How an African Muslim immigrant developed his passion for creating — through filmmaking, acting, and photography — at Notre Dame

Author: Hailey Oppenlander

Naj Stage 1200

Naj Stage 1200Naj Harrabi, on stage at a rehearsal for Steve Martin’s WASP, a one-act play he directed for ND Theatre Now.


Naj Harrabi describes himself as someone who needs to create — whether it’s writing stand-up comedy, directing a play on campus, submitting original films in student film festivals, or even designing new courses.

“There’s really nothing I can think of that’s pushing me, other than this inner impulse to do it — and that’s the most gratifying thing,” said Harrabi, a 2019 Notre Dame graduate.

Naj Faculty 1200Harrabi with his family, then-FTT chair Jim Collins (far right) and associate professor Olivier Morel (far left) after receiving the 2019 FTT Chair’s Award, presented to a student who engages in extensive work across the department’s concentrations.

As a film, television, and theatre major, Harrabi’s drive was channeled into his academic interests and involvement on campus. 

In fall 2018, he directed a one-act play for ND Theatre Now, a completely student-run production. He has also submitted films for the annual Notre Dame Student Film Festival, played the role of Jesus in FTT’s production of Christ’s Passion, and made a photography book about immigrants’ journeys to the United States.

While Harrabi says he is never completely pleased with a finished project, he pushes himself and his coworkers to their fullest potential. Now, he's taken that determination to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he's pursuing a graduate degree in film and was awarded USC’s George Lucas Graduate Fellowship — the most prestigious graduate fellowship at the most prestigious graduate film program in the world. 

“Ultimately, what impresses me most about Naj is not just the ferocity of his intellectual curiosity — it is his determination to constantly refine his craft as a filmmaker, photographer, and actor,” said James Collins, chair of the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre. “While I have encouraged him to pursue an MFA in filmmaking, he could just as easily go on to a graduate program in studio art or theatre. He is, first and foremost, an artist who wants to tell stories.

“Ultimately, what impresses me most about Naj is not just the ferocity of his intellectual curiosity — it is his determination to constantly refine his craft as a filmmaker, photographer, and actor.”    

The human condition

Passion, drive, and creativity made Harrabi a perfect candidate for the Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program. With summer funding from the program, he has been able to continue following his passion. 

Naj Set 1200Harrabi (right) at Conan O’Brien’s desk while interning at the host’s TBS talk show.

He spent a summer at Second City in Chicago performing stand-up comedy, writing comedic material, and taking classes.

Then, last summer, Harrabi worked as a script intern for Conan O’Brien’s TV show during the day, and performed at open mic events at night. 

“It was an unpaid internship, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without Hesburgh-Yusko,” he said.

Each of these experiences has given Harrabi the chance to use his creativity to gain insight into the human experience.

“My goal is to eventually act and direct film and stage — and to master this craft, you need to have a strong understanding of the human condition,” Harrabi said. “You can know lenses, you can know technical stuff, but you really need to know how to tell a story and how to ask the right questions.”

Naj Flappers 1200Harrabi performing stand-up at Flappers Comedy Club in Los Angeles.

In order to get this comprehensive view of humanity, Harrabi has customized his curriculum through two self-designed courses, including through a directed readings class during the spring semester with Anré Venter, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology.

“We navigated so many topics,” Harrabi said. “One of the things we looked at is the Power of Myth series by Joseph Campbell, and it talks about so many things — mythology, philosophy, spiritual realizations, conversations with the ego, and understanding oneself.” 

In another course, he’s exploring one-person shows, guided by Carys Kresny in FTT, and developing and workshopping his own production — a cross between theatre and comedy that Harrabi hopes to film. 

Sharing his culture

Harrabi, who comes from a family of shepherds in Tunisia, loved watching American films growing up. At a young age, he knew that he wanted to go to the United States and make films. 

Naj Camera 600Harrabi behind the camera, shooting an original photography portrait book.

“Since I saw my first film, I was hooked,” he said.

Now, he is living out his dream. Harrabi, who has found a community of fellow international students on campus through the African Student Association, wants to use art as a medium to tell his story.

“As an African Muslim immigrant, I feel that I have so much to share about my culture, my experience, and my view of the world, so I want to be able to make movies,” he said.

He returned to campus in February 2020 to share that experience and reflections on life as an African immigrant at Notre Dame in a stand-up comedy special, Alien in the Basilica, that he performed at Washington Hall. 

For Harrabi, the opportunity to pursue an Arts and Letters education — and have control over what and how he studied — has been a tremendous gift. 

“There is so much freedom in taking ownership of the process — recognizing that it is not a challenge, but an opportunity to choose your classes, to design your major or your classes for four years,” Harrabi said. “I grew up in a country where we don’t have liberal arts educations, so it’s one of the greatest opportunities and privileges I have gotten throughout my life.”

Originally published by Hailey Oppenlander at on July 11, 2019.