The Mayyas, 'Mo', and Dabis--Arab Creatives on Their Own Terms
By: Norah Soufraji / Arab America Contributing Writer
It’s 2022 and Arab creatives are having a moment. Lebanese dance group the Mayyas dazzled their way through the America’s Got Talent competition and were recently crowned the Season 17 champions. Mo Amer’s Netflix series Mo, the first American television series created by and starring a Palestinian is a smash hit with rave reviews. Cherien Dabis, a Palestinian-American director was nominated for an Emmy for directing episodes of Hulu’s Only Murders In the Building, another streaming platform hit. Arabs and Arab Americans have long been “othered” and stereotyped negatively in American media. However, a trend towards inclusive representation is at hand.
Leaving the Past Behind
Arab representation in American pop culture and media has had a controversial history. Hollywood’s golden age gave us images of devious sheiks with waxed mustaches and often fetishized Arab women. Post 9/11, Arabs were rebranded as fanatical terrorists and oppressed veiled women waiting for their white saviors. In short, Hollywood’s depiction of Arabs has been cringeworthy at best and often simply down right racist.
Disney’s beloved classic Aladdin is not even exempt. In the opening song Arabian Nights the lyrics describe the mythical land of Aqaba “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!”
In recent years, Arab creatives have worked tirelessly to change the narrative and to humanize their representation. These last few months we are beginning to see the fruits of their labor. Arabs and Arab Americans are now showcasing their creativity on their own terms.
The Mayyas, an all-female 36-member dance troupe from Lebanon was recently crowned the Season 17 winners of the widely popular talent show America’s Got Talent. Their name comes from the Arabic phrase which translates as “the proud walk of a lioness” which fully encapsulates the passion and spirit of the Mayyas. Dancing exclusively to original compositions of Middle Eastern/Arabic style music, each of the 36 dancers move together as a synchronized unit. Their elaborate costumes and intricate choreography complement their perfectly in-sync movements, creating a hypnotic effect that impressed AGT judges and audiences week after week.
Back home in Lebanon, many Lebanese people have been going through a period of economic instability and uncertainty, but that has not stopped Lebanese audiences from tuning in and rooting for the Mayyas every week. American viewers and people from all over the world seem to share the same sentiment. It seems as though the entire world has been behind them in support of even those who haven’t watched AGT being captivated.
The Mayyas have been dancing together for more than 10 years with the creative direction of choreographer Nadim Cherfan. In an interview with AGT, Cherfan said, “Lebanon is not considered a place where you can build a career out of dancing. It’s really hard –and harder for women” That did not deter the Mayyas from improving their act year after year. The Mayyas describe themselves as a sisterhood who have found their power in their love of dancing.
The Mayyas worked tirelessly to achieve their dreams and the results speak for themselves. During the competition, the group practiced every day for many hours in order to perfect their routines. Simon Cowell, famed as the judge whom contestants are the least likely to impress, described the group as “the best dancing act we are ever likely to see”.
When asked what was their ultimate dream during their first audition on the AGT stage one member said, “Us being here, standing on the biggest stage in the world, is our only chance to prove to the world what Arab women can do, the art we can create, the fights we fight” One cannot help but be inspired and mesmerized by the Mayyas who are sharing Arab women’s empowerment, grace, and talent on the global stage.
Mo Amer & Netflix’s Mo
The 2022 smash hit Mo, the first tv series of its kind created by and starring Palestinian comedian Mo Amer is the first series American audiences have seen centering on a Palestinian family.
Initially, Mo Amer gained notoriety after the release of his Netflix standup special Mo Amer: The Vagabond and for his supporting role in Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef’s Hulu series Ramy. Development and co-creating Mo for Netflix was a labor of love grounded in the experience of immigration and finding one’s place while dealing with the chaos of the American asylum system.
Mo Amer himself immigrated to the United States at the age of 9 following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Much of the characters and situations in the series are based on Amer’s own life experiences. The series is also set in Houston, TX which has been dubbed the most diverse city in America. Mo explores the hardships of the Palestinian refugee experience through comedy.
In press interviews, Amer stressed the importance of creating an authentic and relatable story, a story that not only Palestinian or Arab Americans can relate to, but anyone who has struggled to achieve their piece of the American dream. The city of Houston plays an integral part of the story-telling and also serves as a character in and of itself. During development, Amer wanted his love for Houston to shine through and insisted for the series be shot as though it were an urban western. In an interview with the Washington Post, Amer fondly spoke about his attachment to Houston and discussed his childhood growing up in a suburb home to 80 total spoken languages.
Over the course of the series, we follow Mo as he navigates working under the table and odd jobs to provide for his mother and younger brother, who are still in the middle of the asylum process after 20 years. Because of that, Mo cannot work legally and feels like he cannot get ahead and be a provider like his late father. Themes of family, guilt, and loss are consistent throughout Mo’s journey. As an audience, we are given insight into his familial relationships with his mother, his brother, who like Amer’s own brother is on the spectrum, and his sister who attempts to distance herself from the family’s painful past. We also see the ways in which Mo must process the grief of losing his father and how he balances his relationship with his Mexican-American girlfriend.
Mo essentially tackles extremely serious and pertinent issues but also balances the narrative with fun, absurdity, and hummus jokes. The extremely binge-able first season is well worth the watch and we cannot wait for the second season.
Cherien Dabis & Only Murders in the Building
Award-winning Palestinian-American director, writer, actress, and producer Cherien Dabis recently received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for her impressive directing in Only Murders in the Building. This nomination came as no surprise given her impressive track record. Her 2009 debut feature film Amreeka was an Indie and festival circuit favorite. She also directed episodes for hit tv shows Ramy, Ozark, and The Sinner, and worked as a writer on The L Word.
Dabis grew up in a small town in Ohio. Around the time of the first Gulf War, Dabis recalled having an “identity crisis” as she faced many challenges assimilating with her Arab/Palestinian identity in small-town middle America. These early life experiences inspired Dabis to seek to change the ways in which Arabs are perceived in American pop culture.
Upon graduating from university, Dabis worked in Washington, D.C. for a few years. In an interview, Dabis mused, “I realized that I could reach more people and affect more change through fiction than politics.”
Since coming to that realization, Dabis has not looked back. Her films Amreeka and May in the Summer and episodes of Hulu series Ramy portray characters who, like Dabis, also encounter and work to overcome their own “identity crisis”. Dabis, who can be found in front of the camera, also stars as Mo Amer’s sister in his Netflix series Mo.
The Emmy-nominated episode of Only Murders in the Building entitled “The Boy from 6B” gives the audience a glimpse into the world of mystery and comedy through the eyes of a deaf character named Theo. Dabis has been praised for her attention to detail and her efforts to create an authentic representation of the deaf community.
In an interview, Dabis said, “As someone who also understands what it is to be both underrepresented and even dangerously misrepresented as an Arab-American, a Palestinian American to be even more specific, I was really sensitive to wanting to involve to involve the community, to do homework, to research the ways in which the deaf community has been misrepresented and the ways in which they have authentic representation out there”
Dabis’ clear understanding of the importance of accurate and humanized representation shines through and serves as an example for other directors to follow.
Going forward we can only hope that the trend of Arab creatives receiving a platform to authentically showcase their craft will continue.
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