At the 2020 Golden Globes this past January, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon presented the Best Actor award in a Musical or Comedy Series to Ramy Youssef. At the beginning of his acceptance speech, Youssef joked, "Look, I know you guys haven't seen my show! Everyone is like 'Is this an editor?'" The audience then broke out in laughter.
In my circles, many individuals have indeed seen his show, and are debating it intensely. Youssef, a 29-year-old Egyptian-American stand-up comedian, is the creator, writer, producer, and central character in the Hulu series, Ramy (which just snagged more Emmy nominations). Hulu has now run 20 episodes over two seasons, featuring the journey of 'Ramy,' an Arab-American young adult, and the lives of his family members who immigrated from Egypt to New Jersey, as well as those who remained in Egypt. The show is based on Youssef's experiences; in some cases the connection to reality is loose, and in other cases, it hits very close to home for him. For instance, Youssef's lifelong friend, Steve Way, who was born with muscular dystrophy, plays the character of 'Steve,' Ramy's super smart and feisty best friend since childhood who is disabled and wheelchair-bound. There are deeply awkward encounters between them but also moments of homosocial tenderness.
As the show progresses, Ramy ultimately emerges as more of an antagonist than a protagonist, and there is a form of narcissism at play that is reminiscent of Woody Allen's work. During the first season, there are redeeming qualities to Ramy, but by the end of the second season, he becomes a physical manifestation of the type of human that one should endeavor not to ever become. Ramy struggles to lead a life that is faithful to his understanding of Muslim principles and practices, while also suffering from the excesses of a millennial American culture that seemingly does not attach consequences to the choices we make. The cognitive dissonance that this all induces for Ramy makes him stuck in patterns that are destructive to himself and the people around him. Ramy is also very much a heterosexual cisgender male on the show, somehow managing to sleep with many of the women that he comes across. Yet there are LGBTQ characters and the ways that they are presented are both poignant and provocative.
By the end of the existing episodes, it was challenging for me to process the collection of themes that were explored, including not just queerness and transphobia, but also gender and sexuality more broadly; sexism, women's empowerment, cousin marriage, premarital sex, adultery, prostitution, piety, religious hypocrisy, immigration, citizenship, anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, anti-Black racism, disability rights, class, unemployment, economic exploitation, familial conflicts, and more. It has been weeks since I finished the last episode, but the whiplash is still with me, and while I still laugh at some of the hilarious lines and scenes, I nonetheless continue to wrestle with how to process all of this. The power of Ramy is in its ability to command our attention in such a manner.
The LGBTQ dimensions of Ramy were particularly striking, and it is laudable that the writers and producers are challenging Arab-American and Muslim-American communities where many would prefer to ignore the existence, and dignity, of queer, trans, and gender nonconfirming family members, neighbors, and others. And while there are idiosyncrasies that are unique to these communities, much of what is represented on Ramy is quintessentially American more generally, and in other cases, much more universal.
It was painful to watch the scene of Ramy's father, Farouk (Amer Waked), confront Ramy for having an affair with his father's friend's wife, but then resolve that tense confrontation with an expression of relief: "Well, at least you are not gay!" This reminded me of the breathtaking film My Brother The Devil about an Egyptian-British family where a brother could not envision anything worse than his brother being gay. In many Middle Eastern communities, homosexuality is understood as absolutely one of the most egregious of sins and/or cultural taboos.
Equally difficult was the scene of Ramy's mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbas), struggling to understand and accept transgender identity and experiences, leading her to insult and then stalk a transgender woman who was a passenger in Maysa's Uber. Maysa later tries to make more earnest efforts to wrap her head around gender pronouns and to apologize to the trans woman, but this is undermined by much of it being a result of Maysa's own self-interest. Maysa's daughter is genuinely horrified by her mother's transphobia and is in solidarity with trans communities but the generational divides and the difference in social capital between mother and daughter are evident as they both grapple with this dilemma.
Most moving is the queer character of Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli). We learn that he is Ramy's maternal uncle and that they come from a Palestinian family who moved to Egypt. Naseem could be described as a "bear" in the gay community, large in size and hairy. He works in New York's diamond district, is indifferent to "blood diamonds," is deeply anti-Semitic towards Jewish customers, colleagues, and populations, is sexist, vulgar, violent, and has no manners or grace as he devours food. We see that he is lonely and closeted at his age and that emotional eating becomes an escape for him. He is chivalrous in one scene in intervening on behalf of a battered woman, but his gun is unnerving and reveals toxic masculinity. In a way, he feels he must embody that alpha male as a disguise for his queerness.
We meet a past lover of his who is also a closested Arab man but is living a lie with a wife and child and is closed off to the idea of reconnecting with Naseem intimately. And we meet a current sexual partner of Naseem's who is nothing but patient and caring and yet is met with a punch to the face by Naseem, leading to a broken nose. Watching that was utterly devastating.
As a queer Palestinian myself who studies queer Palestinian local and diasporic experiences (my book on these issues was published this year), it was disappointing that the only queer Palestinian character on Ramy is so abhorrent. We do get a hint of his humanity and vulnerability, and we feel empathy for him as an immigrant trying to navigate a conservative cultural upbringing followed by alienation from challenging social, economic, political, and xenophobic realities in the U.S. Yet his bigotry and violence are completely unacceptable, even if they emanate from his deep self-loathing. There is nothing healthy about Naseem's queerness, and this has the potential to deepen rather than problematize the homophobia of some of Ramy's various audiences.
At the same time, a friend recently reminded me that it is important for us to not be what he called "representation hawks." I know that there are many different forms that artistic representation can take and that openness and generosity of spirit is essential in this domain. I also understand that this is comedy -- and that much of Ramy is meant to be totally surreal, bending our conceptions of reality, urging us not to be trapped by literalism, entertaining the absurd not only for cultural critique but also for a good laugh, and inviting us to be comfortable with discomfort. I can feel Youssef's solidarity with LGBTQ communities palpably and that his impressive writers, cast, and coproducers are invested in challenging homophobia. It is a huge accomplishment that this show centering Arab and Muslim voices (so rare in American popular culture) has done so well and with such awards and recognition.
Hulu recently confirmed the production of a third season. I look forward to that season with great anticipation and very much hope that we will witness some growth and self-acceptance on the part of Uncle Naseem moving forward. He still has the potential to truly live into his queerness and for that to make him more compassionate in all spheres of his existence.
Dr. Sa'ed Atshan is Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Swarthmore College. He received his PhD from Harvard University. He is an LGBTQ human rights activist and author of Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford University Press, 2020).