Ramy Youssef came to my attention through another show starring an Egyptian-American. In Mr. Robot, Ramy had a recurring role as security analyst Samar who regularly bragged about his fake sexual exploits. He gave me a chuckle interacting with Rami Malek’s stoic Elliot.
A little later, I noticed Youssef on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, making his network television debut performing stand-up. In earnest, the thing that captured me about him was his invitation into the intricacies of the Muslim-American experience, the confusion of being told who you are by others, and simply in finding the commonalities between people. Even more compelling, was his analysis of the struggles of maintaining the traditions of faith while living in a modern and secular society. So when I saw he was working on a A24 show executive-produced by Jerrod Carmichael, I was excited to see his his full range.
Of course the show falters occasionally and has some generalizations, but there is a consistent universal perspective that pervades the first season. As a Muslim kid from a Pakistani household, the show doesn’t exactly capture my experience. I’m not from Jersey City, I’m not Egyptian. And while I’m aware the show is fictitious, each episode embodies an autobiography of how myriad Muslims feel in this county.
I’m not Ramy, and yet I feel like we’re one and the same.
Ramy offers the chance for the disparate parts of our community to empathize with each other, in a way that doesn’t make any of us feel like outliers. Throughout the first season, the show presents some key moments that are particularly poignant for us Muslims. Here are five that stuck out to me:
Episode 1: Between the Toes
“I’m in this little Muslim Box in your head. I’m supposed to be the wife or the mother of your kids. But I’m not supposed to come.”
After a date with a Muslim woman surprisingly gets too intimate, Ramy gets called out for his hypocrisy. In truth, this is where the show managed to display its means of creating dialogue but also its hindrance. Earlier in the episode, Ramy hides his adherence to his religion for the sake of finding comfort in his non-Muslim endeavors.
After being set up to meet a Muslim Egyptian girl named Nour at a restaurant, Ramy and Nour get intimate. Ramy is surprised by her sexual desires, and Nour rightfully gets frustrated at him. The irony of this scene is that he denies this woman the same understanding he pursues in other women. He enraptures his expectations and limitations in perspective of Muslim women in American and Egyptian culture onto her.
However, this insight seems to hold onto the perspective of restraint. This is the instance where the show offers its first glimpse into what women within the Muslim culture experience. While this show does excel in its juxtaposition and revealing hypocrisies of people, it incites consistent reminder that Muslim women are limited. Within my personal experiences, while heavily biased is not true. I’ve interacted with Muslim women that are leaders and pioneers within their fields. They are so much more than just their limitations, and while this show plays at this we don’t get that moment of liberation beyond it.
This was observed in two episodes that focused on the characters of Dena, Ramy’s sister and Maysa, Ramy’s mother. Throughout the two episodes there is consistent lack of agency, especially within their erotics. For Dena, it is her confounding restrictions towards expressing her sexual desires. Specifically, the boundaries that are in place for her while her brother roams freely. For Ramy, he is given the male privilege to traverse through the world exploring his sexual identity. With Dena, she doesn’t even have the vocabulary to comprehend certain acts of intimacy despite their prevalence within American culture. With Maysa, it is a woman who was once vibrant and beautiful who became chained to the mundane life of a housewife.
The truth is, this is a commonality amongst Muslim households. However, I do tire of constantly seeing things feed into the lack of agency Muslim women have. Inherently, I find this to be untrue, but I hope for this to be the beginning of Muslim women having a larger representative voice and narrative within media.
Episode 8: Saving Mikaela
“Think of the children. They’ll grow up confused. They won’t know who they are, because they won’t know their land! They need to know their roots. They need to grow up learning Islam, or they won’t lead the right path!”
Some of the greatest stories we are told as kids are the ones about our parents’ lives before America. For those who still remained in the country, they take pride in knowing their national identities.Returning to the homeland has always been this romanticized theory of finding oneself.
For most, the idea of returning to the motherland is this retreat. For Ramy, it’s a genuine escape into belief. The beauty of this show is seeing Ramy’s existential crisis of his actions. Having been confronted by his own father about the extended affair he took part in, Ramy is chastised. His father relates to his son the journey of coming to America.
Worse, is his father telling him that he was wrong for leaving. In truth, the scene is powerful for the generational admittance of the confusion first and second generation Muslims, especially those immigrants must plunder through.
Episode 4: “You fit in just fine”
This is by far the most brazen episode of the show. Throughout the episode people are pushing Ramy to align themselves with America. Not only that, but they are excluding him from being an American. Being a pre-teen is awkward enough.
In its most controversial and subversive episode of the season, a young Ramy has a discussion with Osama Bin Laden. In one of the finest moments of surrealism to combat David Lynch, we take a look at one of Ramy’s conflicts. One side is torn for not being able to live like other Americans, and another wants to honor the heritage and people he comes from.
Within this scene, the show offers a concise moment of capturing someone’s own internal struggle for defining what they want to do as someone who doesn’t fit in. It is a decision of who he is to the whole world. In earnest it’s an acceptance of his own identity. Ramy never hides his beliefs, but instead sees how he can incorporate them into his definition of America.
Episode 3: A Black Spot On The Heart
“You know the Prophet (PBUH) said the dopest thing in a hadith, ‘when a believer commits a sin, a black spot forms on his heart’. Don’t spend all night thinking about how you messed up. Just think about how you wanna clean those black spots.”
Being hard on yourself is a costly thing. In a moment where Ramy is under the effects of taking too much THC, he finds himself at a mosque. He admits to a congregant at the mosque that he doesn’t feel like he is himself. That he’s just another sinner. In a moment of depth needed for many Muslims, we are told that we are allowed to be wrong. For someone who believes himself to be more superior than others, you’re not.
For most of the Muslims I’ve interacted with their identification with faith has been too strict. The ones that always inspired me weren’t the people that were dismissive or the ones who executed devout faith – it was people who admitted their flaws in faith. Some of them had logic as simple as why not try it? Or I’m probably not going to be able to do anything fun when I’m older. Despite the logic, there was always a desire to be better. Most of these people have been the greatest push for me to understand the necessity of faith in self.
Episode 1: Between the Toes
“Do you think God cares if I wash between my toes?”
In the self-realization of Ramy being a hypocrite for his own judgements, he confides in the same man who judged him for not washing his toes. It’s an earnest expression of faith and the paranoia of not knowing yourself. The show’s thesis is an earnest question of faith itself. But instead of renouncing it, it’s about striving to follow the practice of it.
For years, I hoped to find something that validated my feelings of faith. But I know there are Muslims who don’t know themselves and some who are trying to see where they can just be, shows where they see their lives. I know there are still Muslims who are learning that their faiths don’t make them happier and others who hide behind it. I hope we can all be accepted, if not by each other, at least by ourselves. This, too, is faith. Astaghfirullah.