Mohammed Amer

“Muslim Comedy’s” Trap and Liberation

Mo Amer’s new Netflix show is difficult to pin down. But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want me to call it that.

 

I recently told Mohammed Amer, the comedian whose first scripted series, Mo, premieres on Netflix today, that I had a theory about a new flavour of Muslim comedy. He abruptly cut me off. “There is no such thing as Muslim comedy,” he declared. “What exactly is Muslim comedy, bro?” “Like, what exactly is that?”

 

Mo tells the story of the Najjar family, undocumented Palestinian refugees living in Houston. Mo Najjar, played by Amer, finds creative ways to hustle while avoiding ICE and being deported because he, like many Palestinians, is stateless. “I’ve never been to Palestine,” his character says. I don’t have citizenship in either place; I don’t have citizenship in either place. “I’m like a free refugee!”

 

Mo is a complicated show, sometimes more so than I expected. (Watch it to find out.) But I referred to it as a “Muslim comedy” for the same reason I would refer to it as a “Houston comedy.” Not because the audience must be specifically Muslim or Texan—or, as Amer argued, because it would then 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 a show like this could have existed, say, ten years ago. He exclaimed, “I was doing it!” “I was waiting for everyone to catch up with me. It’s clearly new, but the subject matter is not.”

 

I’m not so sure, at least not on American screens. In the entertainment industry, discussing Palestine can still feel like a minefield (as in so many places). But I understand Amer’s hesitancy in general. As a Muslim-American with some biographical experience, I understand where those sensitivities stem from. Labeling Mo as a “Muslim show” may do the same thing to Muslims that popular media in the United States does to them, putting pressure on the work to stand in for and speak for all of America’s 3.5 million Muslims. (This is frequently done to even more sinister effect in depictions of Muslims who behave badly, both in real life and in fiction.) It has the potential to ghettoise the work. Though Mo is his scripted debut, Amer, 41, began performing standup across the Bible Belt in the late 1990s. This was before 9/11. “They didn’t even know what an Arab was,” he said of his audience. People treated him as if he were a curiosity back then. He’s not looking for it now, at the pinnacle of his career.

 

Again, I understand. But I don’t believe that fear should prevent us from recognising work that speaks directly to Muslim Americans while also defining the Muslim-American experience—OK, one Muslim-American experience—in a novel way. Mo does it.

When his Catholic girlfriend mockingly prays on Mo’s body in the show, he uses his hand to shoo her away, saying, “Astaghfurlallah.” He doesn’t stop to explain it to non-Muslims; he just keeps going. In another scene near the end of the season, Mo walks into a dangerous situation, but first pauses to consider how he’ll get out. “I’m just tying my camel,” he says to another character, another phrase that will make Muslims happy but will not resonate with anyone else. This show isn’t just for Muslims; anyone can fall in love with it and Amer’s charismatic style, but it may be best enjoyed with at least one Muslim in the room.

 

I recently told Mohammed Amer, the comedian whose first scripted series, Mo, premieres on Netflix today, that I had a theory about a new flavour of Muslim comedy. He abruptly cut me off. “There is no such thing as Muslim comedy,” he declared. “What exactly is Muslim comedy, bro?” “Like, what exactly is that?”

 

Mo tells the story of the Najjar family, undocumented Palestinian refugees living in Houston. Mo Najjar, played by Amer, finds creative ways to hustle while avoiding ICE and being deported because he, like many Palestinians, is stateless. “I’ve never been to Palestine,” his character says. I don’t have citizenship in either place; I don’t have citizenship in either place. “I’m like a free refugee!”

 

Mo is a complicated show, sometimes more so than I expected. (Watch it to find out.) But I referred to it as a “Muslim comedy” for the same reason I would refer to it as a “Houston comedy.” Not because the audience must be specifically Muslim or Texan—or, as Amer argued, because it would then 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 a show like this could have existed, say, ten years ago. He exclaimed, “I was doing it!” “I was waiting for everyone to catch up with me. It’s clearly new, but the subject matter is not.”

 

ADVERTISEMENT

I’m not so sure, at least not on American screens. In the entertainment industry, discussing Palestine can still feel like a minefield (as in so many places). But I understand Amer’s hesitancy in general. As a Muslim-American with some biographical experience, I understand where those sensitivities stem from. Labeling Mo as a “Muslim show” may do the same thing to Muslims that popular media in the United States does to them, putting pressure on the work to stand in for and speak for all of America’s 3.5 million Muslims. (This is frequently done to even more sinister effect in depictions of Muslims who behave badly, both in real life and in fiction.) It has the potential to ghettoise the work. Though Mo is his scripted debut, Amer, 41, began performing standup across the Bible Belt in the late 1990s. This was before 9/11. “They didn’t even know what an Arab was,” he said of his audience. People treated him as if he were a curiosity back then. He’s not looking for it now, at the pinnacle of his career.

 

Again, I understand. But I don’t believe that fear should prevent us from recognising work that speaks directly to Muslim Americans while also defining the Muslim-American experience—OK, one Muslim-American experience—in a novel way. Mo does it.

When his Catholic girlfriend mockingly prays on Mo’s body in the show, he uses his hand to shoo her away, saying, “Astaghfurlallah.” He doesn’t stop to explain it to non-Muslims; he just keeps going. In another scene near the end of the season, Mo walks into a dangerous situation, but first pauses to consider how he’ll get out. “I’m just tying my camel,” he says to another character, another phrase that will make Muslims happy but will not resonate with anyone else. This show isn’t just for Muslims; anyone can fall in love with it and Amer’s charismatic style, but it may be best enjoyed with at least one Muslim in the room.

 

ADVERTISEMENT

But it’s not just Mo’s language in the show. It’s how the characters, both Muslim and non-Muslim, react to Islam. “Bismillah,” says Mo Najjar, and his best friend Nick, played by Tobe Nwigwe, replies, “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) attempts to establish a relationship with Mo’s mother (Farah Bsieso), who crushes Maria by offering her a bangle that would cover a cross tattoo on her wrist. Islam, as it does in real life, adds a layer of complication to every aspect of a Muslim’s life.

 

Seeing how Islam interacts with personal and family drama in nuanced ways is a relatively new phenomenon in mainstream American comedy, ushered in by shows like Ramy. (Ironically, its creator, Ramy Youssef, collaborated with Mo Amer to create Mo.) Both of these shows chose to show, rather than tell, what Islam looks like when it is intertwined in an American’s life, and both feature main characters who laugh at how deeply Islam is misunderstood. One of my favourite Ramy moments came in Season 1, when an old friend ran into Ramy as he was finishing one of the five daily prayers and put him on the spot, asking him to quickly pray for his mother. Ramy awkwardly prays, at one point saying the name of an old friend’s mother with a Quranic inflection. It’s amusing to any Muslim who understands that you can’t freestyle the ritual prayers, but Youssef didn’t take the time to explain that to the audience.

 

In roughly the time it took to make one show, we’ve been treated to several others with complex and humanising Muslim and Arab roles that don’t just portray Muslims as automatons performing Islamic rituals (often comically incorrectly). And having a Palestinian family in Missouri that does not involve any mention of terrorism other than two hilarious jokes about the conflation is all the more meaningful. With apologies to Amer, I believe that 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 truly distinguishes creators like him and Youssef as forerunners in a burgeoning genre. This is a novel concept.

Total
0
Shares