Mohammed Mustafa Amer, better known as Mo Amer, has been a leading figure in mainstream Arab American media for years, with big-name stand-up specials including “Mo Amer: The Vagabond” (2018) and “Mo Amer : Mohammed in Texas”. (2021). In recent years, Amer has become one of the most influential Arab Americans working in the entertainment industry, with a rare honesty and unique sense of humor.
When he announced that he would be creating and starring in his own Netflix series, his fans were thrilled to see the Palestinian refugee experience portrayed in mainstream media. The result is an incredibly personal, funny and authentic story of the immigrant experience that parallels his own life as a Palestinian American.
Co-created with Ramy Youssef, an Egyptian-American primetime Emmy-nominated comedian, creator and star of Hulu’s Emmy Award-winning “Ramy,” “Mo” was directed by Algerian-American Solvan “Slick” Naim and tells the story of Mohammed Najjar ( Mohammed Amer), who calls himself “Mo”. Najjar is a Palestinian Muslim refugee now living in Houston, Texas, after leaving Kuwait at a young age.
The scenes in which Mohammed appears as a fish out of water accentuate the harrowing nature of his experience as a refugee who has been resettled in Texas. In episode five, called “Tombstone”, a flashback shows Mohammed being ridiculed by his new classmates for wearing a vest and a bowtie, unaware of American dress code. The scene clearly shows the cruel stings of shame that inform his experience as an immigrant.
The years of fighting for himself and his family to gain asylum status emphasize the theme of belonging throughout “Mo.” Her immigration attorney, Rhonda Modad (Cynthia Yelle), has kept them waiting for years with no progress, forcing Mohammed to fire her and find someone new. Thus, we dive into the chaotic life of the Najjar family: their strict but loving mother Yusra (Farah Bsieso), their older brother Sameer (Omar Elba), and their estranged older sister Nadia (Cherien Dabis) who has ironically already obtained citizenship. American for marrying a Canadian.
Mohammed’s father, Mustafa (Mohammad Hindi), passed away when Mohammed was just a boy, and through a series of flashbacks, the audience learns more about Mustafa: he is a humble and hard-working owner of a small pharmacy. Later in the season, Mohammed recounts stealing $20 from the cash register for reasons unknown to the viewer, and his father’s sudden and unrelated heart attack immediately afterward. His guilt, between his financial and legal problems, constantly haunts him.
Outside of his family, Mohammed’s social life is also a central aspect of the show. His Mexican Catholic girlfriend of two years, Maria (Teresa Ruiz), runs a successful garage in the city, and her background creates drama between her and Mohammed’s traditional mother. In episode six, “Holy Marriage”, Yusra gives Maria a bracelet before attending a friend’s wedding. Although it seemed like an act of generosity at first, Yusra just wanted Maria to cover up the crucifix tattoo on her wrist.
While these moments of drama end up being funny, the emotion and inner conflict feel real, allowing a diverse audience to connect with Mohammed and Maria’s inherently human issues. Mohammed’s best friend, Nick (Tobe Nwigwe), is often by his side in times of crisis. As they drive down a street filled with police cars, they pretend to be part of an international gospel choir in front of a Christian officer to avoid revealing Mohammed’s lack of identification. They sing “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and their surprisingly dedicated delivery is as nerve-wracking as it is fun.
If there’s one thing “Mo” excels at, it’s giving the audience an intimate look at the character of Mohammed, from his fight for asylum to his incredibly unstable work life. He is introduced as a worker at an electronics store, only to be promptly fired due to his lack of citizenship. He then becomes a scammer who sells replicas of products from prestigious brands. When that doesn’t pan out, Mohammed resorts to DJing at a strip club. He is eventually kicked out after insisting that a customer not smoke inside. Given an earlier revelation that Mohammed’s father was tortured with burning cigarettes in Kuwait, his adverse reaction to smoking takes on a layer of political and emotional conflict.
Mohammed’s working life is a reflection of his life as a refugee. Situation after situation, he struggles to hold on to his religious beliefs, culture and identity.
Throughout the series, Mohammed and his family constantly try to maintain ties to their history. In an effort to preserve their Palestinian culture and tradition, they turn to one thing they hold dear: olive oil. Since the beginning of the show, olive oil is a recurring symbol in the history of the Najjar family. Mohammed carries a bottle wherever he goes, almost to the point of humor. However, its lack of subtlety never detracts from its meaning. In episode two, “Yamo”, Yusra, seeking a life of activity and meaning, begins making olive oil by hand. “Olive oil brings light and I want to light up my life,” he tells Mohammed.
The olives Yusra uses come from a grove in Houston, which Mohammed later begins to oversee with a group of olive growers. The grove ends up becoming the site of a major olive tree robbery carried out by a Mexican gang, a plot point that is handled rather carelessly and belies the nuanced portrayal of marginalized lifestyles that make “Mo” stand out. . Scenes like Mohammed, Sameer and Nadia reading the Fatiha at their father’s grave resonate the most, rather than scenes of him on a motorbike running from a gang of thieves like he’s in a high-stakes thriller.
“Mo” is at his best when he allows his characters to breathe. The intimacy and patience of the series are especially well achieved in the scenes of introspection and emotion. It is here that it shines as an empathy-driven study of refugees in America.
At its core, “Mo” is a story about empathy. It is about an identity caught between three languages and multiple cultures. The struggle to belong is a major theme throughout the series, and is even demonstrated in the show’s title.
Throughout the series, Mo’s family refers to him as “Hamoodi”, a common Arabic nickname for Mohammed. However, his American friends call him “Mo,” a distinctly American-sounding shortened abbreviation for one of the world’s most popular names. While this is seemingly a small detail, he describes assimilation into an American culture embraced by immigrants and refugees in the country.
“Mo” offers a deeply personal yet universal story in which the director finds unique ways to convey his individual crises in a larger print of the immigrant experience in the United States. The series’ intimacy and insight into the apathy continually projected onto immigrant minorities elevate it beyond being your average Netflix show.
Contact Yezen Saadah at [email protected]