At some point during my childhood in the suburbs of Kansas City, my parents, the children of Palestinian refugees who themselves migrated to the U.S. from Syria, finagled some sort of antenna in order to access channels from the countries they’d left behind. I remember the drama of the shows I loved most, the Arabic music and dialogue. I remember waiting eagerly for my father to pick up the remote each night. For them, it was a taste of home. For me, it was one of the few chances I had to catch glimpses of a culture I felt both deeply intertwined with and distant from.
Years would pass between visits to Syria, the first country their respective families sought refuge in and the land where many of them remain, and in those gaps in time, I felt adrift. It may sound like a cliché, but to be Arab, Muslim, and especially Palestinian in this country felt confusing, overwhelming, controversial, and, for the most part, solitary. And it didn’t help that my particular first-generation experience was rarely depicted in pop culture — not on Disney Channel, not on MTV, not even on my parents’ favorite Arab satellite channels.
I wasn’t aware of how much I needed to see a version of myself onscreen until I watched Mo Amer’s freshman Netflix series, Mo, this summer, and later watched the third season of Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical comedy series Ramy on Hulu.
Each episode of Mo dug into old emotional wounds I didn’t know were still stinging; scenes like Mo asking his father, “Why aren’t we going together?” when his family was forced to split up as they fled Kuwait after already fleeing Palestine, or Mo, unable to return to Palestine, waking up from a dream where he’d visited his grandmother at home there, chatting with her over tea and knafeh. In those moments, I saw my fractured family, forced to scatter across countries generation after generation, forgoing graduations and weddings and birthdays and entire lifetimes without one another. I saw my grandparents, standing on their balcony waving good-bye as we drove away in a taxicab, wondering how many years would go by before I saw them waving hello. It’s a hurt I thought had healed and scabbed over.
While watching Amer’s comedic depiction of his life as a Palestinian living in Texas (ranchers assume he’s from Palestine, Texas; a grocery-store employee mistakes hummus as a Mexican food rather than a Palestinian one; and, more tragically, Mo and his family desperately apply for asylum for 22 years straight), I saw my lineage of Palestinian refugees, continuously displaced. But to watch my generational trauma, one that stems from my grandparents’ expulsion from Palestine in the 1948 Nakba, play out on Netflix, one of the largest streaming platforms in the world, felt like heartache and relief. It was like looking in a mirror — and having a hairier, louder version of me staring back.
Mo isn’t a show for the masses; it’s a show for Palestinian Americans, stuck in limbo between two cultures. It’s a show for Palestinian refugees who feel a twinge of guilt calling themselves asylum seekers when they grew up far from the suffering those still living in the homeland experience. And it’s a show that serves as a reminder of Palestinians’ collective resilience in the face of adversity, when all this time life could have been so soft.
There is so much guilt to be carried and shared and passed around with the Palestinian diaspora — the 5 million and counting refugees who have fled Palestine and been forced to scatter to places like Houston and New York and Kansas City. There’s a survivor’s guilt that hangs heavy and low and clouds many of my interactions with my culture. Why aren’t I living in Gaza? Why am I not sticking it out in our homeland, making sure our land and our history and our people are not erased and forgotten and buried away? To see those the characters on Mo find ways to lean into their culture, through food, music, and conversation, and celebrate it all in the present, had a profound effect on me and other Palestinian friends who have watched it, all the while sending selfies back and forth of us crying each episode. The family dynamics we watched onscreen in this show prompted an ocean of emotions I didn’t quite know how to define. It was the first time I’d ever had the privilege of feeling them.
A little over a month after Mo premiered, I noticed Palestinians were back on the media forefront in season three of Ramy. In the series, co-written by Amer alongside Youssef, our flawed protagonist makes a trip to occupied Palestinian land. He shows us more than I’ve ever seen in American programming outside of the news: We see the wall separating Palestinians from their former homeland; Ramy’s Palestinian uncle, perpetually unable to visit his homeland due to his nationality, whisked away by military officials, only to be sent back to the U.S.; and Palestinians herded like cattle in literal cages, crossing government checkpoints, as many do on a daily basis to reach their jobs, family, and friends. We see a group of Palestinian children dragged out of their homes, beaten, and arrested. We also hear a Palestinian character living in East Jerusalem say, “It’s not about religion, it’s about the government. They have no interest in our existence.” It’s difficult to watch, and equally difficult to decide whether these scenes, written from an American perspective and enmeshed within a show known as a comedy, trivialize the Palestinian struggle or merely depict the truth of what our people endure in a semi-digestible way for Ramy’s large international audience.
To me, it was the latter. It felt like a salve to the desperation I feel for my peers and people of non-Arab descent to understand what’s happening in Palestine. To see Palestine. To simply say “Palestine.” It felt humanizing.
There’s a running joke among the general Middle Eastern diaspora that a Palestinian will never let you forget they’re Palestinian. But what other choice do we have? Our mere existence has been so heavily politicized that it has, in turn, become the main vehicle through which we ensure our history will not be forgotten.
Mo reveals the delight in sharing the truth about Palestinian culture: Yes, we are now an oppressed people from a war-torn land, but there is no shortage of culture begging to be shared. We see it in the mismatched décor of his mother’s home, an attempt at blending Palestinian interior influence with a suburban American one. We see it in the bottle of olive oil Mo carries with him, in the dialect of Arabic Mo’s family speaks amongst themselves and their community, in Mo’s continued desire to put his own needs aside and put those of his family before his. We see it every time Mo calls his brother “habibi,” and every time Yusra, the matriarch of the family, offers olive oil (yes, more olive oil) as a cure to any ailment. We especially see it when Yusra tells Mo, “We are Palestinians. We carry on.”
A few years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what it truly meant to be Palestinian. Now, not only do I feel it — I see it reflected back at me in shows on two massive streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu. I see the beauty and the flaws in the people I share an ancestry with, and it’s all equally important because it’s true and it’s honest and it’s me. I see us all in a piece of American media, in a country whose government rarely acknowledges our existence and does little, if anything, to preserve Palestinian culture.
It might seem trite or silly to hang your hat on a morsel of representation on some streaming platforms, but to me, it feels monumental. While I know watching television does not equate to social justice, it feels like a tide has turned. It feels like we can finally stop tiptoeing around what it means to be Palestinian and settle into the truth of it all. We can finally celebrate our culture and our heritage in a public way with less fear of retaliation. We can finally have a small stake of digital land in the bedlam of media to call home.