Houston is a melting pot for multiculturalism—we’ve even been named the most diverse city in the nation. People from all walks of life choose to make Space City their home, helping to grow our population and simultaneously creating niche communities that become their home away from home.
Many of those who immigrate to Houston had lives that likely looked drastically different before making the decision to leave their home country for the U.S. Oftentimes, the journey to American citizenship is a tumultuous one, and Houston representative Mohammed “Mo” Amer details his Palestinian-American Muslim plight in his new autobiographical series Mo, on Netflix.
“[The show] is very much grounded in my experience in Houston,” Amer says of the show via phone. “Alief is such a significant part of my life and it's like something is in the water, namely southwest Houston, where all these great artists and creatives have come from, and I thought it was a great opportunity to showcase everything that Houston has to offer.”
Produced by A24 and co-created by Amer and fellow comedian Ramy Youssef (Ramy, Ramy Yousef: Feelings), Momade its streaming debut in August. The show opens with Mo Najjar (played by, well, Mo Amer), riding around Houston (you can’t help but take heed of all of the Houston landmarks) in his classic car, with rapper Paul Wall’s “Sittin Sidewayz” playing in the background. As a young Palestinian refugee, Najjar sought asylum with his family in Houston. Two decades later, he has yet to receive his American citizenship.
Najjar’s story is a touching one—though I can’t relate to his struggle for citizenship, as a native Houstonian I have to appreciate his heart for hustle—leading him down a path of hilariously strange encounters. Fired from his job at an electronics store and without citizenship, he’s left to provide for his family through a handful of odd jobs. He does everything from selling knock-off jewelry and clothes out of the trunk of his car to working as a DJ in a strip club to picking olives on a farm.
But his journey to find a sense of belonging only begins with his employment. Amer, simultaneously alternating between English, Spanish and Arabic, seeks balance. He wants to remain true to his native culture, but also hopes to achieve the “American Dream.”
Amer’s relationships and family dynamics serve as an authentic testament to life in Houston. His very traditional mother makes olive oil from scratch and collects lamps, purposely leaving the price tag on them, “so people know what a bargain I’ve got.” He has a loving relationship with his girlfriend Maria, but her Catholic background causes a familial rift. His autistic older brother Sameer also lives at home with their mother, struggles to fit in socially, and has a job at Chick’n Cone. Amer is also estranged from his older sister, who gained citizenship in America by marrying outside of their family’s culture.
But perhaps the most eye-opening storyline for those born in America is Mo’s ongoing struggle with his immigration status. Gaining citizenship would mean more opportunity, but his efforts are thwarted at every turn. At one point in the premiere, Mo suffers from a gunshot wound but almost literally runs out of the ambulance because his lack of citizenship means he doesn't have insurance and a trip to the hospital could result in deportation. Repercussions from his lack of proper medical care reverberate throughout the season. “The biggest thing is just understanding that when you come to America, it's not easy to get your citizenship,” Amer says. “It's really something that's earned and painful and difficult to go through.”
Mo’s struggles are well-balanced with comedic moments and showcases of Palestinian pride. You’ll see it in moments like him coaching his nephew at his baseball game, bringing a jar of olive oil wherever he goes, and ridiculing a woman at the grocery store for promoting chocolate-flavored hummus. His friends all congregate at a local lounge, where they play games and smoke hookah, also an Arabic contribution to America.
“It’s the most diverse city in America, and the Palestinian community is really thick in Houston. It’s pretty dense with Arab representation in the community, which is beautiful. It’s really special if you go to southwest Houston, you’ll catch all these different bakeries and [food] spots that are serving regional Arab food,” Amer says.
To Amer’s point, the Arab community in Texas is ever-increasing, and still continues to grow—the national grassroots organization Yalla Count Me In, a movement created to get out the count of Arab-Americans on the U.S. census recorded that the statewide population was a few figures shy of 200,000. The Arab American Institute reinforced those numbers, stating that one of the largest populations of Arab people resides in Harris County.
The show should be applauded for many reasons including its consistent nods to Houston’s music scene throughout the first season. While Chicago-born rapper-producer Common scored the show’s soundtrack, there are touches of Houston everywhere. If you listen closely, you’ll catch a recreated Big Moe track at the end of episode two. On top of that, you’ll see cameos from Paul Wall as a security guard, Bun B as a priest, and Tobe Nwigwe as Amer’s best friend on the show, Nick.
Mo covers a lot of ground, with many unique storylines and themes in play all at once. But simply put, some things just remain universal, like arguing with your siblings or wishing you could talk to your dad one last time.
“I need people to understand what it's like to go through something [immigration] like that and just feel some compassion. But it's not only for immigrants or asylees, it's for everyone. It's for anyone who's struggled to get through whatever struggles and pain they’ve endured and the growth that comes with that.”
Mo will make you want to laugh, cry, and explore the diversity in Houston. The best part is what’s to come. The season finale leaves us on a cliffhanger, and though Netflix hasn’t confirmed a renewal, Amer revealed he’s already working on a second season.