Mo Amer Is Putting Houston on the Map

Mo Amer Is Putting Houston on the Map

Palistenian-American comedian Mohammed "Mo" Amer is shining a light on life in America’s most diverse city with Mo, the first-ever narrative sitcom set in Houston. Premiered last month on Netflix, Amer’s eight-episode, A24-produced comedy-drama brings to life his family’s lived experiences as immigrants looking for a place, legally and culturally, in the US.

Houston notably resettles more refugees than any other major city, and much of the show’s action takes place in the city’s Alief immigrant enclave, where the actor’s family relocated after fleeing Kuwait as refugees in the '90s. Houston kids will instantly recognize the downtown skyline sprawling Funplex game center, dozen-lane freeways, trilingualism and Bun B cameo.

"Understanding that Houston is the fourth-largest and most diverse city in America, I couldn’t believe there had never been a narrative sitcom here before," Amer told PAPER. "We’re a global producer of icons, from Megan Thee Stallion and Travis Scott to Paul Wall and Bun B before that. Chicago has had shows, and New York City. So when we’re talking about inclusion and diversity, it was important to me to do something fresh and different."

Beyond his love for Houston, Amer, who portrays the show’s protagonist Mo Najjar, offers an unprecedented, poignant look into the experiences of Palestinian refugees, Muslims and other immigrants — perspectives also addressed in his 2018 debut Netflix special, Mo Amer: The Vagabond, and 2021’s Mohammed in Texas.

Right from the start in the show’s first episode, Mo loses his job after an ICE raid and ends up selling counterfeit Yeezy foam runners to make ends meet. In a later episode, Mo and his best friend Nick, played by emerging Houston rapper Toby Nwigwe, get out of a traffic stop by telling the cop they’re gospel singers for Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church. And in a flashback to the year 1991, we see young Mo learning the concept of "your mom" jokes.

Amer looks back fondly on his early days in Texas. "Initially it was terrifying," he recalls. "I got to America and a few days later, Halloween happened and nobody had, like, explained that to me at all. It was just a bunch of people dressed in so many different ways. But then I got used to it. Houston was comfortable."

Shot in a warm western-like tint, the show is rich with nostalgia, and Amer says revisiting core memories — like replicating his childhood bedroom — was one of the most meaningful parts of the process. "I loved seeing these kids recreate these moments and getting everybody in '90s attire," he says. "It felt like I was really young again, and a kid again, and it brought me a lot of joy. Everybody wishes they could go back in time, and in my line of work I get to. It’s so much fun."

There’s heavier material as well in the show, which is set against the backdrop of Amer’s family’s 20-year struggle to gain asylum status. Following in the footsteps of other cult favorites like 2019’s Ramy, in which Amer has a recurring role, Mo taps into the unique combination of humor and hope that is born of necessity in the face of adversity.

"In episode five, there’s something I went through with my father that was very real. It was scary to talk about and be that vulnerable. I was mourning my real father in real-time and having it on the show as a centerpiece," Amer explains. "But whenever we got to a topic that made me scared or uncomfortable, that’s when I knew I was heading in the right direction."

At the heart of the show is the way Najjar’s family, like many immigrant families, come together to reach beyond comfort zones — and across intercultural, intergenerational boundaries. This includes a standout performance by Mo’s Mexican American girlfriend Maria (Teresa Ruiz), who navigates a tense yet tender relationship with the family matriarch (Farah Bsieso).

Amer endearingly reveals that his real-life family was "blown away" by the show. "My mom immediately understood it and knows the impact because this is her story. This is my brother’s story, my family’s story," the 41-year-old actor says. "In episode three, we showed her parents’ real house on TV. So she was very emotional with the flashbacks. My brothers and sisters are more shocked. They’re like, 'Did hamoodi really do that?' I question it too."

In a country that glorifies the image of the historic pioneer, Mo puts respect on immigrants, pioneers of today who cross oceans only to overcome barriers in their new home — all while still holding on to the culture that defines them. As an entertainer, Mo says he was told to change his name in order to succeed in the industry.

"When I first started staying up, there were people that were recommending that I change my name," he remembers. "It was like 'You're so talented. If you change your name, you may have a shot.' And I’m like, "What, you want me just to erase my lineage? Is that what you're asking me, Rob? Cause that's what it feels like, oh, you think I must want fame that bad?"

As a testament to the strength depicted in Mo, Amer is upbeat when he talks about the future, encouraging those who feel unseen and disillusioned to be present in their communities and families. The actor likewise stays connected to his Alief roots: he recently treated victims and families of a local apartment fire to a paid shopping trip to help replace students’ belongings like clothing, books and backpacks.

"I'm always thinking about how I did this show for Houston. Now, how can I be active in the community? And even if I'm not there, how can I just be of service quietly?," Mo says. "I think that's something that can bring a lot of peace to your heart — that process when you know that you're a part of something important, or even just create space for dialogue."

Photos courtesy of Netflix