Mo is the inspiration Palestinian cinema needs

At a time when Israel’s discourse dominates Western films and TV shows, Mo tries to reclaim a lost cultural identity.

Mohammed Amer attends the Netflix Mo Amer Panel at The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills on August 20, 2022 in West Hollywood, California. Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix/AFP (Photo by Charley Gallay / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
Actor, comedian and filmmaker Mohammed Amer attends a panel discussion on his Netflix series, Mo [Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix/AFP]

“It’s Palestinian!” retorts a frustrated Mo, the protagonist of Netflix’s eponymous new comedy series, as he explains the origins of hummus after a store clerk confuses the Middle Eastern dish’s cultural roots.

It has been a breath of fresh air to finally see an unapologetically Palestinian character not portrayed as a terrorist on a mainstream American network. For decades, the Palestinian identity has been systematically erased from the popular culture consumed by much of the world. Shows like Mo provide an opportunity to reclaim what has been taken.

Throughout the series, it is impossible for viewers to ignore how Mo, played by show creator Mo Amer, proudly references his Palestinian heritage. Indeed, the show is loosely based on Mo Amer’s life. From his love of hummus and Palestinian olive oil to discussions of his people’s loss of land and the unjust prevention of their return, the show’s audience will subtly learn of the Palestinian struggle and the richness of its culture.

It’s a struggle that for the most part hasn’t been represented from the Palestinian perspective in Hollywood or Western media. When it is captured, Palestine is portrayed as almost synonymous with terrorism and war. Such associations have real-world consequences: Just last month, for example, Israel got away raiding Palestinian human rights organisations without evidence, simply by labelling them as terrorist fronts.

On the other hand, Palestine’s cultural riches have long been neglected or appropriated and misrepresented as Israeli culture in Western media. Take hummus for example, which is often labelled as Israeli in many restaurants and stores across America.

Through such cultural appropriation, the Palestinian identity is expunged. This approach was laid out by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who infamously called on his new nation to “wipe away all traces of Palestine,” leading to the destruction of Arab heritage.

Constant cultural erasure serves to dehumanise Palestinians, making their deaths at the hands of Israeli air strikes more palatable to Western audiences. That’s why a show like Mo can help counter this narrative.

It’s a breakthrough narrative because before Mo, pro-Palestinian stories have struggled to navigate Hollywood, which has largely leaned towards Israeli perspectives, often casting Arabs as the enemy. Netflix itself offers ample evidence: Shows like The Spy, produced by Gideon Raff of the highly problematic Homeland, which presents the story of Israeli double-agent Eli Cohen as a hero with Arabs as the nemesis. Other examples include Fauda, Inside the Mossad and Apple TV’s Tehran — all presenting Palestinians and other Arabs as perpetrators of violence with Israelis as heroes. These series are, frankly, little more than Israeli propaganda.

One Netflix film, When Heroes Fly, presents four Israeli veterans as victims of trauma from the 2006 war, completely oblivious to the suffering of the people of Lebanon who bore the brunt of the violence during the conflict.

Yet, this pro-Israel tilt isn’t the consequence of mismatched storytelling abilities. Well before the foundation of Israel, Palestinian cinema was notable across the Arab world. The first ever Palestinian film was a silent documentary in 1935, which inspired the launch of a flurry of production companies in Palestine.

The largest movie theatre at the time in the Middle East, Alhambra Cinema, was built in Jaffa in 1937 hosting behemoths of Arab pop culture such as Umm Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash. Mirroring Ben-Gurion’s call to erase Palestinian culture, the cinema was renamed Yafor after the 1948 Nakba and is now a Scientology centre.

In 2002, the Palestinian film Divine Intervention was considered for the Palme d’Or Award at Cannes but failed to make it to the Oscars under the Best Foreign Picture category as Palestine was not considered a sovereign state. The following year, in a bid to increase inclusivity, the Oscars opted to treat Palestine as it does other non-sovereign states like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Puerto Rico, paving the way for Paradise Now to be nominated for an Oscar in 2006. Israeli diplomats at the time strongly opposed the Academy’s decision and the film was eventually presented as being from the Palestinian Territories. In 2014, the Academy finally recognised Palestine, when Omar was nominated.

It is this recognition that is needed on a global scale. In San Diego, clothing brand Paliroots is trying to use couture to bring “awareness to the world about Palestinian culture”. Last month, Palestinian American director Cherien Dabis was nominated for an Emmy Award, an historic first for an Arab woman. She has described storytelling as “a necessity, a matter of survival, a way to be seen, heard and acknowledged in a world that would prefer to pretend we didn’t exist”.

Mo — whose parents are stateless, undocumented migrants — captures those emotions. He unashamedly embraces his roots, wearing the keffiyeh that in the West has often been associated with militancy.

Greater visibility for the Palestinian identity globally will make it harder to erase the truth of the struggle for justice against Israel. That needs more Mo, and less Mossad on TV.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.