How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Ramy tries to undo the damage caused by TV shows like 24 and Homleand, whose vilification of Muslims post-9/11 shaped the prejudices still prevalent among American audiences.

Prahlad Srihari September 02, 2020 14:21:26 IST
How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Ramy is a man caught in a perpetual state of in between. In between Egyptian collectivism and American individualism. In between a religious community with strict notions of morality and a country whose unifying religion is capitalism. In between spirituality and carnality. So, he often ends up half-assing two things, rather than whole-assing one thing, as one Ron Swanson advises not to. This is embodied in the very opening scene of the A24-Hulu show's pilot, where a community elder admonishes Ramy for not washing the dirt between his toes before namaz.

Being a practising Muslim and an American in 2020 requires Ramy to reconcile the virtues endorsed by his community with the vices endorsed in the land of the free. Living an in-between life means living a life full of contradictions and compromises. So, Ramy inshallahs and mashallahs his way through life, picking and choosing what is and isn't haram: he abstains from alcohol and drugs but routinely masturbates and engages in premarital sex. In the first season, his struggle to remain holy while horny reaches a nadir when he sleeps with a married woman during Ramadan. He renews his spiritual quest to be a better Muslim by flying to Egypt hoping to reconnect with his roots. Only, he more than reconnects, as he sleeps with his cousin during his stay.

How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Rosaline Elbay as Ramy's cousin, Amani

The second season of Ramy Youssef’s comedy picks up from the consequences of his alter ego's bad choices from the first. Ramy is back in New Jersey and back to his old ways, slowly turning into Michael Fassbender in Shame. He's gone from praying five times a day to jerking off five times a day. As he confesses in the Season 2 premiere, there's a void inside him, which he's filling with sex and porn because he doesn't know how to fill it with God and faith. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, he switches mosques and joins a Sufi community led by Sheikh Ali Malik (Mahershala Ali). The imam sees in Ramy a man eager to improve himself and tries to guide him on a path away from his usual self-destructive tendencies.

How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youssef in Ramy

In Episode 2 ("Can You Hear Me Now?"), Ramy tries to help Dennis, an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, by introducing him to Sheikh Malik. Dennis is an emotionally unstable man with a violent past and in dire need of psychological help, but Ramy chooses to omit these details when he convinces the Sheikh to hire him at the mosque. The ease and generosity with which the Sheikh accepts Dennis into his mosque challenges the Christian perception of the Church being the only place of love and acceptance. Sadly, a mere prayer triggers Dennis as he launches into an unprompted attack on an anti-Muslim protestor beating him into a coma. The incident ends up jeopardising the mosque's future. It becomes clear Ramy's seemingly selfless intentions are in fact a selfish attempt to get in Sheikh Malik's good graces. He hides behind these good intentions so he doesn't have to deal with the reality that his choices have consequences that affect those around him.

We also see this in the season finale. Following Ramy's marriage to Sheikh's daughter Zainab and right after she loses her virginity to him, he confesses he slept with his cousin Amani the previous night. He again hides behind the honest intentions of this act of self-disclosure to appease his guilt, but he refuses to take responsibility for his pathological behaviour. He refuses to acknowledge the collateral damage he leaves behind in his quest for self-improvement, because — as Sheikh calls him out on it — "the rest of the world exists so that you can reflect on it and perfect yourself." He convinces himself he's trying to be a better Muslim, but is in fact stuck in the same self-destructive cycle as before.

Ramy tries to undo the damage caused by TV shows like 24 and Homleand, whose vilification of Muslims post-9/11 shaped the prejudices still prevalent among American audiences. With their allegiance to the country questioned, Muslim-Americans were forced to justify themselves for terrorist acts even though they did not represent their faith. In Season 1's Episode 4 ("Strawberries"), twelve-year-old Ramy's friends turn into bullies and ask him to masturbate on a leaf. "Show us you're not a terrorist," one of them says. It is a funny yet sad reflection of America's islamophobia and their maladaptive response to it. It also foreshadows how Ramy began to commingle faith and sex as an adult.

How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Ramy (R) is shunned by his friends after the September 11 attacks

Like in every religion, the belief vs practice ratio varies from person to person. There are those who treat the Bible, Quran and the Upanishads with unimpeachable orthodoxy, and those who are more accommodating in their interpretation. Then, there are the non-believers, like Aziz Ansari's protagonist in Master of None. Unlike Ramy, Dev Shah has absorbed the host culture's traditions without the internal struggles. In fact in the Season 2 episode "Religion", Dev turns eating bacon into an act of rebellion against tradition in a dinner with parents and relatives much to his mom's dismay. But the episode is less about religion, more about culture. It's a culture familiar to Indians where some non-believers — more willingly than others — put on the devout act for the sake of our moms when relatives come a-visiting.

