Recent Golden Globe winner and table-shaker Ramy Youssef sat down with Muslim and talked representation, responsibility, and season two of the self-titled Hulu original show he co-created, which is set to release May 29.
Season one of Ramy follows a Palestinian-Egyptian Jersey native (Youssef) as he navigates 21st century life and his Muslim identity in a hilarious ten-episode journey. The show includes a range of diverse characters that appear on screens for the first time – and as year after year of low Muslim representation reminds us, to even have a show depicting Muslims in a positive way is something that makes Ramy stand out.
But the show does a lot more than simply put Muslim characters on a screen. The characters portrayed include a young millennial Muslim man questioning his morals and faith (Youssef), a Muslim woman who’s not your stereotypical hijabi-in-need-of-saving (May Calamawy), an Arab mother searching for fulfillment outside of the family space (Hiam Abbass), and so many other rich and characteristically diverse personalities that serve as a change of pace from mainstream narratives.
It’s no secret that through these characters, Ramy touches on more than a few “controversial” subjects in the Muslim community – everything from pre-marital sex and dating to struggling with faith. Although these are areas that millennial and Gen Z Muslims are battling, these conversations are still hush-hush in Muslim spaces.
Youssef talked about the importance of having conversations that communities may not be ready to have, but need to be addressed. He described how some of season two of his show deals with important issues that aren’t at the forefront of discussions.
“(The show) is always about conversations that I want to have with my community, and season two even more so,” Youssef explained. “And a lot of the conversations are ones that I don’t think the community necessarily wants to have in an open way, but they’re happening.”
Youssef discussed why many millennial and Gen Z Muslims resonate with his show, explaining that media depictions of religious people generally don’t accurately portray what it’s like to be somewhere in the middle of “super religious” and “atheist.” Many young Muslims interact with religion somewhere in between the extremes, which can often get lost in media portrayals.
“Our generation wants to participate in our faith and we are so actively holding onto our culture in a way that I don’t think has been depicted … It’s exciting to be one of, I hope, many depictions of this,” Youssef said.
Youssef also described how representing Muslims shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of one TV show – even if the show in question does provide a diverse range of relatable Muslim characters, like Ramy. According to Youssef, totally accurate Muslim representation won’t come from a single series.
“I don’t think it’s my responsibility to do anything other than make people ask certain questions and think about things in a different way, hopefully,” Youssef expressed. “But the idea of representing people or representing a group that’s as large and as diverse as Muslims is a really difficult thing and not really something that anyone can fully do.”
According to Youssef, better Muslim representation will come with more shows providing different story lines and characters, not one show attempting to cover every Muslim identity. Youssef added that until there’s a show – or, in an ideal world, multiple shows – with a Muslim woman as a lead, there won’t be a complete representation of Muslim women.
“I have my own corner that I have to cover, and I do my best trying to cover it, but there’s always going to be gaps in terms of representation,” Youssef shared, calling for others to fill that gap.
Although many Muslim viewers praised the first season of the show, after its release in April 2019 it was met with mixed reactions from Muslim viewers and critics alike. Some described the show as limited in its representation of Muslim women, while others saw it as a colorful and funny story about a Muslim millennial.
However, Youssef expressed the show shouldn’t be seen as speaking only to a Muslim audience, and talked about how the show’s relatability extends far beyond the people it represents. The bottom line Youssef expressed about Ramy is that just because the show is about Muslims, doesn’t mean it’s only for Muslims.
He mentions the series dares communities to confront aren’t limited to just Muslims, but can be applied to all communities and groups. Youssef explained how it’s not just Muslim communities that have to face serious inter-generational conflicts and tensions — these are worldwide and cross-cultural experiences — and shows like Ramy display these tensions and differences.
Outside of season two probably containing some of the most hotly debated topics on Muslim Instagram comment threads, Youssef teased that the next season of Ramy also holds a lot of interesting developments for the characters of the show.
“I think season two will, in some ways, be a bit more uncomfortable,” Youssef shared. “But also in many ways it has a lot more of Ramy trying to commit to his faith as he deals with his problems.”
Some of the details Youssef revealed include his character committing to a new mosque, Ramy’s anti-semitic Uncle Naseem getting his own episode and backstory, and having Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali play Ramy’s sheikh.
According to Youssef, the show’s writers were working for a month before finding out that Ali was interested in being a part of the show. An actor with an incredible resume, Ali starred in movies like Moonlight, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One, Hidden Figures and much more. After hearing about Ali’s interest, Youssef and the writers rewrote the season to include Ali.
“It was really, really exciting to have someone of his caliber join, and I think he’s such a natural fit in the show and really elevates it,” Youssef said fondly of his cast member.
He explained that Ali will be one of the first (if not the first) to play an active sheikh role in a positive light. “We’ve never really seen a sheikh like him on TV before … but (Ali) is such an amazing force and presence and I’m really excited about that.”
Youssef revealed that season two also explores “really fun storylines” for some of his characters, like Ramy’s sister Dena and mother Maysa, while unearthing more of Ramy’s father’s backstory.
With Youssef’s Golden Globe win, award-winning additional cast member, excited fans, and a quarantine with no end in sight, it seems like more recognition is on the way for Ramy – and different insights to some of season’s two’s new questions are likely to arrive with it.
‘Ramy’ Season Two premieres on Hulu May 29, 2020.