Mo is the inspiration Palestinian cinema needs | Israelo-Palestinian conflict
“It’s Palestinian!” retorts a frustrated Mo, the protagonist of Netflix’s new self-titled comedy series, as he explains the origins of hummus after a store clerk confused the dish’s Middle Eastern cultural roots.
It was a breath of fresh air to finally see a shameless Palestinian character portrayed as a terrorist on a mainstream American network. For decades, Palestinian identity has been systematically erased from popular culture consumed by much of the world. Shows like Mo provide an opportunity to reclaim what was taken.
Throughout the series, it’s 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 the life of Mo Amer. From his love of Palestinian hummus and olive oil to discussions of his people’s loss of land and unjust impediment to their return, the show’s audience will subtly learn about the Palestinian struggle and the richness of its culture. .
It’s a struggle that for the most part hasn’t been portrayed from the Palestinian perspective in Hollywood or Western media. When captured, Palestine is portrayed as almost synonymous with terrorism and war. Such associations have real-world consequences: Last month, for example, Israel got away with raiding Palestinian human rights organizations without evidence, simply labeling them as terrorist fronts.
On the other hand, the cultural riches of Palestine have long been overlooked or appropriated and distorted as Israeli culture in Western media. Take hummus for example, which is often labeled as Israeli in many restaurants and stores across America.
Through such cultural appropriation, Palestinian identity is erased. This approach was defined by Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who infamously called on his new nation to “erase all traces of Palestine”, leading to the destruction of Arab heritage.
The constant cultural erasure serves to dehumanize Palestinians, making their death at the hands of Israeli airstrikes more palatable to Western audiences. That’s why a show like Mo can help counter that narrative.
It’s a groundbreaking narrative because before Mo, pro-Palestinian stories struggled to navigate Hollywood, which leaned heavily toward Israeli perspectives, often making Arabs the enemy. Netflix itself offers ample proof of this: shows like The Spy, produced by Gideon Raff of the highly problematic Homeland, which features the story of Israeli double agent Eli Cohen as a hero with Arabs as enemies. Other examples include Fauda, Inside the Mossad and Apple TV’s Tehran – all portraying Palestinians and other Arabs as perpetrators of violence with Israelis as heroes. These series are, frankly, little more than Israeli propaganda.
A Netflix film, When Heroes Fly, portrays four Israeli veterans as trauma victims of the 2006 war, completely unaware of the suffering of the Lebanese people who bore the brunt of the violence during the conflict.
Yet this pro-Israel slant is not the result of uneven storytelling skills. Long before the founding of Israel, Palestinian cinema was notable in the Arab world. The very first Palestinian film was a silent documentary in 1935, which inspired the launch of a multitude of production companies in Palestine.
The largest cinema in the Middle East at the time, the Alhambra Cinema, was built in Jaffa in 1937, hosting Arab pop culture behemoths such as Umm Kulthum and Farid al-Atrash. Reflecting Ben-Gurion’s call to erase Palestinian culture, the cinema was renamed Yafor after the 1948 Nakba and is now a center for Scientology.
In 2002, the Palestinian film Divine Intervention was considered for the Palme d’Or at Cannes but failed to make it to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category because Palestine was not considered a sovereign state. The following year, in an effort to increase inclusivity, the Oscars opted to treat Palestine like other non-sovereign states like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Puerto Rico, paving the way for Paradise Now to be nominated for a Oscar in 2006. Israeli diplomats at the time strongly opposed the Academy’s decision, and the film was ultimately touted as originating from the Palestinian Territories. In 2014, the Academy finally recognized Palestine, when Omar was nominated.
It is this recognition that is needed globally. In San Diego, the Paliroots clothing brand is trying to use tailoring to “raise awareness of Palestinian culture around the world”. Last month, Palestinian-American director Cherien Dabis was nominated for an Emmy Award, a historic first for an Arab woman. She described storytelling as “a necessity, a matter of survival, a way of being seen, heard and recognized in a world that would rather pretend we don’t exist.”
Mo – whose parents are stateless and undocumented migrants – captures these emotions. He shamelessly embraces his roots, wearing the keffiyeh which in the West has often been associated with militancy.
Greater visibility of Palestinian identity in the world will make it harder to erase the truth about the struggle for justice against Israel. It requires more MB and less Mossad on TV.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.