In 1990, when he was just nine, Mohammed “Mo” Amer fled his birth country of Kuwait with his family to escape the violence of the Gulf War. They sought asylum in Houston, moving from, as Amer puts it, “one oil juggernaut to another.” Amer’s experiences as a Muslim refugee (he became an American citizen in 2009) gave him plenty of talking points when, in December 2016—because of happenstance or, as he suspects, an airline employee who supported Hillary Clinton—he was seated next to Eric Trump on a flight, leading to an exchange that went viral. But more notably, they serve as the backbone of his comedy career, which he has steadily built since the age of fourteen in his adopted hometown. In 2015, he got his big break when he began regularly opening for Dave Chappelle, and now he has his own stand-up special. Mo Amer: The Vagabond was filmed at Austin’s Paramount Theatre in June and released on Netflix in October.
TEXAS MONTHLY: When you first came to Houston, your whole family wasn’t initially together, right?
MO AMER: No, my father had disappeared, and we didn’t know where he was; he was taken away. [He eventually joined the family in the U.S.] So my mom went back into the war zone. There were things going on that I found out about, many years later, that astound me to this day. I don’t know how she did it. My mom went back for nine months. My mom—I get chills thinking about her, man. She’s still with us, thank God, and she is the most inspirational person in my life. But let’s not get all emotional right out the gate! Can we just talk about early life in Houston or something? My first experience with Halloween? Two days of being in America, and there were all these crazy Americans dressed up with blood gushing from their necks. I was like, “What is happening here?” I just see all these beautiful women wearing nothing, and then blood everywhere. Like, you get candy for doing this? This is the best thing ever.
TM: When you filmed your stand-up special, the family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border were the top headlines in the news. What is it like for you to watch that?
MA: It makes me want to curse a lot. It’s very disturbing to me that we’ve lost our humanity in a way where we don’t look at people as people anymore. We’ve become a really desensitized society. Chappelle has talked about when the space shuttle Challenger exploded, in the eighties, schools sent kids home. A lot of kids went directly home, because it was so impactful to their soul and spirit to see something so dramatic. Now it’s just like, “Oh, kids at the border, people died, whatever, a bomb, a drone.” We’re so desensitized to the whole situation. There are real people, real feelings.
TM: Not only are you an immigrant, you’re Muslim too. When you think back about living here and working toward your citizenship, how difficult was it to be a Muslim in Houston?
MA: It was fine. I didn’t have any problems.
TM: Really? None?
MA: And then 9/11 happened. It was a very traumatic experience. I was pursuing my career in 1999, and then, two years later, my family would laugh. They’d say, “Nobody wants to see an Arab onstage! What are you, crazy? And you’re Muslim? Forget it, you’re done.” And I always looked at it as, “No, I’m not done, as a matter of fact. This is what’s going to push me forward.” There were a really tough few years where I didn’t know what was going to happen in that climate. It took me six months after 9/11 to admit who I was onstage. Being a comedian’s all about being honest and being real and talking about things from your perspective. Meanwhile, I was like, “Hey, guys, I’m an Italian! Molto bene!” I was really scared. I was really worried, for my sake, for my family’s. I didn’t know how to move and operate. And then, six months in, I thought, “Man, I’ve just got to be real. And whatever happens, happens.”
TM: In your comedy routines, you play off of the stereotypes that we know, but you break them down and prove them wrong. That’s part of the equation.
MA: My equation is being funny. That’s the most important thing, being hilarious. Now, trying to teach everybody . . . what am I, a professor? I try to be funny and, equally important to me, thought-provoking. And if you can do those two things, then you’re golden as a stand-up comedian. But even pre-9/11, I saw that there was a massive gap in knowledge regarding Arab culture. I mean, I see hummus everywhere today. This is a chickpea paste that I grew up eating from the time I could remember, right from the moment I had a memory. And now it’s being sold for $6.99 everywhere, being mixed with pine nuts and all kinds of horrible things that it shouldn’t be mixed with. I just can’t believe how far we’ve come. Everybody knows what falafel is now! In 2001 people would say, “Ew, what is that little green cilantro-looking thing? I don’t know what the hell that thing is.” It’s just interesting how everybody eventually catches up. Can you imagine eating sushi in the U.S. in the forties? Probably not. But everybody eats sushi now. They had a problem with Japan back then, but today, everybody goes, “Oh, sushi, yes! Sashimi, mmm.” Nobody thinks about World War II while eating it. Not a single person.
TM: Why do you think Dave Chappelle took a chance on you?
MA: Because I’m a refugee, man. He felt bad. I showed him these videos of me as a kid, walking the streets, and he was like, “I have to help this kid out.” No, I’m kidding. I think we’re really similar. It’s just really interesting, the parallels that we found out later, and there’s something really spiritual about our experience, about our friendship and our brotherhood. And I think he thinks that I’m really hilarious. At least, I hope so.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Vagabond.” Subscribe today.