Nuseir Yassin, better known as Nas, is a Harvard graduate and a social media megastar with more than 10 million followers on Facebook. In 2016 he left his day job as a software developer to travel the world with his camera, documenting unique people and places through one-minute daily videos posted to Facebook, a journey that officially ends this week.
Years of zigzagging the globe from Australia to the Seychelles have taken their emotional toll on him, he admitted. The hardest part, he said in a recent interview, was dedicating every single day to the project; losing touch with friends and family and neglecting his girlfriend. “Never having 24 hours to myself means losing sovereignty over my life,” he said. “I don’t control my life; my videos control me. I still love it because it’s temporary, but I can’t do this forever.” He recalled being sick in Myanmar when no one was watching his videos. In Nigeria, on day 70, he was about to give up when after uploading a video he’d worked on all day he lost followers instead of gaining them.
“It felt like the end of the world,” he said. “I need to keep reminding myself that I don’t need a million people to watch my videos, all I need is one. If one person reaches out to me and says, ‘This is great, I love it, let’s be friends,’ I am just as content.”
My interview with Yassin took place on day 940 of his 1,000-day voyage. Walking down Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem, he could barely finish a sentence; constantly interrupted by star-struck fans stopping him for selfies or high-fives.
The original impetus for his trip, and his sense of mission, he said, came at the age of 13, when his father took him along to the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son. Born and raised in the city of Arraba in the Lower Galilee, the Arab teenager was in for a major culture shock. “I went there and sat with 13-year-old Jewish kids, and I swear I had nothing to say. Language barrier, culture barrier. I didn’t realize how impossible it would be to be friends,” he recalled. “It was my first time with Jews and it dawned on me: Who are these people?”
“In 19 years growing up in Israel I had no Jewish friends. Zero,” he said. That changed when he started meeting Jewish Israeli students at Harvard. “All of a sudden it was, ‘Hey, are you from Israel? I’m from Israel!’ We would speak in English, which was easier for me, and then we became friends,” he said.
Soon, he started wondering: “What’s up with these guys? They’re above-average successful, above-average smart. I really tried to understand why Jews are doing so well, either on the country level in Israel, or on the New York, Boston, or Harvard level.”
The Nas Daily Facebook page was the product of frustration, even anger, that Yassin carried with him for having such a compartmentalized upbringing, hemmed in on both sides. “I think I’m a big fan of Judaism,” he said, “something I discovered in the U.S., not Israel. Only when I came back here did I become ‘worthy enough’ of people to take me seriously and be my friend. I remember walking through bars in Tel Aviv when I was 19. Bro, nobody gave a f**k about me. I was just an Arab.”
“Arab Israelis don’t have the same voice as Jewish Israelis,” he continued. “If you look at the numbers, we are not equal. There are many reasons for this, some have to do with the fact that we are a bit primitive in the way we do certain things, others have to do with the government not giving us the same opportunities as Jews.”
Seeing Israeli restaurants advertising waiter jobs with “military experience preferred,” or realizing he couldn’t fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a commercial pilot due to post-9/11 security concerns, left him deeply frustrated. “All I care about is having access. I want it all,” he said. “To kill an Arab Israeli’s dream of wanting to fly when he realizes the hard truth that he can’t get that job is infuriating.”
Yassin now has his sights set on the day after Nas Daily. He already has a book contract in the United States to write about his experiences. He also plans to establish an agency that will connect corporations with 100 up-and-coming social media entrepreneurs like himself, with the goal of disseminating positive content online. His long-term goal is to enter Israeli politics.
“If you’re really influence-hungry, the most effective way to make change in Israel is to be in government,” he said. “Not to boycott it, not to rise above it and not care, but to vote. I’m sick of voting for the opposition. All Arabs vote for other Arabs, and I’m sick of voting for people who say ‘Israel doesn’t exist’ in the Knesset. How is this contributing to the conversation? I want to see Arabs in government. It’s about time we get to govern, too.”
