– By James Powers –
A strange little scene in Hulu’s new show Ramy tragicomically highlights the average American’s tortured relationship with traditional religion. The setting is New Jersey, in the midst of Islam’s penitential season of Ramadan, outside a halal restaurant. A loutish construction worker, having just witnessed a group of Muslim men praying fajr together in the parking lot, approaches one of them – the show’s protagonist, Ramy Hassan – to ask a favor. The worker’s mother has just been diagnosed with late-stage cancer, and although he’s not a religious guy himself, he wants Ramy to pray for her.
Of course, Ramy agrees. “Ok great,” the guy says. “Just throw another one down for her, real quick.” Another round of fajr, that is. He seems to think the prayer is a magic spell, and Ramy a wizard, and he wants to make sure the thing gets done right here right now. Ramy awkwardly tries to explain that that’s not really how it works, but the guy is insistent. “Come on man. Her life is in your hands. Do the Ramadan.” From his perspective, Ramy and his fellow worshippers have privileged access to the divine, a resource that can be spent and withheld like money or medicine. And although Ramy knows otherwise, he humors the guy and dutifully repeats the prayers and postures, looking out for any fellow Muslims who might raise an eyebrow at him doing so.
Later on, the cancer turns out to have nonetheless gotten the best of the guy’s mom. Apparently, “doing the Ramadan” didn’t actually make much of a difference. But perhaps it would have were it not for user error. Ramy finds out about the “failure” of his prayer while scrolling through Instagram after an unexpected – and theoretically very forbidden – one-night stand. It’s one of many moments in the show that demonstrates he’s just as confused about his faith as that construction worker was, albeit in different ways.
Young, earnest, attractive and anxious, Ramy is a first-generation Egyptian-American, whose relationship to his religious heritage is a bit of a hot mess. He stringently abstains from alcohol while his non-Muslim friends are getting wasted, but rolls his eyes at the mosque’s ritual washing requirements (“if the water doesn’t go between your toes, the devil will!” a cantankerous elder warns him). He studiously observes the Ramadan prohibition against eating or drinking during daytime, as well as the general precept to pray five times daily, but breaks the injunction against extramarital sex almost pathologically. He wants to be good, and sometimes he is… but sometimes he’s really not.
Sounds familiar. Of course, everyone theoretically wants to be good, Christian and Muslim and atheist and Hare Krishna alike. A protagonist who struggles to be good is nothing special. What is special, however, is a contemporary protagonist struggling to be good in the context of centuries-old religious tradition. Which is why I’m glad that Ramy exists, and that it’s getting a lot of buzz. As “people of the book” become less and less of a presence in the US, a show like this needs to be seen. There are vanishingly few mainstream films or shows that view religious tradition as anything other than a cultural oddity, or I guess a demon-fighting technique if you’re in the horror genre. In a comedy (which Ramy basically is), it often serves as a setup for gags involving Grandma’s weird motherland superstitions, or Mom and Dad’s prudish attitudes about women’s clothing or whatever. Refreshingly, Ramy wants to dig deeper than those cliches… but it doesn’t dig as deep as I had hoped it would.
Before I go on, I guess I should address the obvious problem with me criticizing a show that focuses on the intersection between traditional Islam and millennials – namely, that I’m not a Muslim. Very true, which is why I have nothing to say about the show’s portrayal of mosque politics, or Egyptian family dynamics, or the grouchiness that can accompany Ramadan fasting (though that last one in particular makes a lot of sense). Nonetheless, I do feel qualified to speak to the show’s handling of its central theme: the friction that results from attempting to follow an ancient tradition in a contemporary world, a world that treats such things as alien and even hostile. Ramy’s interest in the problem is genuine – its creator, Ramy Youssef, bases it largely on his own experiences and plays the titular character. Major kudos to him for having the courage and comedic chops to invest so much time in poking fun at himself, and for undertaking the difficult task of telling a complex story within the unforgiving format of half-hour comedy.
