This profile piece is part of Ramy’s extended interview for Say Wallah!, the first podcast from the editors of MuslimGirl.com, where we bring our group chat to life! Catch the full new episode featuring Ramy now on Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud. NOTE: Spoilers ahead — you have been warned.
“I wanted a show that would be real. It’s not like these things are not happening in our community. They are happening, and my show is just being honest.”
It’s been a historic year for diversity in TV and film, not least of all for one young Egyptian man from New Jersey adding to its legacy. Ramy Youssef has moved Muslim and Arab social discourse with the recent debut of his new show, “Ramy,” on Hulu. It sounds familiar to a lot of us: the funny and poignant comedy series follows Ramy Hassan, a millennial living in north Jersey, as he grapples with his Muslim faith and American-Egyptian identity.
While the logline might sound surprising for today’s industry, it’s hardly a new concept to Ramy. The stand-up comedian has devoted his entire career to producing and showcasing comedy that challenges people’s preconceived notions. He made quite the late night impression when he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about two years ago, in which he laughably lamented the possibility of turning 30 and “get[ting] a Hogwarts letter from ISIS.” It’s still one of the top viewed videos on Youtube for the comedian, with the top comment asking, “Did he just… dawah while doing standup?” Before he became Ramy Youssef, producer and Hulu star, he was Ramy Youssef, your typical funny Jersey guy traveling between LA and NYC to perform his stand-up routines.
One can credit his big break to the announcement that Hulu was running his eponymous show, co-starring one of Egypt’s most notable actors, Amr Waked. With such a strong cast, Ramy and his team began what would ultimately be an unforgettable journey filled with social conversations never before undertaken so publicly in the Arab or Muslim community.
What makes “Ramy” a show unlike any other, not without garnering intra-community controversy, is perhaps its courageous approach in showcasing Muslim communities and young Muslims facing real issues surrounding sex, dating, drugs, and — most importantly — faith.
“It’s interesting,” Ramy expresses, “There’s this, like, highlight on the sex in the show like that’s not what people consume in this country…I mean, statistically most of the porn in the world is viewed from Muslim-majority countries. This is, of course, Pakistan, Saudi.” [Editors’ note: Muslim Girl was unable to find a reputable source to verify this.] On the topic of the seeming hypocrisy surrounding Muslim shows, Ramy continues, “It’s really fascinating to me that we have this double standard the second that the characters who are Muslim are doing it, or engaging in it, or talking about it. All of a sudden, there’s a problem that we can’t look at it while a bunch of people watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and anything else that’s going on. The double standards go to the double standard. But also, what [the show] does is, these scenes are intimate and I think they open up necessary conversations.”
Absolutely determined to drive the point home, Ramy adds, “And I think that there’s an interesting thing to be said about when we avoid sex so much in our culture. Um, let’s see. In our Arab culture, while we sit in an American culture that is very much, you know, experiencing it and exposing it, we start to feel like we can’t talk about it [sex] within our own community. So, we go elsewhere. And what ends up happening with that is we actually just ended up dating other people. And then what ends up happening is we ended up just starting families outside of people who share our values because we feel like those people can’t handle our realities and we feel like we’re separate and we feel like we’re outcasts. And so it’s really important to bridge that. And so, the discomfort that comes from it is actually a good thing because there’s no nudity in the show.”
“…television, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. This isn’t what you should do. This is why things are, and, and I kind of, you know, would ask people who are incensed by the scenes, or just feel discomfort, to kind of take a step back and just ask the question, is this true?”
Without a doubt, the frank awareness and discussion around sex in the show is what has garnered the most attention among some Muslim circles. One episode displays Ramy’s inner turmoil when he stops himself from hooking up with a girl in the early hours of the morning because it’s about to be time for fajr prayer. Another awkwardly pokes fun at his sister “experimenting” with a shower head. It was definitely enough to inspire discomfort, but also a self-reflective pall of doubt for some wondering if the show really depicted the reality for Muslim youth.
