A little over two years ago, I wrote an article for The Mary Sue called The Complicated Role of Arabs in American Television. In said article, I discussed the dearth of roles for Arabs on TV, and then proceeded to do an in-depth analysis of the – at the time – only three Arab characters in the history of American television. Two weren’t even played by Arab actors, and only one had a plotline that didn’t revolve around terrorism in some way.
When I saw the ad for Ramy, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. A whole show about Arab-Americans? On a popular American streaming service? A show about Arab-Americans in America that has nothing at all do with terrorism? A comedy, at that? With actual Arab actors speaking actual Arabic instead of mangled gibberish?
Ramy is a show about many things, but mostly it’s about belonging. Egyptian-American third-culture kid Ramy is struggling to find his place in the world. Caught between two disparate cultures, he does his best to be a good Muslim – praying, fasting – but very often commits the major sin of premarital sex. Ramy, who is endearingly earnest and romantic, is utterly lost. He wants to be the best version of himself that he can be, even if he has no idea who or what that is.
It’s a universal theme, but Ramy serves it wrapped up in classic diaspora blues. Like a lot of third-culture kids – like myself! – Ramy is pulled in two different directions. In the final two episodes of the season, he decides to go back to Cairo in the hope of attaining some nebulous sense of belonging. Unfortunately, he is just as much of an outsider there, perceived as a clueless American speaking broken Arabic. One particularly poignant moment has Ramy gushing about how cool it must have been to be present in Tahrir Square during the revolution only to be met with awkward silence. Later, his cocaine-snorting cousin douses him with reality: “We saw people die in front of our eyes.”
This is a kind of nuanced portrayal the show doesn’t shy away from, as it’s not interested in taking sides. This is most evident in “Strawberries,” of the most intense episodes of the series, in which an adolescent Ramy deals with the aftermath of 9/11. In this episode, Ramy has a dream conversation with Osama Bin Laden, who gravely informs him that Egypt stopped growing the wheat its people need so that it could grow strawberries for Americans to eat out of season.
Bin Laden then opines, “Ramy Hassan, you don’t belong here. You can hear it in your name, can’t you? You should be living in Cairo, but they made it impossible…The world is dying at the hands of America, and the people here feel nothing. They’re men in suits who only care about their strawberries.” When Ramy argues this point, insisting that innocent people like his friend’s mother didn’t deserve to die in the towers, Bin Laden counters with: “What about…the thousands of moms that have died in the Middle East? We must restore the balance.” Ramy vociferously denounces this logic, insisting that he is not a terrorist and will not kill people.
It’s a stunningly brave and honest and disturbingly intense scene. At no point do you get the sense that this conversation is meant to condone terrorism, but at the same time it refuses to look away from the realities of Western imperialism. It’s cynical and thought-provoking, and, bizarrely, is framed in the context of Ramy attempting to masturbate for the first time in his life.
This is where the show and I part ways a bit. Of course it’s not perfect by any means, but it also diverges from my particular tastes. Ramy is one of those shows that delights in its own crudity and vulgarity, with a crass hyper-focus on sex that struck me as a way to appeal to Western viewers. This is particularly evident in the show’s treatment of female characters, every single one of whom is written only in relationship to sex. This heavily gendered dynamic might seem unsurprising of a show that centers around a young heterosexual man who himself is heavily obsessed with sex and relationships, but it’s still disappointing. It’s 2019. Do better.
None of that takes away from how much Ramy warms my heart. It’s so surreal to be watching a show that so closely reflects my culture and experience in so many ways, whether it’s the weird conspiracy theories Ramy’s parents believe in, the casual anti-Semitism and racism espoused by his uncle with zero compunction, the intense discrimination his family experienced after 9/11, the fetishizing his sister experiences when she hooks up with a white dude, the existential nihilism Egyptians feel post-revolution, or just the small random moments of cultural familiarity.
Of course, Ramy also diverges from my own experience in a lot of ways, but that’s to be expected; there’s no one right way to represent the diaspora. It would be impossible for a single show to communicate an entirely universal experience of what it means to grow up Egyptian-American in the United States of America. Here’s hoping Ramy opens the floodgates for more Arabs in American television.