The degree of religious commitment also varies among Ramy's married friends, Mo and Ahmed. On their trip to Atlanta City, they all display a degree of discomfort at a strip club, some more than others. But the more well-adjusted Mo and Ahmed navigate this cultural conflict with relative ease — as we see them participate in the Hajj ritual from their hotel rooms through VR headsets the same night. Degree adds dimensionality to the Muslim-American experience in Ramy.

This even applies to Ramy's sister Dena, who is a non-practising Muslim. In Episode 5 ("3riana grande"), when Dena posts on Facebook about winning a scholarship to go to law school, her mother Maysa warns her about attracting "hasad" (buri nazar or drishti in India-speak) and the consequent misfortune. Though she initially dismisses it as "superstitious shit", she becomes concerned when she begins to lose her hair and finds a lump on her breast. Despite practically being a non-believer, her instinctive response to visit a psychic to ward off this "evil eye" shows she isn't entirely divorced from superstitious belief either.

Though Ramy illustrates the everyday life of a minority pop culture either stereotypes or completely ignores, it also resembles the struggles of most everyone else living in cities. In Ramy's continuous and confused struggle to be a better person, we can also see our own urban struggles navigating relationships and ideologies. There is a universality to Ramy's experience that is independent of his ethnicity and faith. He brings to mind the eponymous trainwrecks from Fleabag and BoJack Horseman, who also "spend most of their adult lives using sex to deflect from the screaming void inside their empty hearts."

In both seasons, Ramy dedicates episodic vignettes that focus on other members of Ramy's family. This helps highlight other aspects of the Muslim-American experience. In Season 1, Dena's tryst-gone-wrong brings to light how her identity has been fetishised by white men, who think "exotic" is a compliment. Both seasons also expose the double standards of how parents place different limitations on women than men. What is haram for Dena isn't for Ramy, who can go out at night, drink and fool around without being questioned. Ramy's own double standards are exposed by his Muslim-American date in the pilot. When she expresses a desire to have sex, Ramy is taken aback because of his contradictory ideology which allows him to only see non-Muslim women as individuals with sexual agency. He can't see Muslim women as anything other than sisters, mothers or wives.

In a column for The Atlantic, Shamira Ibrahim points out how the Muslim women in Ramy aren't afforded the same agency as the men. "Muslim women are indeed varied and complicated, but portraying them as largely absent of agency, or somehow wholly separate from the temptations or crises that Ramy himself navigates, excludes them from the modern Millennial existence in a way that rings false," she writes, adding "the show fails to demonstrate that Muslim women’s stories can be more than a sympathetic canvas of unfulfilled dreams."

How Ramy offers a refreshing but flawed representation of the Muslim experience in America

Ramy's mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass), sister Dena (May Calamawy) and father Farouk (Amr Waked)

While Ramy challenges some perceptions of Muslims, it also reinforces some of them. If Season 1 revealed the inherent loneliness of Maysa, the neglected housewife, Season 2 turns her into a Michael Scott-like lovable buffoon. Maysa believes her American citizenship dreams are threatened when she learns her Lyft Driver account has been suspended due to a passenger complaint. So, she tracks down the passenger, who happens to be a nonbinary person she ignorantly misgendered. Unlike Ramy, Maysa however takes responsibility for her actions and learns from her internalised biases.

If you’ve seen even a single season of Ramy, the figure of Uncle Naseem will feel strangely familiar. Because we all have an Uncle Naseem in our families, a man of unabashed bigotry everyone seems to tolerate only because we can't get rid of him. In Season 2, Ramy attempts to humanise the despicable character by applying Freud's idea of reaction formation. Essentially, he suggested if someone wants to build a 50-feet-high, barbed-wire-fortified wall fortified, it might mean he is trying too hard to hide something. Uncle Naseem is revealed to be a homosexual man who has repressed his sexual drive — due to its conflict with his beliefs — for so long, his self-hatred manifests as varying forms of bigotry. We’ve seen this earlier with Dave Karofsky in Glee, Brad in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Mac in It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The outwardly homophobic, secretly homosexual has become one of modern pop culture's go-to LGBTQ stock characters, one which equates homophobia to repressed homosexuality when it is rarely the truth.

Similar to the Bechdel test which measures gender representation and equality in fiction, the Riz test measures the representation of Muslims. Inspired by Riz Ahmed's 2017 speech on on-screen diversity, the test aims to identify Muslim stereotypes through five criteria. Is the Muslim character: 1. talking about, the victim of, or the perpetrator of terrorism?; 2. presented as irrationally angry?; 3. presented as superstitious, culturally backwards or anti-modern?; 4. presented as a threat to a Western way of life?; 5. presented as misogynistic if male and oppressed by her male counterparts if female? Ramy fails on at least three counts: Uncle Naseem (2), Dena and Maysa (3) and Uncle Naseem again (5).

In the aforementioned speech at the UK House of Commons, Ahmed spoke about the importance of representation. "People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued." The first two seasons of Ramy sure ensure the experience of the Muslim-American man is valued. Come Season 3, here's hoping the women are too.

Ramy is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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