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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

“Mo” brings Palestine to Western Audiences

Mo
Instagram/MoAmer

Dana Hourany

The Palestinian cause emerged onto the frontlines of streaming services when “Mo” debuted on Netflix on August 24.

Upon its airing, the series immediately amassed a dedicated fan base, fast becoming one of Netflix’s hottest shows with overwhelming acclaim from fans and experts. The reason appears straightforward: It brought attention to the Palestinian perspective, which is largely ignored by American Western entertainment and production companies.

The show was co-created by Palestinian-American comedian and creative, Mohammed Amer, and Egyptian-American comedian and actor Ramy Youssef. The story follows the daily life of its protagonist, Mo Najjar, and his Palestinian family who took refuge in Houston after being displaced from Palestine following the 1948 Nakba and then fleeing Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1991.

Imbued with humor, joy, and grief, the show was able to navigate serious topics such as borders, trauma, legal documentation, and Palestinian heritage through the lens of a refugee in Houston, Texas. Its narrative is semi-autobiographical as much of the events reflect Amer’s personal life as a Palestinian immigrant who fled the Gulf war and struggled with themes of identity and integration.

According to analysts, the series’ significance goes beyond mere entertainment and offers a new viewpoint on Arabs, particularly Palestinians, whose experiences have largely been muffled, stereotyped, and dimmed on Western screens. The series received raving reviews as it touched the hearts of many Middle Easterners living abroad.

Life as “Mo”

With two Netflix comedy specials, “Mohammed in Texas” and “Mo Amer: The Vagabond,” Amer is a well-known stand-up comedian in the US. In 2015, Ramy Youssef and Amer began discussing the possibility of collaborating on a project that would be influenced by Amer’s life while living together.

Audiences are exposed to the character’s complicated existence in the first episode. The main character, “Mo Najjar,” gets sacked from his job at an electronics store and forced to look for work without proper documents. As he fumbles through supplementary jobs from selling knockoff designer merchandise to DJ-ing at a strip club, the story explores the cultural complexities of Middle Eastern societies where men are largely expected to be family providers. It also delves into the difficulties of balancing life in the West with conservative family traditions.

The practicing Muslim family of Najjar is no exception to the Arab cultures’ taboo treatment of topics like tattoos, interfaith marriage, addiction, and sexual promiscuity. The show emphasizes how challenging it is to balance the contrasts between traditionalism and progressivism, the past and the present, and family and friends.

Diversity is not lacking in the series. Mo’s childhood best friend “Nick” is portrayed by African-American actor Tobe Nwigwe; his girlfriend “Maria” is a Catholic Latina played by Teresa Ruiz; and his immigration lawyer is portrayed by Jewish-American character “Lizzie Horowitz” by comedian and actor Lee Eddy.

Although “Mo” briefly discusses the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the lines mostly have comedic undertones, such as when he says, “Yeah, it’s a real branding issue,” in response to someone’s greeting of “Shalom,” or when he tells his friends, “It’s like throwing rocks, Palestinians should be the best at this,” while playing an arcade game.

“It was important to communicate that [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] very clearly without being over the top. A lot of shows are filled with almost-propaganda and want to push so much in your face. Whereas this is just a really gentle tale of a family that’s struggling emotionally after being displaced a second time and trying to put the pieces back together,” Amer said in an interview with Variety.

Nevertheless, the show sets an unparalleled example of Palestinian representation in Western media.

Why representation is important

The only other series that mirrors Mo’s experiences adjusting to the differences between East and West is “Ramy,” whose protagonist defies the stereotype of a “good Muslim” and exhibits a self-destructive outlook on life while also yearning for a righteous relationship with God.

Sa’ed Atshan, a Palestinian activist and associate professor of anthropology at Emory University, discusses the parallels and contrasts between the two shows. He points out that while Ramy covers several challenging subjects at once, Mo has a more narrowly focused and simple storyline.

“Mainstream Western media has long systematically dehumanized Arabs, so this comes as a breakthrough for us Palestinians where we can finally speak for ourselves and tell our stories with complex detailing,” Atshan told Fanack.

“I believe this will help shape the consciousness of the American youth who will grow to have a better understanding of US foreign policy and ties with Israel as the fight for justice is further highlighted in such shows,” he added.

For Atshan, the question of home and how to cultivate a sense of home as a member of the Palestinian diaspora was a key moment in the show. Najjar carrying a bottle of olive oil in his pocket and finding an olive grove in the middle of Houston resembles the spiritual quest to seek Palestine, his homeland, in the middle of a foreign land.

Only the beginning

Sulafa Zidani, an assistant professor of comparative media studies and writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, believes that Najjar’s close circle represents the intersecting experiences of immigrants and serves as a reminder of the kinship and similarities among various ethnic groups in the US.

One scene depicts Black immigrants waiting in the ICE judicial facilities with Mo’s family, evoking the notion of common challenges faced by non-white Americans, albeit in distinct contexts and environments.

Zidani adds that the music was yet another essential component of Palestinian representation, with the show’s score featuring modern Palestinian musicians like DAM, Walla’at, 47 Soul, and others.

However, both Zidani and Atshan agree that more work needs to be done for a more heterogeneous representation of the Palestinian community that includes LGBTQ+ individuals, women and feminist experiences, as well as different religious groups such as Christian Palestinians.

“The show made me want to learn more about the female characters and their narratives. I hope that in the next season we’ll get to find out more about the female character’s perspectives on immigrant women’s lives. Since I have family in Houston and have spent a lot of time there, I’m curious to see how the show might portray the Arab women’s spaces there,” Zidani said.

While it is difficult to predict how other Middle Eastern diaspora groups feel toward the show, Zidani notes that the nuanced and complex portrayal of the characters put them in relatable positions for audiences with similar immigration and displacement trauma.

We all have roles to play

Despite Hollywood‘s history of racism, inequality, and misogyny, in addition to broader Western sympathy for Zionism, both experts agree that hope can be found within grassroots movements, solidarity from minority groups, and from witnessing Palestinian stories taking the spotlight.

“The only accurate portrayal is an ongoing portrayal. So we need more films and shows where the group portrayed is given creative license to decide on the narrative presented on screen,” Zidani said.

The Palestinian struggle is not only prominently featured in “Mo” and other mainstream media. Gigi and Bella Hadid, sisters and Palestinian-Dutch supermodels, are outspoken supporters of Palestine, while Rashida Tlaib, a US congressman of Palestinian descent, hasn’t held back when criticizing Israeli apartheid in front of pro-Israel lawmakers.

“Whether it’s media, entertainment, or politics, we need folks everywhere so that everyone does their part. They all contribute to the cause in their way,” Atshan said.

Criticism of the series, although scarce, has made its way to social media.

Esmat Elhalaby, an assistant professor of transnational history at the University of Toronto, tweeted that “the coercive mimeticism of Mo is not a path forward. The aura of authenticity gets us nowhere. The energy of Palestinian culture which (predates our expulsion and will outlive our struggle) cannot be captured by any American corporation.”

“Mainstream American entertainment is largely incapable of narrating working-class culture, preferring narratives of minstrelsy and misogyny to ones of social or political solidarity,” he added.

Netflix is yet to make an official statement on the show’s renewal for a second season, yet its cancellation will leave a large fan base disappointed should it happen.

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