Growing up is never easy, and technology and social media have only made the process more complicated. In a post-9/11 digital age, millions of young Arab and American Muslims are struggling to find a sense of fulfillment and belonging. Hulu’s latest comedy series, “Ramy,” tackles the many challenges that these young people face as they seek to bridge the cultural gap between East and West.
“This is Not Feel Good TV”
Regardless of their cultural background or religious beliefs, many first-generation Americans grapple with similar issues. How do you fit in with your peers when your parents refuse to assimilate? How can you be who you want to be while respecting your parents and everything they sacrificed to make a better life for you? These are just some of the many questions that Ramy Youssef, a 28-year-old Egyptian-American comedian and actor, addresses in his debut series, “Ramy.”
In addition to playing the role of its namesake character, Youssef also co-wrote and co-created the 10-episode series, which is based on his experiences growing up in an Arab-Muslim family in suburban New Jersey. In the show, Youssef’s character feels disconnected and aimless after the startup company he works for abruptly closes. Ramy is also under pressure from his religiously conservative parents to settle down, start a family, and build a future.
So much of Ramy’s reality, including many of his desires, seem to be at odds with his family’s upbringing and what they want for him. “The problem is I just don’t know what kind of Muslim I am. I wanna pray,” he says, but “I wanna go to the party.” The show’s lead character constantly finds himself conflicted as he tries to blend his religious beliefs and cultural values with the realities of modern America, which are all seemingly incompatible.
While Youssef told NPR that the show is “emotionally true” to his real life, he claims that he has always had artistic freedom and “really clear conversations” with his parents. They have allowed him to explore the issues with which his character contends more freely. “I tried to imagine a character that didn’t have a creative outlet . . . . [Ramy’s] a little more stunted, and I wanted to write from that place.”
Watching Ramy juggling praying, dating, working, drinking, and family might make some viewers uncomfortable, but this discomfort is necessary for honest dialogue, according to the young comedian. “This is not feel good TV. I think it’s feeling TV. I think it’s about discussing feelings; that’s all that I set out to do with this,” Youssef told Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” when discussing the complexities of the show.
Everyone has an Uncle Naseem
Youssef pointed out that President Donald Trump barely came up in conversation during the show because he wanted to avoid using his controversial presidency to define America’s Arab and Muslim communities. However, the show does have an outrageous, Trump-like character because every family has one, according to Youssef. “I think it’s important to see a reflection of the real world, accurately,” the comedian asserted.
In the show, this character is Ramy’s maternal uncle, Naseem. After losing his job, Ramy starts to work with his uncle at his jewelry shop. Uncle Naseem is an odious man and his persona is an amalgamation of many of the perceived mischaracterizations that plague Arab and Muslim American communities, including misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism. According to Youssef, Uncle Naseem is an “algebraic character.”
“I think that many people who have watched this show and they see that character . . . say ‘I know an uncle Naseem’ or ‘I have an uncle Naseem’ . . . and we don’t know what to do with him,” the young Egyptian-American told NPR.
Youssef made no effort to water down what Uncle Naseem’s character represents. In fact, he avoided providing any resolution for Uncle Naseem’s repugnant conduct in “Ramy’s” first season, as he hopes to develop the character’s storyline in future seasons. “I think that there’s a little bit of an uneasy feeling, and I think that’s OK,” he said commenting on the lack of “instant karma” for the Uncle Naseem character.
Although “Ramy” has received many glowing reviews since it was released on April 19, it has also been met with criticism from members of Arab and Muslim communities across the U.S. While some viewers see themselves reflected in Ramy, his family, and other protagonists, many others have been disappointed with Youssef’s portrayal of the character and the community he grew up in.
Not the Representation, But a Representation
Initially, Youssef was concerned about the way Arab- and Muslim-Americans would receive his show; however, he refused to allow his apprehension to hold him back. The comedian insisted that the lack of representation of Arab and Muslim communities on TV should not be used to stifle creativity. On the contrary, the lack of ethnic minority portrayal on TV should encourage any attempts to bring more diverse narratives to American viewers. “If you operate from that scarcity, there’s no way to expand, so there’s no way to make anything.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Youssef described “Ramy” as “an interrogation of personal guilt [and] personal responsibility.” In response to a critic who suggested that the show glorified sin, Youssef contended that it did the exact opposite.
“I think there is a lot of guilt in this show . . . . By design, Ramy is a very flawed character. Arguably, he might not even be your favorite, likable character. He’s messing up with every step he takes. . . . If anything, the idea of being on the straight path is glorified. Religion is not even questioned or vilified in the way that [it] is in a lot of other art.”
Youssef claimed that his ultimate goal for creating Ramy was to “complicate the conversation” by disrupting the way people view Muslims. He also emphasized that the show was not supposed to represent every Arab or Muslim family. “I just want people to see Muslims as human. That’s it. . . . To say that all Muslims are like this—to even say that Arab Muslims in North Jersey are like this—would be ridiculous. This is my point of view, and that’s why I call the show Ramy.”
Hulu’s “Ramy” might not be everyone’s cup of tea and it might not represent every Arab-American or Muslim American’s reality. However, it does highlight one important point. Every person, no matter who he or she is or how strong his or her faith is, has lost his or her way at some point, and that is okay. We are not perfect. Life is messy and portraying this struggle in an honest way is never easy. Nevertheless, self-reflection is an important learning exercise and artistic works like “Ramy” can provide everyone with a safe space where they can hurt, heal, and grow together.