That simple message doesn’t go down well everywhere. Yassin’s main opponents are fellow Arabs who frequently protest his videos from Israel.
“If you say the ‘I’ word in your videos, Israel, you’re automatically a normalizer, an Israeli Zionist, because you admit the country exists, which it does.” Nas argues that one can oppose Israeli government policies and still acknowledge its existence, just as one can criticize the acts of the Egyptian regime while liking Egypt. When dealing with sensitive issues, however, Yassin maintains a policy of “not poking the bear.” The bear, in his case, would be any netizen (online partisan) who corrects him by saying “it’s Palestine, not Israel.” Responding to such comments, he’s learned, only causes them to proliferate. “There are many times I do respond,” he admits, “and I regret it every time.”
The raison d’être of Nas Daily, he said, is to infuse followers with “one minute of tolerance every day.” But the deeper cause may be an urge to be liked and accepted for who he is. In a recent video, Yassin explained that the reason for his decision to limit his videos to one minute only was a sense that he was not worthy of more of their time.
“I’m a middle child, I’m brown, I’m Muslim, in Israel. There are many places where that insecurity could come from,” he explained. Gradually, however, Yassin has started producing longer videos, a testament to his growing self-confidence. “I feel now that if I leave 10 seconds of silence on the video, people will still care about what I have to say. It’s a great feeling.”
One of those longer videos, a four-minute clip titled “Jews vs. Arabs,” became Yassin’s most widely shared work, with over 58 million views. It was born by accident, while filming in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem. A racist exchange with a local resident who called Arabs stupid and barbaric was caught on camera, leaving Yassin speechless. But he did not exploit the incident to lambaste Jews; rather, he admitted that he’d heard similar slurs against Jews from Arab acquaintances. Yassin used the opportunity to endorse positive speech on television and social media.
“That video is where I got to really express my dissatisfaction with the way things are in Israel between Jews and Arabs, without having to attack Israel and without having to side with Palestine,” he said, explaining why he sees it as the most meaningful video he’s ever released. “It’s a wonderful feeling, because every time you say something is wrong with Israel, automatically you become an Arab Palestinian, and ‘you belong to them.’ Anytime you say something good about Israel, you’re anti-Palestine. This was the one case where Israelis, Jews, Muslims, everyone came together in agreement. It was the most beautiful thing ever. It showed that both sides suffer from racism.”
But for Yassin, being liked is just the means to a greater end. “Think of me as a Trojan horse,” he said. “I go where no one else can go. Look, if a bunch of Arabs like me in Egypt, that’s fine. However, if a bunch of Jews like me in the middle of Israel—in Tel Aviv, or Jerusalem, or a settlement—for me that’s much more important.”
“Every time I praise Israel, which is rarely, I make sure to counter it with a negative. I want to make sure I don’t become an Israel propagandist,” he continued. “However, many Jewish Israelis have no Arab friends. To be able to enter their bedroom, their most sacred place, on their phones, and have them see an Arab talk to them, sometimes in Arabic, that’s when I get them. My mission is to normalize the word Arab, normalize the word Muslim, and even normalize the word Israel. Nas Daily wants to show you the world the way it is: that Arabs can be successful, that Muslims can be tolerant, and that Israel can also exist.”
Other issues besides the Arab-Israeli conflict disturb Yassin, too. Two of his most viral videos dealt with the worsening condition of the Dead Sea and waste management in Singapore. He is also annoyed by the way day jobs work in corporate America, a lifestyle he wholeheartedly rejected when embarking on his voyage.
When hitting the road over two years ago, Yassin printed his emblem T-shirt, featuring a progress bar indicating that a third of his life had already been spent. He hopes to make the best of the rest. “I’m very anger-driven,” he admitted. “People don’t usually see it because I’m smiling all the time. I’m angry because the extremists get the most views and clicks and shares on social media. It honestly looks like the whole world is angry. In reality they are just the loudest, while moderate people like me and you keep silent.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.