Television

The Trap and Liberation of “Muslim Comedy”

Mo Amer’s new Netflix show is hard to define. But I know what he doesn’t want me to call it.

Mo Amer on Mo.
Netflix

Over the phone recently, I told Mohammed Amer—the comedian whose first scripted series, Mo, debuts on Netflix today—that I had a theory about an emerging flavor of Muslim comedy. He quickly interrupted me. “There’s no such thing as Muslim comedy,” he said. “What is Muslim comedy bro? Like, what is that?”

Mo tells the story of the Najjar family, undocumented refugees from Palestine living in Houston. Without papers, Mo Najjar, played by Amer, comes up with creative ways to hustle, all while avoiding ICE and being deported, since he, like many Palestinians, is stateless. As his character puts it, “I’ve never been to Palestine. I don’t have citizenship there; I don’t have citizenship here. I’m like a refugee free agent!”

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Mo is a complex show—sometimes more so than I bargained for. (Watch it and you’ll see.) But I called it a “Muslim comedy” for the same reason I would call it a Houston comedy. Not because the audience has to be specifically Muslim, or specifically Texan—or, as Amer argued back, because then it’d be “strictly for inside the mosque”—but because the show is part of an emerging style that feels transformative for the Muslim diaspora. I asked Amer if he thought, for example, that a show like this could have existed 10 years ago. “I was doing it!” he said. “I was waiting for everybody to catch up. It’s obviously very new, but the subject matter is old.”

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I’m not so sure about that, at least on American screens. Talking about Palestine can still feel like a minefield in entertainment (as in so many places). But I get Amer’s hesitation in general. As a Muslim-American who has done some biographical work, I know where those sensitivities come from. Labeling Mo a “Muslim show” might do the same thing U.S. popular media usually does to Muslims, putting pressure on the work to stand in and speak for all of America’s 3.5 million Muslims. (This is often done to even more sinister effect in portrayals of Muslims who behave badly, in real life and not.) It can also ghettoize the work. Though Mo is his scripted debut, Amer, 41, started doing comedy back in the late ’90s, performing standup across the Bible Belt. This was pre-9/11. His audience “didn’t even know what an Arab was,” he told me. People looked at him like he was a curiosity back then. He’s not looking for that now, on the biggest stage of his career.

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Again, I get it. But I don’t think that fear should stop us from recognizing work that does speak directly to Muslim Americans, and also defines the Muslim-American experience—OK, one Muslim-American experience—in a groundbreaking way. Mo does that.

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In the show, when his Catholic girlfriend mockingly prays on Mo’s body, he uses his hand to shoo it away saying, “Astaghfirullah.” He doesn’t stop to explain that phrase to non-Muslims; he just moves on. In another moment, near the end of the season, Mo walks into a dangerous situation, but pauses first to think about how he’d find a way out. “I’m just tying my camel,” he says to another character, another phrase that will make Muslims light up but won’t land with someone outside the faith. This show doesn’t only speak to Muslims—anyone can fall in love with this series and Amer’s charismatic style—but it may be best enjoyed by watching with at least one Muslim in the room.

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But it’s not just the language Mo uses in the show. It’s the way the characters are responding to Islam, even the non-Muslim ones. Mo Najjar says “Bismillah,” and his best friend Nick, played by Tobe Nwigwe, says, “That’s the hell you should be teaching me, not bitizek,” Arabic for “up your ass.” In another scene, Mo’s girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz), tries to create a relationship with Mo’s mother (Farah Bsieso), who crushes Maria by offering a bangle that would cover a cross tattoo on her wrist. In the show, as in life, Islam adds a layer of complexity to every inch of a Muslim’s life.

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Seeing the nuanced ways that Islam interacts with personal and family drama is a relatively new phenomenon in mainstream American comedy, ushered in by shows like Ramy. (Not incidentally, its creator, Ramy Youssef, created Mo in partnership with Mo Amer.) Both of these shows opted to show, rather than tell, what Islam looks like when it’s interwoven in an American’s life, and both have main characters who laugh at how deeply Islam is misunderstood. One of my favorite moments in Ramy, whose third season arrives next month, came in Season 1, when an old friend runs into Ramy as he’s finishing up one of the five daily prayers and puts him on the spot, asking him to quickly pray for his mom. Ramy uncomfortably performs a fake prayer, at one point saying the name of his old friend’s mother with a Quranic inflection. It’s hilarious to any Muslim who understands you can’t freestyle the ritual prayers, but Youssef didn’t stop to explain that to the audience.

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In roughly the time it took to make just one show, we’ve been treated to several others that have Muslim and Arab roles that are complex and humanizing, that don’t just portray Muslims as automatons acting out Islamic rituals (often comically incorrectly). And to have a Palestinian family in Mo that does not involve any mention of terrorism beyond two hilarious jokes about the conflation is that much more meaningful. With apologies to Amer, for me, the observable ways in which his comedy and writing—with Palestinian and Muslim identity at the forefront—helps define and deepen a collective sense of Muslim and Arab identity really does mark creators like him and Youssef as pioneers in a budding genre. This is something new.

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Amer did say this much: “We’re a people that have been authentically faceless in Hollywood for many, many years. When you say ‘Palestinian,’ it don’t even have a face on it.” (He nodded toward the achievements of DJ Khaled, who Mo jokes often about being his celebrity doppelganger, before conceding that average person wouldn’t even know that Khaled is Palestinian.) While his intention was mainly to create an authentic story, Amer understands that Mo is more than just another Netflix comedy. “For a kid from my background to look and see what somebody’s doing, it makes them believe in themselves in such a way that they wouldn’t before,” he said. “Before I was walking on gravel roads, but now I’m paving them, putting it down for other people to come around and create stories. That’s like the best accomplishment of my life.”

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