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Netflix's Mo: 'Rebranding' Palestine

In an important first for Palestinian representation, this series featuring comedian Mohammed Amer combines fast-paced humour with deeper themes of exile and belonging
Mo (right) and his family discuss the importance of removing shoes in the house (Netflix)

A lady working at the supermarket checkout till asks: “Would you like to try some chocolate hummus?”

Horrified, the customer played by Palestinian-American comedian Mohammed Amer, replies: “You said chocolate hummus. You insulted my grandmother.”

She retorts: "Lo siento [I'm sorry], I did not know hummus was Mexican."

The exchange is a taste of what is to come in Netflix's latest comedy offering Mo. Out on 24 August, the eight-part show dips into the world of Mo Najjar, a semi-fictional character based on the very real life of the actor playing him.

Amer is known for other stand-out Netflix shows like his stand-up performances Mo Amer: The Vagabond (2018) and Mohammed in Texas (2021), but also for his role in Ramy Youssef’s Hulu show Ramy, where he plays Ramy's diner-owning cousin, also called Mo. 

Youssef has co-written the new series with Amer, but it was almost a decade ago, encouraged by American comedian Dave Chappelle, that Amer first drafted the opening scene of what was to later become Mo

He wrote about himself, a nine-year-old Palestinian boy fleeing Kuwait after it was attacked by Iraq in 1990. Arriving in Alief, Texas with his mother Yusra and sister, Haifa, the family waited two years more before their patriarch Mustafa would arrive. For now, Amer's two older brothers would continue their studies abroad.  

Five years later, aged 14, Amer's father died from a heart attack, leaving the family, and their asylum status unresolved. It was this period in his life that Amer has described as a turning point: "I didn't care any more... I gave up on everything, started to fail at school until one of the teachers suggested I perform. Then I saw Bill Cosby doing a show, and that was it. I knew I wanted to be a comedian."

This, and a tradition of storytelling, that he has described as an Arab birthright, set a young Amer on course to find his voice in the world of stand-up comedy. 

Real life inspiration

He started touring with his material to entertain US troops around the world. He later became part of the comedy-trio Allah Made Me Funny, and by 2015 he was touring with Chappelle. A couple of years later, in 2017, he made his debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

In Mo, Amer plays the part of an undocumented Palestinian refugee, “I’ve never been to Palestine, I don’t have citizenship there, don’t have it here," he explains in the show. It's through humour that Amer, now 41, shares his own lived experience of trying to get US citizenship, a process that took him 20 years. 

Ramy Youssef (L) and Mohammed Amer (R) combine their winning comedy style once again in Mo (Charley Gallay/GETTY IMAGES/AFP)
Ramy Youssef (L) and Mohammed Amer (R) combine their winning comedy style once again in Netflix's Mo (Charley Gallay/GETTY IMAGES/AFP)

The official Netflix release for the show explains the universal appeal of Mo, highlighting how immigrant communities struggle to belong in their new home. A statement by the platform reads: “The show portrays the universal experience of feeling like your life is in limbo and deals with situations unique to many immigrants."

But what makes Mo unique are the strong stories of Palestinian identity - references to occupation, to belonging, to grief - layered throughout, adding an idiosyncratic depth. 

Olives and their oil feature heavily in Palestinian family life, and in the show - amusingly taking on a use similar to Windex from My Big Fat Greek Wedding - a cure for all ailments. 

In one scene, serving as an ode to Arab matriarchs, Najjar's mother Yusra Najjar, played by Syrian actress Farah Bsieso, decides to press olives to make olive oil; a scene complimented by music from the Syrian singer Ghawar al-Toshi.

The choice of music is also inspired by the Palestinian experience; the show's trailer features a song by the Palestinian group Dam called Emta Njawzak Yamma?  or When Are You Going to Get Married, Yamma?

The phrase is an expression of endearment towards the unmarried and is aptly used in Mo, as the lead character struggles to to fully commit to his Mexican-American girlfriend played by Teresa Ruiz, because of religious differences and a fear of his mother’s wrath.

The show is a welcome step towards better on-screen representation, with Amer's character taking it upon himself to deal with Palestine's "branding issue".

It seems to have paid off, with the relatable storylines lauded in online reactions ahead of the show's launch.

Mo, starring Mohammed Amer, will begin streaming on Netflix from Wednesday 24 August, 2022

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Editor's note: The article has been corrected. The song that plays while Mo's mother presses olives is by Syrian singer Ghawar al-Toshi