Mo: A Palestinian American TV Series
Netflix’s new, mildly entertaining eight-part series, Mo, comically focuses on the trials and tribulations of a displaced Palestinian refugee family in Texas. It could very well be the first American television production exclusively about Palestinian migrants in the United States.
The American standup comedian Mohammed Amer plays the central character, Mohammed Najjar, who lives in Houston with his widowed mother, Yusra (Farah Bsieso) and older brother, Sameer (Omar Elba).
After some 20 years in America, the Najjars remain stateless, and Mo, as he is known to his friends, is still seeking a work permit. A cuddly bear of a man, he helps support his family by selling knockoff orthopedics from the trunk of his car. Mo also finds work in a nightclub and on an olive farm.
Sameer has a job in a fast food restaurant. He seems like a level-headed person, but, judging by his occasional behavior, there is a loose screw. Toward the end of the series, Yusra begins selling olive oil which she makes from scratch. Her late husband, who was killed under mysterious circumstances, appears in flashbacks.
Mo’s girlfriend, Maria (Teresa Ruiz), a Mexican Roman Catholic, thinks he should accompany her to church. The notion appears to be anathema to Mo, a secular Muslim.
Mo, a study in identity formation and cultural dissonance, shifts between the present in Houston and the past in Kuwait, but the family history is quite vague.
The Najjars appear to have been forced out of Haifa, their hometown in Israel, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Resettled in Burin, a town in the West Bank, they planted roots in Kuwait, where Mo appears to have been born. In an early episode, Mo admits he has never set foot in Palestine.
There are numerous unsettling references to Israel, Zionism and Palestinians, though most of them tend to be of a jocular nature.
“You Zionists drive me crazy,” says an elderly Palestinian man addressing his backgammon partner, a Jew named Aba (Alan Rosenberg). As for Mo, he says he would be happy if Israel withdrew to the pre-1967 border. Speaking to an Anglo olive grower, a native Texan, Mo reduces the taglines “Palestine” and “Israel” to a “branding issue.”
During a conversation with Maria, Mo claims that Jesus was a Palestinian. In a more serious vein, Yusra refers to the nakba, the flight of the Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and the Zionist seizure of “our land.” In a flashback to Mo’s adolescence, a school teacher confuses Palestine with Pakistan.
At Aba’s suggestion, Mo fires his Palestinian immigration lawyer, Rhonda Modad (Cynthia Yelle), and hires a Jewish replacement, Lizzie Horowitz (Lee Eddy), to settle their case. For some strange reason, Yusra thinks she’s Polish.
Mo, a workmanlike production, fuses drama with sardonic humor. Amer, a force of nature, holds it all together.