‘Mo’ Reveals the Lighter and Darker Sides of the Palestinian Experience in the US

The Netflix series’ depictions of a broken immigration system and cross-cultural love affairs make it a very American show

‘Mo’ Reveals the Lighter and Darker Sides of the Palestinian Experience in the US
Mo behind the wheel / Still / Netflix

“You have to come watch this video,” my husband, Salem, shouted to me from the other room. At first, I ignored him. As a typical millennial couple that has worked from home ever since the COVID-19 pandemic started, we often punctuate our days by sending each other videos, and I wasn’t about to drop what I was doing for another funny TikTok, even if it is our love language.

“They’re talking about chocolate hummus,” he continued. My ears immediately perked up. While I frequently troll my mother with pictures of mango hummus, white-chocolate raspberry hummus and whatever other food crimes Trader Joe’s comes up with, I never thought I would find these jokes in a Netflix series; the subject is just too niche. “I think they finally made something that we can relate to,” he smiled, as I perched next to him, suddenly intrigued.

So, on a Wednesday night late last month, Salem and I curled up along with thousands of other Arab and Arab-American households like ours to stream “Mo,” a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictionalized, eight-part Netflix series by Palestinian-American comedian Mo Amer (who plays the title character Mo Najjar), wondering if we would binge the entire thing in one sitting or immediately turn it off.

It opens with Mo driving through Houston, Texas, rapping along to Houston rappers Paul Wall and Big Pokey’s “Sittin’ Sidewayz” before pulling up to his job at a mobile phone shop. “Hola, cabron,” he greets his coworker, in a moment that feels like a nod to any Arab American who grew up in a state like Texas or California and embraced learning how to get around in Spanish after constantly being mistaken for being Mexican. He greets clientele in “customer service English” while joking with his coworkers in Spanish. But when his boss, played by Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef (who is then mysteriously absent for the rest of the show), starts speaking to him in Arabic, delivering the bad news that he has to let Mo go because of a series of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on his stores, his story truly begins. It is immediately clear that this isn’t just a show about being Arab or Muslim American and caught between two worlds. It is also about a broken immigration system and the unnecessary hardship that it causes thousands of people who call the United States home, when the U.S. government tries to say otherwise.

Mo’s hustle — which, in relatable fashion, he keeps a secret from his mother — continues a few days later when he stops by a shisha cafe in a strip mall (another setting that feels Arab American) trying to drum up work, while playfully arguing about politics over a game of “tawla” (backgammon). “Selling merch is the only way to support my family without papers,” he says, while pouring a bit of his mother’s homemade olive oil over a plate of hummus. “Won’t you hook me up?”

After a spirited debate that covers everything from Mo’s limited job opportunities to Palestine’s borders (with a character they affectionately call “the Zionist”), Mo’s contact agrees to give him the merchandise that he needs. “You happy now?” he asks, as Mo gets up to leave. “You know what would make me happy?” Mo responds, playfully jousting with the Zionist. “If we went back to the 1967 borders. What about our right of return?” Here is a point where I have seen many Palestinians take issue — why didn’t Mo reference the 1948 borders or broaden this into a wider conversation on the Nakba or the right of return for all Palestinians? A platform like Netflix provides an opportunity to bring a conversation about a one-state solution into the mainstream. Why is Mo — both the character and creator, who often fuse into one in the fictionalized autobiographical account — settling for less?

But at the same time, it risks becoming a symptom of what James Baldwin once called the “burden of representation,” the expectation that, in the absence of accurate representations, a Black — or, in this case, a Palestinian — artist is responsible for representing their entire community, which is inevitably filled with a range of different experiences. Should Mo, who is already shouldering the burden of supporting his family while being kicked out of jobs because of ICE raids — making jokes out of microaggressions and selling bootleg goods while he waits 22 years and counting for U.S. citizenship — be forced to shoulder this burden too?

