Netflix's Mo is a love letter to Houston and Palestinian heritage
When we mention inclusive storytelling, Netflix’s Mo is exactly what we are talking about.
Created, executive produced by and starring Mo Amer, Mo is a semi-autobiographical and highly exaggerated retelling of his own experience as a Palestinian refugee living in Houston, Texas.
The series follows a fictionalised version of himself, Mo Najjar, as he struggles to support his family after losing his job while also trying to get them asylum – a feat that has taken the real and fictional Mo 20 years to accomplish.
"As a Palestinian, I teared up over watching other Palestinians on my television screen. Growing up, I literally could have never imagined a moment like this"
Both Mo’s were born in Kuwait after their parents were forced to flee Palestine. They both escaped Kuwait during the Gulf War when they were young, and both of their fathers passed away shortly after that.
The fictionalised version of Mo, though, deals with a lot more trauma and drama, like being a part of a mass shooting and getting accidentally involved with the kingpin of a drug smuggling organisation.
The series is produced by A24 and co-created by Ramy Youssef – also experienced in creating a fictionalised version of himself for his own show, Ramy, which won him a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a comedy series 2020.
The two work together well – Amer previously worked with Youssef on Ramy, and now they have come together to bring the very same attention to Palestinian lives as Youssef brought to Muslim ones just a few short years ago.
At first glance, you may think these shows are pretty similar. “This looks just like Ramy,” some will say after putting on the first episode. And sure, they’re produced and created by the same people but beyond being about South West Asian and North African (SWANA) Muslims, these are completely different stories.
Where Youssef’s show is about a man’s struggle to be a good Muslim, Amer’s show is a story about family and belonging. It’s also a darker tale, with fewer sex jokes and more dealings with drugs and immigration, and while Islam is a big part of Mo’s life, the show is less about Islam than it is about all the other things it explores.
Lately, Hollywood has been obsessing over the idea of diversity, with a number of programmes, funds and workshops created in hopes of fixing the blinding whiteness and racism of the industry.
Mo is a lesson on how to build on that idea and work it into reality, an accomplishment that is so authentic that people dream of making something this real.
It’s an incredible portrayal of the multicultural beauty of Houston, where people of all backgrounds live and work together in a salad bowl – a term Mo prefers over the melting pot.
"I have never felt more seen as a Palestinian than I have watching the eight episodes of this fictional drama. After avoiding my heritage and thinking that nobody wants to see, hear, or talk about Palestine, Mo is a reminder that our persistence is tied to our existence"
It’s set mostly in Alief, a suburb of Houston that’s filled with strip mall shops and businesses run by Mexican, Vietnamese, and Arab families alike, and where Mo grew up.
Mo even speaks three languages – Arabic, Spanish and English. The show embraces all ethnicities and religions, and the dynamic between Mo and his Catholic, Mexican-American girlfriend, Maria (Teresa Ruiz), emphasises Amer’s ability to play with the dynamics that make living in a multicultural city so great.
Plus, their chemistry is off the charts, and it’s amazing seeing Maria interact with Mo’s mother, Yusra (Farah Bsieso), as she gets used to the idea of her son not marrying a Muslim. As any Arab or Muslim will tell you, getting your parents used to the idea of marrying outside the culture is an undertaking in and of itself.
But the best part about Mo is its ability to be a love letter to two places simultaneously, and a reminder of our relationships between our heritage and our nationality.
With the show’s setting, Amer makes his love for his hometown clear. Not only is it set in Houston, it has also been filmed in the same parking lots, outside the same schools and in the same yards that he grew up in.
During all of this, he’s also telling an authentic story about a Palestinian family that has endured hardship after hardship, reminding audiences that Palestinian lives matter, and that we are not just a group of people to only be mentioned in headlines about “clashes” with our oppressors.
As a Palestinian, I teared up over watching other Palestinians on my television screen. Growing up, I literally could have never imagined a moment like this.
Listening to Yusra so eloquently explain their family’s struggle to her immigration lawyer was something that can resonate so well with thousands of other Palestinians, their stories and their similar journey:
“The IDF forcing us to move from Haifa to Burin, us leaving Kuwait after the Gulf War, the Iraqis breaking the front door, the Kuwaitis breaking the side door, and eventually the Americans breaking the back door.”
Since being forced to leave our homeland, Palestinians have been told that we do not belong, that we have no home, or that our heritage doesn’t exist. Our families have been evicted from home after home, our olive trees have been burned, and our identities have wrongly been painted as anti-Semitic, while any person who advocates for our rights is blacklisted or forced to reverse course.
Being a Palestinian who wants to be commercially successful means constantly walking on eggshells, afraid that your activism will be seen as violent or extreme when all you want is the freedom of your people. It means working with people who want to hire you for your West Asian identity and not for your Palestinian one.
It means always being careful with your words, and how you approach the subject of your own homeland because one wrong move or one wrong offence could crush your dreams in an instant.
This is why the existence of Mo on Netflix is such a monumental win for the Palestinian people.
I have never felt more seen as a Palestinian than watching the eight episodes of this fictional drama. After avoiding my heritage and thinking that nobody wants to see, hear, or talk about Palestine, Mo is a reminder that our persistence is tied to our existence.
For every Palestinian that gets the chance to wear their colours with pride, our chances of seeing our people freed in our lifetimes become even greater.
And with international visibility like this, I can’t wait to see more Palestinians get in front of the camera and break the shackles of silence and compliance that our oppressors hope we never get out of.
As Mo says, “that’s what we do, us Palestinians. We carry on.”
Tariq Raouf is a Palestinian-American Muslim writer, based in Seattle. You can follow them on their journey of rediscovering their roots with their newsletter, Finding Palestine
Follow them on Twitter: @tariq_raouf