How ‘Ramy’ captures the internal struggle of the millennial Muslim
This article contains spoilers.
Ramy, Hulu’s coming-of-age comedy, follows the life of its co-creator Ramy Youssef in a fictitious character arc that carries the viewer throughout protagonist Ramy Hussein’s day-to-day life, as well as an altering rotation and extension of his grapples.
The show is a breath of fresh air, covering topics of Arabian culture that have been stifled throughout the years. The series received controversial reviews regarding its depictions of Muslims — in particular, Muslim women. Still, there’s something to be said about the show that truly encapsulates the daily lives of those practicing modern Islam.
There is a quintessential portrayal of quotidians found in the series, from feeling the pressure of marriage, instilled restrictions on the female gender, the interaction, and impressions within the community. Plus, there’s a curtailment of culture that seems to tie into every episode.
While these are seldom heard and even more seldom understood, the takeaway from Ramy is not the differences in treatment between men and women. It is not found in the disaggregation of family dynamics or disunion of a bicultural home.
Instead, the show’s natural aptitude comes from something much larger and distinct; the internal struggle that Muslim millennials face on a consistent basis, from family to friends to relationships.
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As Ramy’s character navigates his life of a 20-something, he finds it pertinent to become heavily involved with his religion and culture. We watch as his transformation is contrasted in his decisions.
For example, his willingness to go to mosque, a development from the first episode where he fails to understand why he needed to wash between his toes before prayer is far from the final episode. In comparison to the first episode, for the last episode, Ramy joins a Sufi prayer gathering and falls into a spell of feverish devotion, finally finding peace within his company.
His transformative path is also mirrored in his attempt at failed relationships. Ramy finds himself going for women who are unavailable from a central variation, like his affinity towards Jewish women, which always seems to result in an abrupt and unexpected end. This causes him to seek a more interchangeable connection, looking for love in Muslim women, which he finds is even less agreeable.
Furthermore, within his North Jersey community of Arabs, Ramy tries his best at holding onto the little threads of culture that he has left over through the wash of American formalities he experiences growing up.
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The heart of the show is centered, like most Arabian dramas, around finding love. This love is not limited to romantic love, but love in all aspects; for his “God,” (which, in the earlier episodes seems to pose a scrap of skepticism) for a partner, and for his culture.
Throughout the series, we see a persistent underlying theme of sex. To some, this is nothing more than a veneer meant to brighten the plot with a more acceptable and relatable viewing.
However, the focus on sex isn’t only meant to serve the viewer a digestible plot-line. Instead, sex is meant to present a bona fide lesson that at the end of the day, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, the characters remain human with human needs.
Furthermore, the subject of sex has been taboo in Arabian culture for ages. In the seventh episode, we follow Ramy’s mother, Maysa, (Hiam Abbass) as she tries to arouse what was once hers; the feeling of being a lively and desirable woman.
Ramy’s mother mentions to his father Farouk (Amr Wakeed) that they’ve watched the same movie over and over again (another commonality in Arabian culture), and though her husband seems to be engaged, she is frustrated in the mundanity of life. The episode ends on an unanticipated note as she and Farouk end up having sex in front of the television, which continues to play an old Egyptian film in the background.
Human sexuality is also used in navigating difficult topics through humor. The subject of self-pleasure is the central focus throughout the season, but particularly in what should be the heaviest episode of the season, Ramy experiencing September 11, 2001.
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Here, we watch as a young Ramy dreams that he comes face to face with Osama Bin Laden himself. Bin Laden then attempts to coerce him into accepting his natural inclination as a bad person, calling him out on lying that he was able to masturbate to his friends. While this can be taken as tawdriness, the simple engagement of such a topic shifts darker themes into more light-hearted authenticity.
The show explores the lives of other objective characters, dedicating an entire episode to the matriarch of the family, as well as Ramy’s sister Dena (May Calamawy). In her journey, we see Dena struggling to figure out her “issue” of virginity, breaking free from strictness at home, being 25 and unwed, as well as her forced inexperience.
This recurring subject is demonstrated in the very first episode, as Ramy attempts a date with “Nour” (Dina Shihabi) who turns out to be nothing that he expected from a Muslim girl. Dena and Nour share a common difficulty in breaking free of women living in a man’s culture through seemingly failed attempts at free sexuality.
Ironically, in the episode prior to Dena’s, Ramy finds a lover in the one woman no one would have expected: A wed, hijabi mother of one, whom Ramy meets walking back home from the mosque during Ramadan. After relations with his mother, her son Ali comes into the room and asks Ramy a question which is substantial to his overall confliction. “Are you a bad guy?”
And we see it again in Dena’s episode, where one of her best friends Fatima (Jade Eshete) talks about losing her virginity and the fact that it “just happened” with a guy in her program, before throwing on her hijab to grab the Chinese Food from the delivery man at the door.
At an earlier time, the idea of hijabi women engaging in lewd acts on the television would be frowned upon, but this innovative show looks beyond the prohibitions of the past. In Ramy, these scenes remind us that the characters are, at their very core, humans with human needs and wants. In traversing their lives, we arrive at questions left for interpretation, inspection and open conclusions: What makes a real Muslim “devout?”
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Season 1 is concluded with juxtaposing conditions, when in the second to last episode, Ramy decides to embark on a journey back to the Middle East after his friend Steve (Steve Way) seems to push him to the limit in an uncomfortable evening with two underage girls. There, Ramy hopes to cleanse himself of anything “American,” and he lands in Egypt in hopes that he can spend time with his family and lose himself in the sweep of the Middle Eastern culture.
Unfortunately (and unexpectedly) for him, he quickly comes to grips with the fact that the culture has long been marred by the American mindset. Upon arrival, his cousin Shadi (Shadi Alfons) promises him a night of everything he was trying to escape — women, nightlife, drugs, and alcohol. Ramy is caught off guard in his attempts to salvage whatever he can to immerse himself in culture but comes out empty handed as he finds himself more lost than ever before.
Finally, the last episode brings to light another, more controversial topic. The topic of cousins falling in love. While this is an open tradition in Middle Eastern cultures, there’s very little understanding of the origins of this practice or why.
We catch a brief explanation when Ramy’s American friends urge him to pursue her, but Ramy’s struggle to first accept his feelings is readily apparent. Even though it tapers off as they seal the end of the season with a kiss, opening up a new can of worms for fights of morality, righteousness and more importantly, the act of keeping the culture alive.
If anything, Ramy gets one thing right, and that’s summarizing the different capacities of millennial Muslims today into one humor-filled sitcom, brimming with lessons, clashing morals and contentious identifications left for the viewer to answer.
If you haven’t already, go watch it on Hulu.