“Can you still be a Muslim if you don’t wash between the toes?”
That’s the question posed at the end of the first episode of Ramy, a 10-part series that launched on Hulu today. It follows a fictional Ramy Youssef, who IRL is a New Jersey comedian, as he navigates multiple identity crises, ranging from his Islamic religious obligations, to his duty to his family, to his place in America. The series has been hailed as an “unapologetic Muslim millennial comedy” — one that doesn’t shy away or reduce the religious devotion of its protagonist, often showing him praying inside a Mosque, reading the Quran and rejecting vices like alcohol, while at the same time incorporating situations familiar to any coming-of-age story (sex, drugs, relationships with family members, etc.).
“The character of Ramy never doubts his devotion to God, he’s just trying to figure out where he fits in — in his religion, in the community he lives in and the society he’s in,” Youssef tells me. “A lot of the situations Ramy is in challenges this notion we’ve had in America, of the ‘Good Muslim’ or ‘Bad Muslim,’ which can mean different things depending on the circumstance you’re in.” For Youssef, that doesn’t just mean in relation to extremism — although the subject is addressed in the series when a younger Ramy finds himself isolated from his friends in the aftermath of 9/11. “It was also about the [Muslim] community, and this idea that to be an authentic Muslim, you have to be flawless,” he explains. “That’s what the ‘washing between the toes’ thing was about. It reflects a position a lot of Muslims are in where they ask themselves, ‘Am I out, if I’m not fully in?’”
At first glance, Ramy may seem similar to other series and movies that follow Muslim comedians trying to overcome their struggles with their identity in the U.S., most notably Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. And though some themes around religious identity and generational conflict might be similar, the way Ramy approaches them is different. “Ramy never departs from his religion or his family — he lives in the family house, and he’s praying, all with the intention of being a better Muslim,” Youssef explains. “What I wanted to show was a character who was struggling with some aspects of his faith, and wanting to live life and be himself.” For example, when his character is asked why he abstains from drugs and alcohol, forbidden in Islam, while engaging in pre-marital sex, and finds himself struggling to answer, or when he takes a break from his relationship with Sarah, a liberal Jewish woman (played by Molly Gordon) so he can focus on prayer during Ramadan.
“I wanted to show that part of living as a Muslim means having to [confront] these difficult questions that come up in life, but also that what the characters go through is coming from a place of love. Everyone in the family has to reconcile religion with aspects of their lives, and it was important to show that they’re all doing the best with what they have. I had no intention of vilifying my religion or my culture by presenting it as backward. I wanted to show the layers of complication that come with the American-Muslim experience, and use that — as well as the love that Ramy’s family has for each other — to have difficult conversations about things like sex and relationships, which aren’t had a lot in [some] Muslim communities.”
“One of the things Ramy’s trying to figure out is whether he should be getting married,” Youssef continues. “And a lot of that is because his friends are asking him why he isn’t married yet. Like warning that he’s fucked up by waiting so long to get married Islamically.” It’s the opposite of the typical male-centered dramedy, he adds. “Usually you have a guy who’s wondering why he hasn’t met the love of his life yet, and he’s got friends around him who are married, all saying, ‘Once you’re married, your life is over.’”
Ramy also finds himself comparing his life to other men in his community, notably his “macho, pride-filled” uncle, who is obsessed with family honor and reputation and who runs a diamond business where Ramy half-heartedly works, as well as his caring, empathetic, hard-working father — a refugee who fled Egypt and whose presence is a constant reminder for Ramy of his shortcomings. That said: “One of the most interesting aspects of the show is actually the women in the family,” Youssef says, referencing his sister Dena (May el Calamawy) and his mother (Hiamm Abbass) in particular. “Through their story arcs, you learn about what women need from the men in their life and how often the men fall short on that.”
When I ask Youssef what he hopes the show will achieve, he tells me that while Ramy doesn’t assume to be a collective voice for the American-Muslim identity, it provides an honest, multifaceted insight into the experiences of Muslims, and shows how Muslim life is an integral part of the U.S. Moreover: “I really hope that it will encourage Muslim artists and creatives to make work that questions themselves, and how they live,” he explains. “So much creative output [about Muslims] is about attack culture, and how Muslims respond to that. But we need more art that allows Muslims to help themselves — and others — as believers.”
“I want Ramy to be used as a frame of reference to talk about difficult issues like sex,” he adds. “Even if imams use Ramy as a way of denouncing it, or saying they don’t like Ramy Youssef, if it can be used to get people to open up, be honest and have challenging conversations, I will consider it successful.”