Stand-up comedian Mo Amer recently debuted his new and instantly-trending Netflix show, Mo. Set in Alief, Houston, the show is heavily inspired by Amer’s background as a Palestinian refugee finding home in his diverse Texan hometown. Mo touches on themes of family responsibility, the refugee legal process in America, and the displacement that often features in Palestinian identity.
Amer was born in Kuwait to Palestinian parents in 1981. At the age of ten, due to the outbreak of the Gulf War, he and his family fled Kuwait as refugees and started a new story for themselves in Houston, Texas — an endless source of inspiration for the young storyteller. Amer’s comedy is themed around his Arab identity, growing up in Texas, and his history as a refugee in America.
Muslim Girl had the opportunity to sit down with Amer to discuss his new show and its groundbreaking, yet unconventional, representation of Muslim life.
Muslim Girl: I’m a huge fan of your comedy, I’ve seen your standup and your Netflix special Mohammed in Texas. How has your background as a Palestinian stand-up comedian played into this new project?
Mo Amer: I don’t like attaching things to being a comedian necessarily, I’m a stand-up comedian who happens to be Palestinian. Being Palestinian is what has affected my whole life, and that experience has shaped me into who I am today. That struggle, being a refugee in America, being stateless, and telling those stories is important to me. Experiencing that kind of trauma, that displacement, and the refugee experience in America and traveling the world without a passport; really made me want to tell that unique story.
We’ve never seen it on American television, from a comedic perspective. It was really exciting to do something different and I’m so blessed to have that opportunity to do so and really grateful to be able to bring it to life. It’s a real struggle to get something out there — just anything, doesn’t have to be a Palestinian story or a refugee story — it’s really, really difficult to make something singular, and I think we accomplished that and I’m so grateful for that.
Experiencing that kind of trauma, that displacement, and the refugee experience in America and traveling the world without a passport; really made me want to tell that unique story. We’ve never seen it on American television, from a comedic perspective.MO AMER
What is one thing you were excited to bring to the series, and one thing you were more nervous about?
MA: I wasn’t really nervous about anything, per se, it was more so the responsibility of keeping it true and grounded was really the most important, and making sure the story and the characters had time to breathe. That was probably the most challenging part of it, balancing the comedy and the subject matter being more serious. Parsing that out was a challenge but we got through it and figured out what was right for the show and the season. Whenever I would fear, or uncertainty about something, it usually told me I was heading in the right direction. I heard this quote, “let the fear be your tailwind, not your headwind,” and that was my outlook while still being respectful at the same time; it’s a really delicate balance. Once you get over that, you feel really good about it.
There’s an ongoing conversation in our community about singular stories being used to represent the whole collective, like if a show with Muslim characters should show alcohol. Was this something you thought about while creating the show? How do you feel about the criticism around the “taboo” aspects shown in the story?
MA: There was a balance when we made the show. Also, I think it’s unfair to not have the most realistic way to tell the story. The world is not perfect, and it did come up as an issue, but out of thousands of comments, maybe one or two were upset. And, I get it, I don’t take it too personally as I also find everything to be really sacred to me; this is not a game or a joke.
At the same time, I am who I am, I am a Muslim, so it’s important to be authentic to that but I also have teachers who I highly respect and revered scholars who I talk to about it. I tried my best to adhere to them, and you can see it in the show a little, like even when they kiss and she said that the mosque immediately shuts it down, you can tell he’s a believer right out of the gates. Like, he’s now thinking “Oh my God, my family, my beliefs, the mosque, we can’t do this!” That tells you a lot about the personal side of things. Also, in episode 2, when she (Mo’s girlfriend Maria) shows up at the Arab community center and gives him a kiss, he panics and says, “we can’t do this here.”
At the same time, I am who I am, I am a Muslim, so it’s important to be authentic to that but I also have teachers who I highly respect and revered scholars who I talk to about it. I tried my best to adhere to them, and you can see it in the show.MO AMER
I think just being hyper-aware of that sensitivity but also keeping it realistic to what it’s like to grow up in America, or really anywhere. People are just pretending this stuff doesn’t happen, it happens all the time. So just doing it efficiently, doing it properly, and doing it justice while also preserving what I believe in, and not putting off just Muslims, but any people who don’t think you have to be overly sexual to have a great show. That is something that I thought about a lot; I could make it really over the top, but that wouldn’t give anything to the story, it would just be unnecessary.
As the first show of its kind on Netflix in today’s social climate, do you think Mo will have an impact on the way people understand the Israeli-Palestinian issue? Was that something you were thinking about when creating the show?
MA: Being Palestinian comes with a lot. The statelessness, the displacement, feeling like a fish out of water, there are so many things that you need to factor in and start to work through as a Palestinian or as a refugee so just thinking of that. I didn’t want this to be an overtly political show. I wanted this to be for us and for everyone, and universal and relatable across the board. Anyone that [has] worked paycheck to paycheck, who’s worked hard to be there for their families and fell short, and striving to be successful and losing themselves along the way spiritually, you know, it’s all of those things, not just one in particular. Balancing all that and generational displacement was important to me. We could have made it that they just fled Palestine and came to Texas, but it’s talking about leaving one country where you’re from, where you’re born, and then going to Kuwait and then having to flee again once you feel secure — that comes with different psychological repercussions. There was so much to unpack in the show, and I was really steadfast in making sure that we could get as many of them as possible while not being over the top.
It is clear that the Netflix series Mo is changing the course of representation by highlighting one authentic, flawed, and beautiful Palestinian family. Catch Mo streaming on Netflix now!