Why Mo Amer’s new Netflix series is the most culturally significant thing you’ll watch this year
Mohammed Amer is a Palestinian-American comedian, and co-creator of Mo on Netflix, along with Golden Globe-winning Egyptian-American actor Ramy Youssef.
The A24 series follows Mo Najjar as he navigates his life as a Palestinian refugee in Texas. The series is heavily autobiographical and the events are based on the experiences of Mohammed “Mo” Amer.
In one scene, Mo puts down a bottle of olive oil on the dinner table, freshly made by his mother, Yusra. “It’s nothing like the stuff back home,” she says.
The olive oil is a piece of home in Texas, so he holds on to it everywhere he goes as he juggles the intricacies of being Muslim and Palestinian in America.
The TV we consume shape our mindsets, paired up with research and an open mind, some TV shows that shine the spotlight on Muslim and Arab communities are a good place to start. `
Mo is the representation Palestinians have been craving.
My Palestinian family and I watched it from our living room in Kuwait and have never felt more seen because finally, we got a show with accurate Arabic dialogue and relatable family dynamics.
My family comes from a city by the coast of Palestine called Haifa, but after the occupation of Palestine my grandparents fled to Kuwait, where I was born and raised. I had grown up so far away from what I felt resonated with my identity as a Palestinian.
Similarly, Mo’s parents were forced out of Haifa by the Isreali Defense Force (IDF), leaving them with no passports or residency anywhere. They ended up living in Kuwait, but had to leave after the Gulf War in 1990, the same war my parents endured as teenagers.
The details of Mo’s life felt so familiar it kept my family and I enticed for all eight episodes of the series, because watching something so relatable was so gratifying. The main character is undeniably flawed, authentic, and hilarious.
He juggles his relationship, illegal immigrant status, the weight of providing for his family, and the tragic death of his father as we watch his mental health deteriorate. Despite being a fictional character, the issues and struggles he represents are very real.
Alongside his traumatic flashbacks and nightmares caused by his father’s death, I found it insightful that an Arab character overcomes substance abuse issues on-screen. Mo develops an addiction to lean (a mixture of cough syrup and soda), shedding light on an important scope in Muslim and Arab communities that is often dismissed.
Drug addiction and substance abuse are prominent within our communities (almost everyone I know has a nicotine addiction), but cultural and religious stigma stop us from confronting the uncomfortable reality of it.
Even withdrawal symptoms are portrayed in the series, when Mo sits in the waiting room of the courthouse the day of their asylum case, sweating, vomiting, and struggling from a lack of sleep.
Yet the series remains funny and lighthearted, and comedy television seems to be the only thing that humanizes these groups to the Western world.
There is something refreshing about laughing at the jokes of a main character who resembles your cousins and uncles, and remains a Muslim Arab character who isn’t battling loss and confusion with their identity.
Unlike the familiar tropes Muslims and Arabs are confined to in the media, Mo seems to reject the common Islamophobic plotlines we have become used to.
I would compare Mo’s character to other Muslim characters in the media depicted as terrorists or victims of oppression. For example, in Netflix’s teenage drama Elite, one of the Muslim characters takes off her hijab to “liberate” herself from her religion. However, Mo refuses to distance himself from his religious and national identity.
We have grown tired of two-dimensional and misrepresented Muslim and Arab characters.
We must recognize that the issue with such limited representation of Palestinians in the media is that it has granted the power to the straight male diaspora to be the voice of Palestine.
The amount of screen time our communities get is what provides us our voice and platform, although we must be wary of who exactly is the face of that platform.
This leaves room for misrepresentation or misinformation. For example, Mo comments on the borders set in Palestine in 1967 after the Six-Day War.
He says, “I’d be really happy if we’d go back to 1967 borders.” This neglects the reality of Palestinians living in Palestinian territory in 1948. He refers to a time when Palestine was still actively under occupation, and Palestinians were being displaced from their homes.
It was refreshing to watch someone who speaks, eats, and prays the way I did growing up, and who carried a bottle of olive oil with him in an effort to hold onto his roots. It stressed the simplicity of taking our home with us no matter where we are.
I think we can agree that Mo is a face of Palestine, but definitely not the only one. The next step is a less Hollywood-washed, Westernized face of Palestine. One that acknowledges the struggle of Palestinians in Palestine and represents women, queer people, and stateless individuals who identify as Palestinian. Soon we will all be carrying our metaphorical bottle of olive oil everywhere we go.