Even without getting into the politics of the homeland, Palestine — and Palestinian identity — is woven into the show artistically and, more important, authentically. Mo frequently shares that he is Palestinian, whether politely informing the grocery store clerk peddling chocolate hummus that she is insulting his grandmother or sharing with the olive farmer that his mother (flawlessly portrayed by Palestinian actor Farah Bseiso), sends him for fresh olives to make her signature homemade olive oil. “Where I come from, olive theft is a real problem too,” he says to the Texan farmer. When Mo drops that he is Palestinian and the farmer tries to correct him by interjecting with “Israel,” Mo shakes his head, half-joking, half-serious: “It’s a real branding issue.” After Mo finds himself working at the farm as a last resort, it becomes clear that he has superimposed his own version of Palestine onto it, his imagination transforming a place of menial labor into a re-creation of the homeland that he may never get to see. During one particularly touching scene, he brings his Mexican-American girlfriend, Maria (played by “Narcos” actor Teresa Ruiz) there, walking through the orchard, bathed in a golden glow.

“I’m Palestinian, you’re Mexican,” he tells her in another episode, imagining their future together — one that has been stunted by the fact that his mother is upset that she isn’t “an Ayesha or a Khadija.” For the first time, it seems as if he is ready to find a way to reconcile their differences. “It is biologically impossible for us not to have at least six kids,” he jokes. For a moment, it is possible to imagine a happily ever after.

During certain flashbacks, we see Mo and his family in Kuwait — where we later learn that his mother and father fled after leaving Palestine. As Palestinian-American writer and translator Randa Jarrar pointed out to me, these kinds of diaspora journeys, which were a part of many Palestinian refugees’ journeys to the United States or Europe, are rarely represented. “I found it very authentic,” she told me over WhatsApp, mentioning that her family’s experience inspired her to write a scene in her novel, “A Map Of Home,” where the father bribes the officers with whiskey or silk ties, depending on whether or not they seemed religious. “I loved the way that the mother used her wiles to trick the soldiers into thinking that their bags had already been searched.”

It is equally significant that Mo’s Palestinian identity does not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it is in constant conversation with the realities of living in a highly politicized moment in the United States, in a vibrant, diverse city like Houston. Rather than ruminating on the kind of identity crisis that is threaded throughout a show like “Ramy”(by “Mo” co-creator Ramy Youssef), “Mo” offers commentary on mass shootings and being hooked on “lean” (prescription cough syrup), mental health and the Catch-22 of being caught in the U.S. immigration system, where the only way out is an asylum claim that seems as if it may never materialize. Despite these dark themes and the constant reminder of the realities of living precariously as an undocumented immigrant, “Mo” is punctuated with dark, and sometimes absurd, but often relatable humor. At one point, Mo fires the Palestinian-American immigration lawyer whom his family hired for a negligence case, causing her to pout, “I’ll have to find another favorite Mohammed.”

As in any story of juggling two different cultures, there are contradictions — many of which are as hilarious as they are uncomfortable. After losing his job at the mobile phone shop in the first episode, Mo takes a gig as a DJ in a strip club — which goes surprisingly well, considering that Mo identifies (at least somewhat) as a practicing Muslim, until a customer refuses to put out a cigarette, triggering Mo’s memory of learning about his father’s torture after recently discovering photos in the asylum file of the cigarette burns to his body. Maria, noting that he is struggling with his mental health, suggests that Mo unburden himself by confessing to a priest, a nod to their cultural differences, which oscillate between bringing them together and threatening to tear them apart. Mo makes multiple wisecracks about Catholicism before finally opening up and trusting the priest with his story. Even as Mo digs into the trauma of learning about his father’s torture and the pressure of taking care of his family, he continues to use absurdist humor, giving the audience permission to laugh, which, given the gravity of the subject matter, can only be described as impeccably timed artistic and comedic genius.

