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Muslim life gets a break on American TV

May 7, 2019 at 12:02 pm

Egyptian American actor Ramy Youssef in a new show called ‘Ramy’ [The Watcher On The Sepinwall/Twitter]

I have longed for the creative expression of what it’s like to be Arab American to make it into the mainstream in literature, movies and, especially, television, which has an impact on public understanding of complex issues more so than any other medium. As an Arab American myself, this has long been a dream.

So much so, in fact, that I tried to do something about it in the 1990s, when I wrote America’s first book on what it is like being Arab in the US, a memoir that combined humour and reality with the often misunderstood title I’m Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing up Arab in America. It’s been easier with my writing as a columnist for dozens of newspapers across the country, focusing on politics but always inserting at least a little aspect of what it is like to be an Arab in America.

It is definitely a clash of cultures. Arabs and America don’t easily go hand-in-hand. Yet maybe that’s why I am always on the prowl for something that does it better than I could in writing my own memoir years ago. There have been several efforts by others, although I don’t think many have really risen to the challenge or managed to escape the political correctness that is often imposed or expected when telling the Arab American story.

This led me to add to writing in columns and books by doing stand-up comedy back in 2002, after the 11 September terrorist attacks the previous year skewered American perceptions of what it is to be an Arab in America in such a dramatic and terrible way. At the time, I realised that humour is essential in countering the growing hatred that we face in the US. The stand-up comedy routine did very well for many years, with performances in Dubai, London, Beirut, Occupied Jerusalem and throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories.

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Still, it didn’t seem like it was enough. Until this week, that is, when Hulu launched a unique 10-episode series of 30-minute shows that adopted the same challenge of combining the humour and the stark reality in a show called Ramy. The show premiered on 26 April.

The streaming subscription television network has already given us several blockbuster series, including The Handmaid’s Tale. Unfortunately, Hulu is only available in the US and is blocked in Britain, but if Ramy is successful, the series will probably make it to other streaming networks, such as BritBox.

In the meantime, take my word for it, Ramy provides a realistic glimpse into the reality of living in America as an Arab, a specifically Muslim Arab. The producers have captured the mixed essence of Arab American life, from anger over what is happening to Palestine and the Palestinians, down to the way that we eat “bizzer” (watermelon or sunflower seeds).

Personally, I dislike the focus on Islam and Muslims in US society and news media, rather than on the far more diverse Arab culture. The challenges of the Middle East are often portrayed in a religious context instead of the more secular and cultural aspect, thus creating for Americans a very narrow understanding of the Middle East that conflicts with their own Western religious beliefs.

Egyptian American actor Ramy Youssef is a part of a new crop of Arab American TV and Hollywood talent making their way through Tinseltown’s traditionally anti-Arab boulevards. Youssef plays the main character in the new Hulu series, Ramy Hassan, who is a first-generation Egyptian-American living in a politically divided New Jersey neighbourhood. He’s kind of an outcast from his family and from his community; a bit like an Arab version of Larry David in the hit HBO TV series Curb Your Enthusiasm.

The Ramy Hassan character is on a “spiritual journey” caught within the conservative, growing Muslim American community targeted by stereotypes, racism and suspicion. The series explores his experiences navigating the things that most twenty-something millennials are doing, like dating and exploring relationship choices with non-Muslim and Muslim girls in a culture that expects and applies strong pressure regarding personal conduct.

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The show is described as being about “a guy who is torn between praying on Fridays and going to parties on Friday nights. Which side will win out in this seemingly endless internal battle?” It features among many other great performers a number of Arab and Muslim actors: Arab-Israeli actress Hiam Abbas, who plays the eponymous character’s mother; Egyptian American actor Amr Waked, who plays his father; and veteran actor Laith Nakli, who plays his Uncle Nassem. My favourite Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer also has a role.

My guess is that many religious conservatives won’t like the series because of the occasional sex scenes and lewd language. But they probably won’t like anything that touches on the clash between the Middle East and America, either, or the fact that Ramy has several relationships with Jewish American women. Those, though, are exactly the topics we need to address in order to shatter the ugly stereotypes that Americans and many in the West have come to embrace, and which portray unfair stereotypes of Muslims and Arabs as one-dimensional terrorists engaged in extremist violence.

Ramy Youssef is a good choice to play the main character. He has had a decent start up in his career in Hollywood film and television, including the portrayal of the character Samer Swailem in the hit TV series Mr. Robot. This thriller was created by Sam Esmail for the USA TV Network, and starred Rami Malek as a cybersecurity engineer and hacker with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression engaged in a social revolution in America. Mr. Robot elevated the talents of Arab American artistry and creativity to new heights and Malek went on to star in Bohemian Rhapsody, for which he won an Oscar.

Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor at the 91st Academy Awards for his exceptional portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody [Twitter]

Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek won the Oscar for Best Actor at the 91st Academy Awards for his exceptional portrayal of Freddie Mercury in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody [Twitter]

The 10 episodes of Ramy don’t shy away from shocking context, exploring what it asserts are the challenges of being a part of a strong religion like Islam: washing between the toes in preparation for prayer, or having sex or not having sex and with non-Muslim and Muslim women.

The series has been so successful so far that Hulu has announced plans for a second season, although the premiere date has not been released. Most streaming networks release all of the episodes of a new series all at once rather than scheduling them weekly throughout a season, so you can go online and binge-watch all 10 episodes. I think this is more beneficial to viewers because it allows fans to recall events in previous episodes easily. That gives you a better sense of what’s really happening in a series, unlike something such as Game of Thrones on HBO which keeps viewers hanging on for each episode to premiere weekly and you are sometimes left wondering about the real meanings of particular scenes.

I know that there will be some people out there brushing all of this off as being inconsequential to the reality of the challenges facing Muslims and Arabs, especially as the Muslim world begins the fasting month of Ramadan and Israeli violence has overtaken the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip yet again. However, in truth, it is not inconsequential. The lives of Muslims and Arabs are defined by what others know about us and for generations the only thing the rest of the world was told through literature, movies and TV has been extremely negative, inaccurate and viciously prejudicial. The best way to correct that kind of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab thinking in the West is to reverse engineer the demonisation through fictional programmes like Ramy. There needs to be more, of course, to make that process a success, but it’s a process that really has to happen.

And remember folks, it is a comedy. Humour is the most powerful form of communications and it does have the greatest power to combat stereotypes and undermine racist images. In that sense alone, I think that Ramy will be very successful in improving the way that Western societies view Muslims and, to a lesser degree, Arabs in general.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.