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BY: MASSARAH MIKATI
In an episode of the new Hulu series “Ramy,” Ramy Hassan (played by Ramy Youssef) is in the middle of a hot and heavy, horizontal make-out session with his female suitor, Sarah (played by Molly Gordon), when the Islamic call to prayer bellows out from his phone. The voice sings “Allahu akbar” (God is great) twice before Ramy silences it.
It’s 4:22 a.m. Time for the first prayer of the day, and to begin abstaining from food, drink and (disappointingly for the pair) sex from sunup until sundown for the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.
“This month I try to get rid of all distractions,” Ramy explains.
“I think that’s amazing,” she says. “If you’re gonna do it, do it.”
And with her words of encouragement, Ramy takes off.
In a matter of two minutes, this scene encapsulates the repeating storyline in Hulu’s new 10-episode series “Ramy”: A young, first-generation Arab American Muslim is trying to get closer to his faith and find out who he is. But the series is daring in that it shows the real obstacles that Ramy — and many other Muslim Americans — faces throughout that journey. These obstacles, including but not limited to premarital sex, marijuana gummy bears and alcohol, are rarely spoken of in the Muslim American community, and Youssef’s show is forcing admittance and conversation.
The overwhelming response from the Muslim American community, including myself as a first-generation Muslim American, and even non-Muslims I’ve spoken to has been that we feel seen. And with the national conversations about what it means to be an American, and where Muslims fit into that picture, Youssef’s humanizing and contextual portrait of this often misrepresented community could not have come at a better time.
The idea to create a new storyline about Muslim Americans that evaded the simplistic binary narratives that are pervasive in Hollywood — often someone who’s either extremely religious or someone who is eagerly distancing themselves from faith (i.e., “Master of None,” “The Big Sick”) — came to Youssef about eight years ago, when he had moved to L.A. from New Jersey.
“I knew I wanted to make something that was more reflective of what I actually go through,” Youssef recently told me in Houston, alluding to the distractions from his faith he has succumbed to.
So in his show, Youssef touches upon myriad themes and experiences: the loneliness immigrant parents experience in a foreign country, the aftermath of colonialism, the lack of belonging that children of immigrants may feel, the judgment Muslims fear they will receive from their community for everything from a rushed ablution (the washing before prayer) to a premarital sex life.
One episode focuses on the sister Dina, who is frustrated with the double standards with which her parents treat her and her brother. They ask her for details about her social life but are satisfied with the vague responses Ramy gives them. And after a secret date, Dina opens her phone to find seven missed calls from her mom — an experience many Muslim American women can probably attest to. I know I can.
But the episode also explores another double standard within the Muslim American community: female sexuality, a taboo subject because of cultural, not religious, norms. In a scene where Dina is hanging out with two of her Muslim girlfriends, she shockingly discovers one of them, Fatima, lost her virginity.
“You know Muslim guys don’t do anything with Muslim women,” says Fatima (played by Jade Eshete). “I was just like, ‘What am I waiting for?’ All of these Muslim guys are f—ing around, and they don’t give a s —. Why am I so scared? And we are not supposed to be celibate for this long; it’s unnatural.”
The more striking moment comes after Fatima explains her decision to have sex. A Chinese-food delivery arrives at the apartment, and when Fatima sees the delivery person is a guy, she wraps her hijabaround her head before going to the front door.
Fatima is one of two hijabi women in “Ramy” who have premarital sex, driving home the point that even women who wear the hijab — arguably the most outwardly religious and modest act in Islam — can be sexual. It’s another concept unspoken of in the community.
Of course, the show isn’t all about sex. In fact, Youssef points out there are significantly more religion-focused scenes than sex scenes, emphasizing that this series is more about striving to get closer to faith.
But it’s also about a guy caught between two worlds and cultures — that of his parents’ homeland, Egypt, and the country in which he grew up, the U.S. — trying to figure out where, if anywhere, he belongs.
A trip to visit his extended family in Egypt and seek answers to his identity crisis shows Ramy that the two places aren’t as different as he fantasized they would be — his cousin takes him to parties instead of mosques, snorts cocaine instead of praying. Ramy doesn’t hide his shock.
Youssef stresses that his show isn’t the epitome of the Muslim American experience, which is why he simply called it “Ramy” — just his name. The characters fall on various points of the religious spectrum. But by owning the narrative as his alone, Youssef felt comfortable taking the taboos the community whispers about and airing them all out for Hulu subscribers to see — something he thinks is essential in order to keep the community strong.
“We keep secrets from each other, so we don’t have emotional intimacy with each other,” Youssef said. “What ends up happening is you have people within the same community that have isolated themselves from each other because they feel like, ‘I can’t really tell you what I do because then you’ll judge me, and then that’ll get back to the community and my parents.’”
This, Youssef said, then leads to people resorting to having friends outside the community, dating outside the community, marrying outside the community and eventually even leaving the community.
“We’re erasing our faith because we feel like if we’re not adding a perfect score, we’re out of the game,” Youssef said. “Our communities are propped up on image, so the whole point of this (show) is to destroy the image … and for there to be genuine intimacy and conversation.”
(Though he jokingly advises that Muslim families should watch the show in separate rooms.)
A diversity of narratives in mainstream media has been a long time coming, and there’s still a long way to go. But “Ramy” feels refreshing for how accurately it has portrayed the many nuances of the experience in finding and creating your identity and faith as a first-generation Muslim American.