Perhaps “Mo” does not offer much commentary on the realities of the Israeli occupation of Palestine beyond fantasizing about what a world might look like without it, but the complex intersections of his lived reality in the United States are rendered in sharp relief. During one scene, Mo is stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint and realizes that the police dog has a U.S. passport, pointing out the irony that an animal possesses what he has been waiting for his entire life. Mo never explicitly calls himself stateless, but he shows the realities of living without papers and having no country to go back to if he were deported — a reality that even the show “Stateless,” which centers on an immigration detention center in Australia, ironically doesn’t depict. “I’m a refugee, free agent,” Mo says, seizing the narrative away from the type of creator who might make this a character’s entire story, without examining the reality that comes with it. A Palestinian refugee in Lebanon or Syria might be squeezed out of the job market and living in a refugee camp, but a Palestinian refugee in the United States is part of a larger community of undocumented people, forced to hustle in the shadows of the supposed land of opportunity. While it is not the only show that has explored the impact of the U.S. immigration system on ordinary people — “Gentefied,” a Netflix series set in the Latinx community, is another example — it is one of few that shows its impact outside of the Latinx community, in a way that is, true to form, uniquely Palestinian. During his asylum hearing — a scene that will make the heart pound of anyone with experience of the immigration system — the prosecution casually drops that the U.S. immigration system does not recognize Palestine as a country.

Just as it seems as if the show is about to take a turn for the absurd when Mo and his best friend Nick, played by Nigerian-American rapper Tobe Nwigwe, decide to track down some stolen olive trees and find themselves trapped in the back of a truck that reeks of possible cartel violence, “Bienvenidos à Mexico” pops up in a text message — signaling that Mo has crossed the border, accidentally deporting himself in a turn of events that is as comedic as it is terrifying. He is more concerned about being killed by a cartel member than getting back into the United States until he realizes that one of the olive thieves is someone from the farm. “Manny, is that you?” he asks, squinting as a gun is pointed at his head. “Any chance you have a bathroom I could use?”

It seems like Mo might have a chance to get the trees back — but when Manny reveals that his great-grandfather was a member of the Karankawa, who were Indigenous to the land, and that his involvement in stealing the olive trees is his attempt at land-back justice, Mo responds, “I get it. I really do. We just suck as a human race. My family is from Haifa. We were forced out of there by the Israelis into the West Bank. For 80 years, it is bombs, bullets and tear gas. Hell, they built a wall, separating families. They can never see each other again. Can you imagine?” Mo might have proceeded to go on a tangent venting about Elon Musk “jizzing Teslas into space,” but it is still the only time that I have ever seen a comparison between the land theft and genocide of Native Americans and Palestinians so explicitly spelled out in popular culture, flawlessly integrated with a comparison of the Israeli separation barrier and the U.S.-Mexico border wall, as well.

It is easy to hold “Mo” to an impossibly high standard. For too long, most of us have consumed media where Arabs are portrayed as Orientalist caricatures at best and terrorists or traitors to the West at worst. Every time we think that might be changing, we are inevitably disappointed. I remember watching “Homeland,” accepting that a show that follows the story of a CIA agent might be slightly racist for the sake of Roya Hammad’s character, a Palestinian journalist who reminded me of myself in the passion she brought to her work and the topics that she cared about. Of course, it turned out that she was secretly a terrorist. I immediately stopped watching.

Unfortunately, these painful stereotypes carry into mainstream news coverage of the Middle East as well. Journalists who cover Palestine are constantly forced to toe the line that the Western media has drawn, a line that has cost people like former CNN journalist Octavia Nasr and Palestinian academic Steven Salaita their careers, while inevitably censoring thousands of others. Now, there is a show that is not only proudly and unapologetically Palestinian but also speaks to a wider Arab and Arab-American audience, playfully highlighting dessert hummus atrocities and poignantly speaking to the rarely acknowledged pain of learning that a loved one has been tortured or needing to relive traumas for the sake of an asylum claim.

Watching the political become personal in a way that feels so familiar makes us want a show like “Mo” to be everything and more, expecting it to fill a void that has been carved out by a dearth of accurate pop culture representation and a mainstream media that gaslights anyone who dares to suggest that Palestine — and Palestinians — exist. But at the end of the day, “Mo” is a single story — a slice of life that has somehow managed to cut through the noise with expertly crafted scenes and impeccably timed jokes that inspire empathy not only for Palestinians but also for immigrants and anyone else who has felt the pressure to do right by their loved ones in a country where the only way to survive a life that can be just as easily punctuated by mass shootings and an impossible healthcare system is to respond with equally absurd humor. All we can do is hope that it will pave the way for more stories like it to come.

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