Mohammed Mustafa Badawi Amer Omar Najjar is trying to make a name for himself. For the sake of a tongue-tied America, "Mo Amer" will have to suffice.
It's what the local comedian, now 22, has gone by since fourth grade -- right around the time Saddam's army crashed into his homeland of Kuwait and Amer left the country when his family lost their house.
"It's so funny, my mom still makes fun of this to this day," he says. "It's very hard to wake me up, okay, very hard. Even at a small age. Even when the Iraqi soldiers did come in, broke down the door and everything, searching like at one o'clock in the morning, I was asleep and didn't wake up."
What followed was more tragic, of course. He woke up to news of the invasion. His mother told him that the night before she had barely kept a soldier from tossing a grenade through his window. His late father tried to protect the family by accommodating the enemy soldiers and, in doing so, incurred the wrath of the Kuwaiti government.
He was held for 50 days, Amer says, and his health was damaged when they neglected his diabetes medication. Amer fled with his sister to America, where an older brother was earning a Ph.D. at the University of Houston. He watched the war unfold on the news, trying to figure out what was happening on his native soil.
If comics are moved by tragedy, as the old archetype goes, then Mo Amer has plenty to draw upon. Then again, he says he's been doing stand-up since he could stand up -- a lifelong smart-ass who would shut off the TV and get in front of it at age two, clowning for the whole family. At Hastings High School in Alief ISD, he says, some of his teachers would give him five minutes at the end of class to perform. (It may have been something of a bargain: "'Cause I was such a person that screwed off. I didn't care about school. Like, I was the kid who brought crickets to school, you know, and just put 'em everywhere.")
On a recent weekday afternoon, Amer discusses his antics at the fifth-floor apartment he shares with his mother and brother on the southwest side of town. A Walter Payton jersey is draped over his stout frame, his cheeks bracketed by thick sideburns, puffing out when he breaks into a smile, which is often.
To someone who didn't know better, his Palestinian heritage might not be immediately apparent. With fairly ambiguous features and skin tone, he could almost pass for Greek or Hispanic or, with the big swooping gestures and bada-bing wise-guy inflections, maybe an Italian from Jersey. That is, perhaps, the point.
"I'm Muslim. I'm Arab. Yeah. Okay," he says. "But at the same time, I'm so Americanized, it's not even funny." He digs Biggie Smalls and spends hours zoning out with his Xbox. And his comedic routine is not much more ethnic -- or religiously specific -- than those of Jerry Seinfeld or Bill Cosby.
His CD compilation, Checkmate, storms through 19 bellowing, ranting, Chris Farley-manic tracks before you get to the perfunctory "I'm Arab-American" riff followed by FBI and quickie-mart jokes. Much more of it is devoted to bits like Amer getting out of a drunk-driving ticket by resorting to homosexuality, or Amer accidentally smearing Ben-Gay on his testicles. Haram?
"Why? Why? Who tells me it's haram? Who's telling me?" he snaps playfully. "That's true, I'm Muslim, yes. I'm very proud of where I come from, yes But at the same time, it's just a joke, take it easy, I'm not a guy killing people. I'm not, you know, stealing money from people. And that's just the way I write. If you don't like it, you don't have to listen to it. There's nothing really offensive there. If you find it offensive, you're not going to enjoy life. Truly. Do they find two monkeys screwing in the tree offensive?"
His mother, Amy Hadi, puts it more softly: "Sometimes you just feel you need a little bit of vacation to go away from all the pressure that you have. If he's all right between him and God, the God who knows everything, then what do we do?"
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Fresh out of high school, Amer charged into the comedy world, determined to make a splash. Danny Martinez, co-founder of The Comedy Showcase near Hobby Airport, mentored Amer while he scraped by with jobs at his uncle's convenience store and a nearby flag shop. More recently he's toured Europe and Asia entertaining U.S. troops, and now he's working on writing a sitcom about his family life. His shtick is by no means exclusively Muslim -- instead, he's trying to overcome that tendency to pigeonhole.
"That's the part that I'm trying to just let out there. It's just we're not frickin' Osama bin Laden sons of bitches," he says. "I do have a nephew that's named Osama. And his father refuses to change his name, because he says, 'Why should I change his name just because of one dick?' You know how many Timothys are in this world?
"I'm not trying to prove anything. I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything," he says, explaining why he avoids talk of politics or the Middle East conflict. "I believe just by the time you're done seeing my show, by the time you see me talk about my family and my uncles and whatnot, you don't see that anymore. You don't see, hey, this guy's Middle Eastern. You just see, hey, this is a regular guy. Just telling a story. And that's what I want!" he exclaims.
"Nobody ever remembers me as the Indian comedian, as the Arabic guy, as the Muslim; everybody always remembers me by my name. They remember my uncles, and remember my name, they remember what I do, and they have their favorite joke," he says. "The last thing, 'Oh, that's right, he's Arabic, isn't he?' That's the last thing! And that's the way it should be." -- Michael Serazio