“Ramy” is entertaining, but does little to dispel Arab stereotypes
The Hulu comedy series “Ramy,” now in its second season, is entertaining, but it stops short of tackling the challenges most Arabs and Muslims face in America. The series still presents Arabs as all Muslim and in the context of a religious struggle rather than one seeking to identify with American norms
By Ray Hanania
I can’t blame talented Muslim American comedian Ramy Youssef for building a TV series based on his own experiences and the spin-off humor that is his daily life.
Youssef’s comedy series, “Ramy, now in Season 2 on the premium streaming service Hulu, is getting great reviews, although honestly any sitcom that dabbles with the challenges Muslims face in today’s world of heightened concerns for minorities will get media notice.
What’s tougher, though, and not addressed in the series are the fundamentals of that racism that drives most Americans to see Muslims, and especially Arabs, as “terrorists.” That fixation has dominated American stereotypes for centuries and has made growing up Arab in America a living hell for most Arab Americans who wear their heritage high profile on their shoulders like I do.
In the comedy drama, actor Youssef plays an Egyptian American, “Ramy Hassan” who seeks to break from his secular fixations with sex while living in New Jersey by getting closer to his religion, Islam, and to his Egyptian heritage.
When TV sitcoms focus so intently on religion, most Americans tend to turn away. That’s because for the majority of Americans in American culture, religion and politics just don’t mix. Instead of promoting an understanding of Islam, “Ramy” tends to reinforce the stereotypes Americans already have.
American religion writers acknowledge that public interest in Christian-centric religious TV and film entertainment has waned since a surge of religious themed programming in 2014 and 2015.
It’s not easy to sell a religion-themed script to American audiences, although the Hulu series “Ramy” did receive several industry awards, its highest being the 2020 Golden Globes this past January.
In other words, selling a religious based series to a mainstream American audience is going to be tough, unless of course you are targeting a niche market. But one of the most influential religious markets in America, Evangelicals, only represent 2.4 percent of America’s population, although when it comes to the “Middle East,” that “small” population segment of 8 million Americans in a larger population of 328.2 million people, wields enormous influence over things like politics and American foreign policy.
American Muslims represent an even smaller market share, about 7 million based on Muslim American estimates, something we have no choice to accept because the U.S. Census pretty much ignores Muslims, and, Arabs, too.
But while Ramy Youssef, and his talented co-stars like Palestinian American comedian Mo Amer or African American actor and rapper Mahershala Ali, are extremely talented and deserve more roles in mainstream American Hollywood productions – other than just playing a “terrorist” in one of Hollywood’s typical anti-Arab racism — I still expected more – no, I hoped for more from the Hulu series.
I wanted “Ramy” to speak to the reality of being Arab American, which includes many more Christians than Muslims but are comingled in the deep stereotypes that fuel America’s perceptions racist perceptions.
I had hoped for something more like the African American sitcom “Blackish” that stars Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross and is in its sixth season now helping mainstream Americans, mainly white Americans, to see the reality of African Americans. Their challenges. Their talents. Their contributions to society. Rather than just portraying them in such a shallow manner that fuels racist fears rather than understanding.
Or even the sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” which is less driven by ethnic and racial characters but that does offer some insights into the lives of Italian Americans, an American ethnic group that has been continually defamed as mobsters, hoodlums and criminals since America’s entertainment first began.
The stars, Ray Romano, and his family portrayed during nine seasons of hilarious humor that often included insights into the Italian American heritage.
Sometimes, the most effective countermeasures to stereotypes are not the in-your-face assaults on racism but more subtle, friendlier and warmer messages that more easily enter the hearts and minds of the influential American public.
Both seasons of Ramy were founded on the Islamic religion. Though raised as a Christian in a Muslim-dominated Arab society, I learned more about Islam from Ramy than I thought I really knew. But that might be good for me, as a Christian Palestinian American Arab. But does it change the minds of mainstream American Christians or even Jewish Americans?
I don’t think so.
Ramy’s humor was filled with some scenes that may have outshined my underlying hope of understanding. Sex, including homosexual episodes, difficult racism stereotypes of Blacks and women, make it hard to offer a lesson of understanding to the general public.
I’m not saying it isn’t funny, deep or that the series lacks talent. Youssef, Amer and Ali in Season 2 do a great job of acting.
I am saying that I had hoped for more. Something to make a small dent in the ongoing barrage of anti-Arab hatred and demonization that dominates this country at every level of life, from Hollywood, TV, newspapers, radio and books. There isn’t one industry that isn’t totally immersed in anti-Arab defamation.
I grew up sitting at the dinner table where all of my relatives looked like every terrorist in an endless stream of hate-driven Hollywood movies, TV dramas and even pulp fiction.
“Ramy” reflects great performances of a talented cast that also includes Hiam Abbass as Ramy’s mother Maysa, Amr Waked as his father Farouk, Laith Nakli as his very controversial Uncle Nassem, and May Calamawy who plays his sister Dena.
The 10 episodes in each season featured talented writing mostly by Youseff himself but also by accomplished and new writers including Sahar Jahani, Ari Katcher, Adel Kamal, Maytha Alhassan and Ryan Welsh. There were some soft spots like in episode 8 Season 2, which was boring to the point here I almost gave up watching.
How about something simple, “Everyone Loves Abdullah,” a sitcom about a typical mixed religion family that lives a normal life that touches in subtle but powerful ways the everyday racial issues that drive American stereotypes? Non-religious, and just funny in which the characters just happen to be Arab?
That’s tougher to sell. But if you can script a sitcom that parallels the successes of other popular shows, while inserting a Palestinian, Arab and Muslim spin, it just could work and, more importantly, make a difference in how Americans view Arabs, not reinforce the stereotypes even if it is in laughter.