Ramy seems completely self-aware of the Muslim response to the show and is not afraid to push back on it. “This is a premium streaming and cable network where we could’ve, we could’ve shown as much as we wanted and we didn’t. You know, it’s there to necessitate conversation. It’s also not there to say that, like, sexual freedom is freedom. You know, I think if you look at the sexual experiences that happen in this show, they’re not a co-sign of them and they’re not this standard that everyone’s, like, striving for. I think they usually complicate things for the characters in our show and lead them to question things more.”
In an oped for The Hollywood Reporter, Ramy outlined his thoughts on tokenism and where his show stands in the greater landscape of representation. In our conversation, he doubles down on the purpose he sees for his show. “This is not television that gives you a how-to-be-Muslim guide, you know, this isn’t that. And television, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive. This isn’t what you should do. This is why things are, and, and I kind of, you know, would ask people who are incensed by the scenes, or just feel discomfort, to kind of take a step back and just ask the question, is this true?”
It is truly amazing to witness a creative mind tackle such hard issues in such an honest way so successfully for television audiences. In essence, the whole show begs us — as outside viewers looking in — to lean into uncomfortable territory. Be it the discomfort that comes with seeing a Muslim woman explore her sexuality, or a Muslim man praying in the street, Ramy encourages us to unpack this discomfort so that we may see something recognizable.
Truly, the honesty that Ramy brings to life in the prickly topics he navigates and the characters he depicts are unparalleled for what we’ve seen in television. For one, the character of Ramy embodies the notions of personal growth and exploration as he navigates going to prayer on Friday afternoons and parties on Friday nights. On top of that, each supporting character’s unique aspects and struggles animate very real experiences facing the modern American Muslim population.
It is precisely how relatable each character is that makes “Ramy” a never-before-seen type of show. I myself had countless moments of awe as I watched a character reflect my inner strife. In particular, the women on the show struck chords that brought up an interesting mix of both discomfort and awe. For those who have yet to watch “Ramy,” the show portrays women in all facets of life. It succeeds in showcasing women fighting against the patriarchal systems as we watch Ramy’s on-screen sister verbally call out toxic and hypocritical practices within Arab and Muslim cultures.
On the opposite end of that spectrum, however, “Ramy” also displays veiled Muslim women in rather stereotyped roles. Say what?
Had Ramy Youssef not met any fun hijabis? I took this opportunity to ask him why it seemed to me that most of the hijabi Muslim women on the show were represented as stereotypes of veiled women, i.e perfect, stick-in-the-muds, or woeful housewives looking for some relief from their too-busy-to-care husbands. What gives, Ramy?
“I would say that it’s interesting with our show, we really kind of focus on certain topics. You know, we kind of really zone in on a character and I think that we’re really excited and looking forward to having a character who wears a hijab where we really get into the why of it. And personally I think I would love to look at constructing the argument of why people do wear it, which is really exciting to me. Um, this is something I really want to do moving forward. But I also hope that the characters don’t seem cartoonish, you know…and so we haven’t gotten the character who has that shine yet, but I’m very much looking forward to doing this.”
If anything, Ramy’s dialogue around women exemplifies the ongoing journey for accurate Muslim representation. Personally, I look forward to following the journey of the show’s female characters as they embark on the show’s second season! And while Ramy unpacks issues around the representation of Muslim women, he also provides a much-anticipated response to viewers who see his character grappling with ways to balance being Muslim and American, and recognize themselves in their modern millennial struggle:
“[I’m] really not a great role model. What I tried to do with my life is to just try to stay on my prayers. Like I really think that’s like a really good way to kind of protect your heart and try to be the best version of yourself. And I find that when I’m doing that I’m making better decisions and you know, [that’s] really all I can say.”
“Ramy” is not a show or a guide on how to be the perfect Muslim — it’s a show of authenticity, humor, and vulnerability. No doubt, these are all things we could use a lot of more of as millennial Muslims continue to navigate our modern new realities and embark on the uncharted territory of our multiplex existence.
If you want more of Ramy Youssef, check out our full conversation on Muslim Girl’s “Say Wallah” podcast!
Edited by Manal Moazzam