God Child

Skye Arundhati Thomas on Ramy

Ramy, still from a TV show on Hulu. Sheikh Ali Malik and Ramy Hassan (Mahershala Ali and Ramy Youseff).

IN THE PENULTIMATE EPISODE of Ramy’s first season, the eponymous Egyptian American protagonist finds himself at a party in Cairo. Everyone is doing coke and listening to house music. Ramy would rather be at a mosque. He’s in Egypt on a spiritual quest: He wants to feel closer to God, “eat authentic shit,” and “get clarity.” He’s an eager diaspora kid, the kind who talks to everyone in Arabic even though they all speak perfect English (“My English is premium; I went to AUC: American University in Cairo, baby,” his cousin Shadi retorts), wants to visit all the “cool mosques,” and is thrilled to hear the adhan play loudly in the streets. “I really want to see Tahrir, man,” he says to someone he’s just met at the party, referring to the epicenter of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “It’s so cool that you guys were all there.” Shadi has to pull him aside. “We saw people die in front of our fucking eyes man. . . . You think we want to keep talking about that shit?” he asks, scowling. “Look, I don’t know where God is, but I sure as fuck know he’s not here.”

Ramy, played by writer and director Ramy Youssef, is a Muslim who believes in God (“God God, not yoga”), but his religious motivations are swayed by a relentless narcissism. During his trip to Egypt, Ramy doesn’t fully recognize the pervasiveness of American neoliberalism and is quick to fetishize a revolutionary movement without considering its fallout. Shadi explains how a friend was incarcerated for simply holding up a protest sign and later died in prison—the revolution may seem romantic from afar, but it was deadly for those on the ground. His treatment of women is defined by stereotypes: “I’m in this little Muslim box,” a hookup tells Ramy in the first episode. “I’m supposed to be the wife or the mother of your kids, but I’m not supposed to cum.” In his laziness, superficial empathy, and fidelity to the patriarchal inclinations of his family, Ramy is a classic fuckboi. But he wants to be better, and this desire is what makes the show so complex. It’s a story about striving toward betterment only to remain perpetually stuck in a loop of failing and having to start all over again.

In the second season, Ramy is back in the United States, and recently taken to Sufism. In an effort to impress his new sheikh, played so immaculately (and it must be said—sexily) by Mahershala Ali, Ramy befriends Dennis, a young, unhoused vet home from Iraq. When Dennis talks about how many people he killed, Ramy preaches about moving on, finding God. Still, Dennis visibly shudders at hearing the adhan. “When I hear that Allah sound, it makes me want to act violent,” he sobs. “I get that,” Ramy responds. “The call to prayer has been, you know, really manipulated by the media.” The scene sketches alternate worlds of trauma—one defined by PTSD, the other by xenophobia—inhabited by two very different men who, while only children during 9/11, have both found their lives irrevocably shaped by its aftermath.

Ramy, still from a TV show on Hulu. Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youseff).

For the white characters on the show, Ramy’s religion is a kind of othered magic, equipped with powers of divine intervention. In season one’s obligatory Ramadan episode, an old friend approaches Ramy with a story of his dying mother, asking him to pray for her. “I know you’ve been keeping Steve alive with all this shit,” he says, referring to Ramy’s disabled friend with muscular dystrophy. Ramy performs a kind of Salah-on-demand for him in the parking lot of a diner. The show’s Muslim characters repeatedly grapple with white conceptions of their faith (a white girlfriend says to Ramy in the first episode, “You’re Muzlim [sic], I thought, in the way that I’m Jewish, like, it’s a cultural thing?”). In making a show about a group of people who are—often hypocritically—still working through their deeply misunderstood religion in contemporary America, Youssef, as writer and director, debunks the prejudiced trope of the “moderate Muslim, ” Although Ramy prays, fasts during Ramadan, and doesn’t drink or do drugs, he feels pressured to lie about his faith to friends and lovers in order to perform a secularity that many of his white peers wrongly equate with safety.  

Ramy’s mother, Maysa—played so elegantly by Hiam Abbas—is Palestinian, and while there are a few dodgy attempts to address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, they never cohere into a convincing political position on Youssef’s part. While flirting with Sarah, a Jewish girl who mistakes him for sharing her faith because of his hair, Ramy suggests a compromise—“you get the land, we get the curls.” Later in that episode, Sarah throws a party, and Ramy’s friend Ahmed slips into a room for evening prayer—where he ends up bowing under a tiny Israeli flag. “Anti-Semitic? How is that even possible?” Ramy’s father, Farouk, asks, perplexed, while speaking about his brother-in-law Naseem, a diamond merchant. “We are Semitic.” At one point, Maysa whispers a conspiracy surrounding the death of Princess Diana: She was on her way to speak on behalf of Palestinians, and she made the mistake of falling in love with an Egyptian.

Rather than fantasize a politically correct representation of the complex diaspora to which he belongs, Youssef welcomes contradictions in his characters, whose struggles with life in post-9/11 America are complicated and varied. Ramy hopes, in being a better Muslim, that he can project his inner corruptions to a higher authority, relinquish responsibility, and attain salvation. It doesn’t quite work out, and Ramy never gets his clarity. Instead, his blind, black-and-white quest for self-improvement destroys everything in its wake. Ramy’s subtle brilliance lies in how it reveals the gray area that is salvation, and how the characters must learn to see it as unfixed, something to be constantly negotiated, even in moments when they’re certain that it’s not even fully there.

Seasons one and two of Ramy are currently streaming on Hulu.