Unfortunately, Youssef doesn’t quite manage to have his cake and eat it too. He gives us many wonderful glimpses of Islam’s inner life, and one episode in particular dips its toe into some of the darkness there as well. But I can’t help feeling that something has been lost in translation, that the truth of the Islamic-American personality has been somewhat flattened to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience.
This is most obvious in the show’s handling of sexuality. It repeats the sitcom cliche of cartoonish promiscuity, at least among a few key characters, and while that move definitely has big thematic relevance it nonetheless feels pretty rote here. If the show is to be believed, Muslims are much like Catholics in their widely varying attitudes toward sexual morality. Nothing wrong with bringing that reality into your story, but the various philandering never really has concrete effects on said story, and so the question of sexual morality isn’t meaningfully engaged. “Gosh,” the show seems to say, “saving sex for marriage sure seems hard. But some people do that! Crazy huh?” Shrug.
Less obvious, but more disappointing, is the show’s attitude toward, you know, God. One line in the last episode, where Ramy is chatting with a new acquaintance about relationships, perfectly encapsulates the missed opportunity here. “I’ve dated women who think it’s crazy that I believe in God. Like, God God, not yoga,” Ramy says. “And I try and tell them, child’s pose and prayer are like, basically the same position. We’re almost doing the same thing.” The first half of that line had me like “aw YEAH!” Totally thought we were gearing up for a much-needed distinction between religion and pop spirituality. But then the second half hit… “child’s pose and prayer are almost the same thing.”
The show, its creator, its protagonist, were all this close – this close!! – to finally, actually talking about the most deeply important thing that the show had been missing this whole time. I was waiting for Ramy to open up about who God is to him, about his relationship with his Creator, with the great Allah…and instead he just makes a glib comparison between yoga and Islam’s default prayer position.
Oof. The more I think about it the more frustrated I get. But it’s an extremely tidy illustration of a general tendency throughout the show, and its major deficiency. Namely, to characterize religion – Islam or otherwise – as merely self-improvement, as a means of enforcing morality and giving good feels, and to implicitly suggest that all religions are equal insofar as they achieve these goals. On this view, we pray for the same reason we stretch and exercise: to make us better people. Salat and yoga? Eh, same basic deal. This attitude is also implicit in the show’s attitude toward sex – fooling around outside of marriage might be technically wrong, but it’s not really a big deal so long as it’s consensual and nobody gets hurt. Adultery on the other hand, when there’s cheating on a spouse involved? Whoo, boy, you bad.
In the very first episode, where the aforementioned curmudgeon is criticizing Ramy for not doing the ritual washing properly – not washing between his toes – Ramy asks, not unreasonably, why God should care about his toes. The guy doesn’t respond, he just grabs Ramy’s foot and washes it by force. Which is good for a laugh but dodges the question. If the purpose of religion is simply to uphold morality, and/or serve as therapy, then no, there’s no objective reason whatsoever to wash between your toes. Similarly, there’s no objective reason to go to Mass every Sunday, or face Mecca when you pray, or abstain from eating pork.
But if religion is motivated, not by morality or psychology, but by love of a Person, of God, then that changes things. Suddenly you find yourself going to Mass on Sunday, or facing Mecca when you pray, or abstaining from pork, all because you were asked to do so by Someone who loves you, and whom you love, and that’s reason enough.
My hope is that Ramy Youssan does in fact understand this distinction, and that he was merely pressured to paper it over by the demands of creating a sellable network show. Ramy is headed in a good direction by simply bringing religion into center stage and not caricaturing it. But it still pulls its punches and tiptoes around what religion really is, because that’s something so foreign to today’s audience. Now that he’s become a critical darling, however, and gotten the greenlight for a second season, maybe Youssan will be able to take more risks with Season 2. To borrow a Spanish saying that is itself derived from Arabic, Ójala – may God will it.
About the Author
James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.
For all articles by James, click here.