When “Ramy,” comedian Ramy Youssef’s Hulu show about a Muslim Egyptian American millennial debuted in April, it was facing down a lot of pop-culture history. Instead of being a terrorist or a nameless victim, Ramy is the show’s main character. Instead of presenting Islam as a brooding, world-historical force, “Ramy” made religion one of its major subjects, taking audiences inside one person’s spiritual journey. And “Ramy” took on these tasks as the first show on a mainstream, U.S. outlet that centers around Arab and Muslim experiences. That’s a lot of pressure to place on a freshman series, especially one that runs only 10 roughly 25-minute episodes.
But “Ramy” works because it embraces those challenges. Youssef has made it clear that this show is based on his experience as a first-generation American and that he does not expect every viewer to recognize themselves in the show. Instead of driving away viewers with different life stories, the specificity of “Ramy” is what makes it such a pleasure, whether you’re Muslim, Egyptian American, millennial or none of those things at all.
When I moved to the United States in 2010, I was struck by shows such as “Homeland” and “24,” in which the portrayals of Muslims and Arabs were based on negative stereotypes and tropes that are downright wrong and harmful to the Muslim community. We’re constantly portrayed as terrorists or barbaric villains, the women as exotic and oppressed, or caricatures with no depth or nuance. I was confused when I constantly saw a plethora of praise for these types of shows when I felt their representations of Arabs and Muslims were downright wrong. Why were they just ignoring what seemed obvious to me? And it wasn’t just the characters. It was the incorrect translations, the whitewashing of story lines, and the exaggeration of sets, accents and attire. The fact that such simple things were overlooked made me feel as though my culture didn’t matter. I was upset, but I quickly turned that anger into what I felt would be more useful: I wanted to be informative to others and to let people know that some of their favorite shows contain harmful errors.
Watching “Ramy,” by contrast, was refreshing. Instead of presenting Islam as nothing more than a spur to — or a check on — terrorism, “Ramy” explores a more familiar dilemma: Ramy fully embraces his religion but is torn by the temptations life has to offer. “Master of None” tackled these tensions in a single second-season episode about the almost-magical allure of barbecued pork that struck me as simultaneously exaggerated and underdeveloped. “Ramy” has over-the-top elements, too, such as Ramy’s affair with a married woman, but the series treats temptation as a theme worth exploring at much greater length.
And “Ramy” isn’t just about Islam, and its characters aren’t defined only by their faith. Instead, it’s attentive to a whole range of cultural experiences, things I thought nothing of because they seemed so normal, until I saw them on-screen and realized how much it meant to me to see them treated as worthy of storytelling.
Things such as seeing the mother, Maysa Hassan (Hiam Abbass), play Candy Crush Saga at the dinner table — my mom’s favorite game, which she plays to this day — while the father, Farouk Hassan (Amr Waked), pores over different Arabic newspapers. Or glaring at house guests who are not-so-daintily eating sunflower seeds — the snack of choice — at gatherings. I hollered when Ramy’s parents made him fill an entire suitcase (or two) with Bengay and other U.S. products and gadgets to take home to relatives in the Middle East, something I am literally forced to do every time I visit my family. Seeing the vibrant decor of the Hassans’ home, including the textured rugs and Arabic art, reminded me of home. And while triggering, I laughed whenever the parents said, “Ya leila sowdeh,” which translates to “What a dark night,” to pretty much anything their kids did wrong.
These details may be specific to Ramy’s family, but the stories they appear in are not. “Ramy” is about assimilating into U.S. culture, which is a challenge for all immigrants. It’s the story of navigating a strict household, struggling with religion, navigating the ins and outs of dating, dealing with a racist, intolerable family member and figuring out your place in the world. These are universal dilemmas — and uncomfortable truths — that are not unique to the Arab or Muslim experience.
It isn’t just the positive moments in “Ramy” that make it such an effective show. Some plot lines and decisions Youssef and his colleagues made reminded me of the not-so-pleasant parts of my experience and were things I never thought I would see tackled with such honesty on screen: The fetishization of Arab women in Western culture; the cousin that just wants to party to numb the pain of what has happened to their country; the double standards women face from their own family members; the 12 missed calls from mom after going out; the lectures from grandparents about how moving to the United States is a mistake because I would never fit in.
The pop culture I encountered when I first moved to the United States sometimes contributed to my sense that coming here might have been an error. We see these dangerous tropes play out in real life, including in the demonization of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
In recent years, shows such as “Atlanta,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Black-ish” and “Jane the Virgin” have succeeded not by running away from the specificity of the communities they depict but by diving deep into them. Given Hollywood’s long and reflexively ugly history of flattening Muslim characters into dangerous stereotypes, it’s a small sign of progress that a show like “Ramy” is allowed to depict Muslim characters with the same complexity and nuance.
And “Ramy” won’t be alone for long. Netflix, Hulu’s main competitor, is rolling out “Jinn,” the platform’s first original Arabic series, in June. “Patriot Act,” which started airing last year, puts Hasan Minhaj, the first Muslim late-night host in the United States, at the helm. Now it’s up to the broadcast and cable networks that have done so much to stereotype Muslims to do the same. Whatever they do, they could take a lesson from “Ramy,” which is a powerful reminder that telling your own, specific story may be the best way to be relatable.