Ramy Youssef is a twenty-eight-year-old Egyptian-American comedian and actor who has made a ten-episode semi-autobiographical miniseries, “Ramy,” which is now streaming on Hulu. The series describes, with tart precision and irony, the lives of young American Muslims who may drink, have sex, and believe in God—and who keep much of their lives secret from their parents and their friends.
Youssef plays the title character, Ramy, who is unclear about what type of Muslim he is or ought to be. He dates non-Muslim women but hides his religion. “You’re Muslim, I thought, in the way that I am Jewish,” a woman, whom Ramy sleeps with, says in one episode. She discovers that Ramy doesn’t drink, though he’d told her earlier that night that he’d reached his limit. “Well, I was at my limit. My limit is just none,” he explains. Put off less by his beliefs than by his deceit, she walks away. We later learn that Ramy has dated a string of non-Muslim women who have been attracted to the idea of his being culturally different but who think it’s crazy that he believes in God—“like God God, not yoga,” as he tells it. In response, he decides to try dating Muslim women, and he asks his parents to set him up. They are puzzled by their son’s presumption that they’ve lined up dates for him, but, eventually, they oblige.
Ramy displays a catalogue of misguided assumptions about not only his parents but other Egyptians and Muslims. Toward the end of the series, Ramy decides to go to Egypt to figure himself out. It is his first trip there in fifteen years, and his pre-formed view of Egypt is shattered the minute he lands. He keeps asking his cousin to take him to mosques; instead, the cousin takes him to a party that is no different from the ones Ramy tired of in New York. Like many first-generation Egyptian-American immigrants, Ramy finds that many Arab-Muslim ideals that he has been trying to live up to in America have already been discarded by many of his peers in Egypt. Ramy makes a similarly misguided assumption on his first date with an Egyptian-Muslim woman, with whom his parents set him up. At the end of the evening, she playfully asks why she’s not getting a good-night kiss. Ramy is taken aback. “I just—I wasn’t sure if you did that,” he says. “If I kissed?” she fires back. She then invites him into her car, climbs on top of him, and asks if he has a condom. Eventually, frustrated by Ramy’s shock, she lashes out: “I’m like in this little Muslim box in your head. I’m the wife, or the mother of your kids, right?”
The show homes in on difficulties that Muslim men and women, who may live similar lives inside and outside of their faith, have in dating one another. The men are often too arrogant to consider that the women may be allowing themselves the same liberties that they do. The women feel overlooked by Muslim men as potential sexual partners outside of marriage, and, when not overlooked, they are often judged for being too promiscuous. There is a drawn-out dance of trying to figure out what type of Muslim a potential partner is before you reveal what type of Muslim you are. Ramy’s date ignores this dance but is then disappointed as a result.
There are a couple of scenes in the show about Muslim women deciding to have sex for the first time and who they choose to sleep with. Ramy has a younger sister named Dina. When she decides to sleep with someone—sometime in her mid-twenties—she has a nightmare that her parents walk in on her, in bed with the boy, followed by a set of wild hallucinations about what a bad person she is, not only for disappointing her parents but for having sex instead of helping Syrian refugees. When one of Dina’s Muslim friends tells her that she had sex with someone for the first time, Dina asks if the guy is a Muslim. The friend responds, “No, of course not. Come on, you know Muslim guys don’t do anything with Muslim women.”
But the show’s brilliance lies less in recognizing extra pressures that Muslim women are under than in recognizing their tact and determination in pursuing what they want. Right before Ramy’s Egyptian date makes a move on him, she coolly tells him about the sex talk that her Dad gave her and her siblings, when they were younger, recounting, “It was like pretty standard Arab Dad talk, you know. He got us all in the room and then said, ‘Girls, no boys. Boys, no boys.’ ” There is a common experience in many Arabs’ and Muslims’ coming of age, when they discover how to date under crushing social expectations. In an endearing scene between Ramy and his sister, he explains to her that she doesn’t need to listen to everything that their parents say. “I don’t understand how you still don’t get it,” he says. “Mom and Dad just say shit to say it, like, they have all this stuff that worries them, and they think, if they say it out loud, then it won’t happen, but that’s it. You don’t actually have to listen to them.” “You’re so fucking entitled,” she snaps at him. “You can be, too,” he replies. That night, Dina decides to go to a boy’s house, lying to her parents about where she’s headed.
Egyptian society, at home and abroad, is held together by public secrecy—a proverbial don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy—that functions as a unique form of decency in a culture that prefers to look the other way than to talk about what is really going on. Ramy’s sister hides much of what happens in her romantic life from her parents. And her parents, like Ramy predicted, don’t seem to probe too much. Parents who permit their children more freedom in dating than their culture allows are the first to enable them to cover their tracks. “Ramy” is a tell-all of sorts. It is likely to make some Egyptians and Muslims angry, not because it misrepresents them, but because, for once, it’s too honest.