King”, are his shawarma reviews. Nasser has filmed dozens of reviews of shawarma across the world. Getting passionate about what makes the ultimate shawarma, Nasser told The New Arab the best place he’s tasted it was in Syria and Lebanon.
“They take the bread into the grill and [sound effects] pow pow, then they take it into the oil [sound effects] pow pow, it gets crispy and juicy… the chicken has to be seasoned perfectly… and the bread meshes into the juices of the chicken and the zestiness of the toum… habibiiii you lose your mind,” he says, adding that it has to have been made with love.
The comedian intends to reach 100 shawarma reviews and eventually open his own shawarma store.
And that’s not all. With his sights set on becoming “the biggest Arab comedian in the world,” Nasser’s ultimate goal is to be the first Arab-American and Muslim to host the Tonight Show, stating that “if you don’t think you can be the best and the biggest, you won’t get there.”
Excited about the future, and the prospect of Arab culture becoming more widely celebrated, Nasser emphasised his willingness to work towards making his culture mainstream in the entertainment world, with hopes it could help Arabs across the diaspora feel more confident and unapologetic about their cultural identities.
“I want my kids to grow up in a world where they don’t have to choose between being Arab and American, they can just be Arab-American and be proud of who they are," he says.
“Inshallah here is to more and more confidence in ourselves as we move forward. Confidence in our stories, in our culture, upbringing, in our names, in our families, in our food, in our music, in the way we dress, everything.”
Aisha Aldris is a London-based journalist who writes on social and humanitarian issues alongside culture and the arts
Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris