“Ramy captures what it’s like to grow up as an Arab Muslim in America while providing a multitude of entry points for other communities.”
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Ramy Youssef 👨🏽🇺🇸, Ari Katcher 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Ryan Welch 👨🏻🇺🇸
Writers: Ramy Youssef 👨🏽🇺🇸 (7 eps), Ari Katcher 👨🏼🇺🇸 (6 eps), Ryan Welch 👨🏻🇺🇸 (6 eps), Minhal Baig 👩🏽🇺🇸 (1 ep), Bridget Bedard 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Sahar Jahani 👩🏽🇺🇸 (1 ep), and Leah Nanako Winkler 👩🏻🇯🇵🇺🇸 (1 ep)
Reviewed by Murtada Elfadl 👨🏽🇸🇩🇺🇸🌈
Ramy establishes a unique story within its first scene, as audiences follow the lead protagonist performing wudhu—the Islamic ritual washing before prayer—in a mosque. As a Muslim myself, who has never seen this aspect of life portrayed onscreen, I settled in with a big smile.
The titular lead, played by Egyptian New Jerseyite and co-creator Ramy Youssef, is quickly taken to task by an older man for not washing well before prayer. With this introduction, Ramy immediately reveals its core themes. How can one be a “good Muslim” who practices his beliefs while participating in the modern world? All the while, Ramy deals with society’s prejudices against his skin color and religion as he attempts to date, work, and party, along with all the other difficulties that come with navigating adulthood.
Through sharp writing, audiences are immersed in Ramy’s point of view while distinctive characters provide points of cultural contrast around him. His parents act as particularly effective foils, his mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and father Farouk (Amr Waked) carrying the mantle of immigrants who spend their expat lives with permanent nostalgia for their home countries.
This isn’t to say Ramy completely sticks the landing in its first season. The show suffers from inconsistent pacing, with some episodes noticeably stronger than others. Ramy mines comedy gold from the strange and sometimes absurd situations he finds himself in, but this comfort level doesn’t extend to the other, more minor characters who take the reins of various episodes.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES, sometimes
Since the show really focuses on Ramy, entire episodes can go by without seeing a single female character. Luckily, some of this underrepresentation is made up through two episodes where writers shift perspective to follow his sister Dena (May Calamawy) and his mother Maysa.
In “Refugees” (Season 1, Episode 6), Dena takes center stage as she tries to date a barista she meets at school. Yet her character feels conceived with broad brushstrokes. For example, even a “good Muslim woman” would know more about sex than the show indicates—an issue that Shamira Ibrahim explores in her piece for The Atlantic, “What Ramy Gets Wrong About Muslim Women”.
On the flipside, the show excels when contrasting the way Maysa and her husband treat Ramy versus Dena, abiding by strict gender norms. Given a significantly shorter leash than her brother, Dena is expected to follow her parents’ many rules. The unfairness mounts into understandable frustration on Dena’s part, and she takes it out on Ramy through playful ribbing that sometimes turns into pointed jabs at his character flaws. This sibling tension builds into one of the show’s most palpable storylines, one that would benefit from further examination.
Maysa’s episode—”Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Season 1, Episode 7)—fares better, enhanced by the casting of her character with Abbass. The writers clearly took inspiration from the actor’s life, carrying traits like being a trilingual Palestinian who has lived in the Middle East, Europe, and America through to the screen.
The subsequent portrait of Ramy’s mother feels authentic, making it easier to empathize with her storyline as a woman who no longer feels needed by her family. Lonely scenes of Maysa trying to fill long hours of each day tugs at the heartstrings, elevated by Abbass's quiet performance. As with the interesting take on sibling rivalry, I couldn't help but crave a deeper exploration of Maysa’s life, too. I want a spin-off.
Ramy explains to his friend Steve (Steve Way) that “Islam is not a race”. However, we can’t discount the ways that ethnic identity overlaps with religion. Specifically, Ramy takes a deep dive into the dynamics of an Egyptian immigrant family living an America—a unique angle that nonetheless sheds light on the wider experience for Muslims from North African and Middle Eastern countries who now call the United States home.
As someone who grew up in Egypt’s neighboring country of Sudan, pings of recognition pepper my viewing of the show. When Ramy’s father dismisses his search for the perfect job by casually asserting that “passion is for white people,” I know I have heard something similar from my own family.
This same feeling of being seen and included in American media arrives through in-jokes that most Arabs will knowingly chuckle at, like how white people walk around barefoot bringing dirt into their homes—frowned upon by most Arabs—or the tongue-in-cheek conspiracy theories that surround the “true” cause of death of Princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend, Dodi Fayed.
Meanwhile, the show never shies away from more serious commentary about being Arab post-9/11, with an entire episode dedicated to showcasing how differently Ramy’s young friends treat him before and after the catastrophic event.
In all instances, the show’s curiosity about identity, and the way it’s pushed and pulled between the values of the old country and the new, provides some of the show’s most poignant observations. As an immigrant, I empathize with the way Ramy’s parents see their homeland through the prism of their memories—a nostalgia made all the more bittersweet, given the way our idealized versions of “home” often disappear from reality, as time marches on.
Ramy relocates to Egypt for two episodes late in the season to paint this exact paean for those of us longing for the places we were born. But as Ramy reconnects with Cairo and his relatives who still live there, he faces the harsh reality that nothing ever remains the same. An acute sense of displacement pervades the experience, as Ramy—and many of his viewers—find themselves “in between” identities. At least through the acknowledgment of this shared trauma, Ramy provides a balm that many immigrants, not just Arab Muslims, can take comfort in.
Unfortunately, there are no LGBTQ characters in Ramy so far. The only mention of anything that isn’t straight or cisgender includes the rather disappointing moment when Ramy’s father tells him, “At least you are not gay,” as a means of registering his utter disappointment in his son’s behavior.
While this homophobic statement could be an interesting jumping point from which to explore generational or cultural differences between Ramy and his more conservative parents, the writers never take advantage of the opportunity, leaving audiences to wonder what Farouk’s throwaway line is supposed to mean.
Bonus for Religion: +1.00
Ramy weaves in the everyday experiences of Muslims throughout its material. Religious touchpoints like fasting for Ramadan, or the aforementioned ritual of wudhu, are seldom depicted in popular culture but normalized in Youssef’s adaptation of his own life. Meanwhile, humor is used to process and defuse American prejudices against Muslims like Trump’s travel ban or the wearing of hijab.
In particular, Ramy’s struggle to balance his beliefs with an otherwise secular life will speak to viewers contending with the same dilemma. Personally, I haven’t fasted in years but Ramy’s struggle to be better during Ramadan still resonated. It reminded me of my life back in Sudan and the camaraderie of coming together as a community to try and do better for one month, every year. The show’s use of famed Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez’s song “Ahwak”—a song familiar to most Arab people—drove the point home, bringing tears of wistfulness to my eyes. Written as a lover’s plea, lyrics like “I love you and I wish I could forget you” feel doubly meaningful when applied to the running themes in Ramy, of longing and spirituality.
Bonus for Disability: +0.75
The series’s secondary characters include Ramy’s best friend Steve, played by stand-up comedian Steve Way in a fictionalized version of himself. He appears in 4 of the season’s 10 episodes and gets a storyline during “Saving Mikaela” (Season 1, Episode 8) where we follow his quest to lose his virginity.
Biting humor, telegraphed through expletive-laden dialogue and Way’s own caustic performance, confronts cliches about disability. The revelations land thanks to genuine laugh-out-loud moments, and it’s wonderful to watch Way, who was born with muscular dystrophy and advocates for disability awareness, find a platform from which he can craft his own narrative and share it with mainstream viewers.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.69/5
Ramy adds a much needed voice to the cultural landscape, placing well-rounded characters in surreal situations to provoke deeper conversations about race, religion, and identity while entertaining its viewers. Some maturation does need to happen before its second season, however, which has already been greenlit by Hulu. Not all characters are currently made equal; as sensitively rendered as Ramy or Maysa are, other characters, like Ramy’s uncle, can feel like caricatures in contrast.
Regardless of its minor weaknesses, however, Youssef unerringly captures what it’s like to grow up as an Arab Muslim in America. Impressively, he does so while providing a multitude of entry points for other communities, whether they be millennials, those grappling with faith, expats, the children of immigrants, or any permutation of the above.