It’s the lunch rush at Kareem’s Restaurant in Anaheim’s Little Arabia district and tables are packed with diners feasting on falafels and other delicious dishes brought out from the kitchen. “How was everything?” Nora Hawari asks a satisfied patron. “Great!” she replies. Hawari hands the woman her change from the order window and quickly begins wiping down the freed up table for the next group of guests.
Taking a break from the bustle, the 23-year-old actress who helps run her Palestinian family’s restaurant, envisions a sitcom web series based on life at Kareem’s. With Yallah Habibi, an Arabic phrase meaning “Hurry up, Sweetheart,” Hawari wants to offer more than just falafel funnies. “It’s an unconventional Middle Eastern family running a restaurant,” she explains of the show idea. “They’re balancing relationships, chasing dreams and trying not to burn food!”
For anyone who’s had the pleasure of eating at Kareem’s, they definitely pull off the feat in real life without coming close to overcooking anything. “We always have so much fun and drama in the kitchen at the same time,” says Nesrine Omari, Nora’s mother. “I always said we needed a reality show but this is much better because it brings Nora’s passion and ours together.”
Hawari hopes Yallah Habibi enjoys an initial eight episode run in translating her family life onscreen, but is focused on planning a pilot for now. The ambitious project will see the actress handling writing, producing, and directing responsibilities. She’s well prepared for the task. Hawari studied theater and musical theater for 12 years. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles to work in film and television production. At 19, Hawari started her own production company, the Dirty Laundry Collective, and later worked on Pre-Production, a web series.
For Yallah Habibi, she’s also taking on the role of her mother, who the Weekly once hailed as the “Falafel Queen” in past pages. “My mom and I have a really special bond and relationship,” Hawari says. “I imitate her all the time in theater and shows.” She originally wanted to cast her mom to play herself, but Omari prefers the comforts of the kitchen instead of lights, camera, action. “She’s the only one I’d let play me,” Omari says. “She has greatly exaggerated the character for comedic purposes and sometimes I worry people will think I’m a careless cook or mom but I told her as long as there is a disclaimer at the beginning I’m good!”
If Hawari did have to assign the role to someone else, she’d describe the character as strong, independent and perfectionist with sweet and loving side. And hilarious, too! “I never realized how funny my mom is until I started working here,” Hawari says. “She’ll start singing Drake’s ‘In My Feelings’ in the kitchen.” They’d also have to be able to perfect the kitchen command that gives the web series its name, something Hawari has down pat. “It’s the motto of my life!” she says. “It all comes back to love.”
Kareem’s will be shut down for two days in early November. That’s when it will transform into a production set. Like the pilot, every episode afterward will be set at the restaurant during lunch rush. Yallah Habibi aspires to give an Arab-American family a positive portrayal, something much needed in these times. The web series takes place after chef Mike Hawari, Nora’s father, passed away from lung cancer in 2012. His children have grown up and taken responsibilities in helping to keep the family restaurant’s doors open. It’s made for an interesting dynamic, one reflected in scripts.
“We’re representing the new generation that’s coming up in America,” Hawari says. “It’s children of immigrants that are telling their parents’ stories because they didn’t have time to tell their story.” Kareem Hawari, Nora’s brother, is taking on the challenge of portraying himself in the web series. In real life, Omari’s kids have given the restaurant a youthful makeover from menu items sporting hip, new names to making foodies salivate over their Instagram page. But that’s the business side of things. In Yallah Habibi, there’s more of a backstory to delve into.
“In the show, Nora has trouble dating because her mom is very strict and sees that as very taboo,” Nora says of her character. “In the pilot, I have Nora’s crush coming for lunch at the restaurant.” Does it end with the love interest pelted with falafels from the kitchen? Interested viewers will have to wait and see! Either way, the actress wants to make plot lines that the restaurant’s patrons can relate to, with a dash of Arab humor on the side.
To make Yallah Habibi a reality, Nora needs the larger community’s help. She’s crowdfunding through GoFundMe with hopes of raising $10,000 to get the web series off the ground and into festival circuits. Nora has already raised more than a quarter of the goal without a hard push. It doesn’t hurt that the campaign offers a delicious premium in the form of a gift card for Kareem’s always amazing food. For those seeking a noble cause, that’s on the menu, too. “The world needs a show like this right now,” Nora says. “In the current social and political climate, having an inside look of a Middle Eastern family’s life is going to be educational. That’s the most important thing to me.”
The Hawari family is just as quirky and endearing as any other, viewers will learn. The project has already brought them closer together while keeping the memory of their baba alive. Nora bought a chef’s coat in preparing to play her mother. Soon after, an unexpected wardrobe addition surfaced.
“My mom found my dad’s chef hat,” Nora says. “It matched my chef’s coat perfectly so I wear it in the show. I felt like I had his blessing. I really dedicate this show to him.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!