The first time I remember hearing my name in a movie was in 1994, in James Cameron’s True Lies. There is a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger is handcuffed to a chair after being captured by an ambiguous terrorist group and injected with a truth serum by a sinister man named Samir. In a fit of heroism, Arnold confesses to his captor that he will be using him as a human shield while taking out the guards. Then he’ll break the bad guy’s neck. The bewildered Samir suffers this exact fate in roughly 30 seconds of screen time. I was pissed.
It was at that young age that I realized that there was something off about the depiction of the Arab community that I belong to. I started to keep an eye open for characters in movies and on TV who shared my background, but there were so few–and even fewer that were not outright offensive stereotypes. It all got so much worse after 9/11. As a first-generation Lebanese American growing up in the otherwise harmonious melting pot of Queens, it was disturbing to watch people who looked like me show up on screen only to get relentlessly caricatured as villains.
Now, 25 years after “Samir’s” fatal encounter with Arnold, there is Ramy, a series that was unimaginable when I was growing up. Premiering April 19 on Hulu, Ramy follows its title character, a 30-year-old first-generation Egyptian American, as he navigates his way through a quarter-life crisis, wondering if he’s getting the most out of his life, his job, or his faith. He lives with his conservative Muslim parents and sister in New Jersey, and though he is a practicing Muslim, he struggles to reconcile one or two “vices”–namely, modern hookup culture–with his culture and beliefs. When Master of None premiered in 2015, I felt a comforting sense of identification with Aziz Ansari’s character Dev, but Ramy hit even closer to home.
The title character is based on series creator Ramy Youssef, and he captures the experience of being a Muslim American in a way I’ve never seen before. I immediately related to the show’s point of view, from its depiction of family banter and eccentric habits–i.e., loud dinner table conversations, embarrassing uncles whose views of the world are rooted in conspiracy theories–to the double standards against women in Arab culture, illustrated primarily via the parents’ unbalanced treatment of Ramy and his sister Dena (May Calamawy). Ramy, who drifts through life with the relaxed attitude of an expert underachiever, is treated like a prince, while Dena, who is working on her master’s degree full-time, is given the third degree whenever she hangs out with her friends. Her mother badgers her constantly with helicopter parenting and guilt trips.
There’s also a bro-iness to Ramy, but it’s not the kind we’re used to seeing. The protagonist’s two best friends, Mo (Mohammed Amer) and Ahmed (Dave Merheje), are the type of Muslim bro that I knew growing up, the ones who always got on me for not going to Muslim Students’ Association meetings in college. In Ramy, they badger their friend about virtue and cultural customs, and are determined to put him on their idea of the right track, which is to land a steady job, get married, and have children. They aren’t perfect people themselves–nor are they supposed to be–but are ready to stick it to their friend whenever they get the chance. The first 10 minutes of the premiere episode finds Mo and Ahmed flanking Ramy at a wedding and ranting to him that he’ll be alone forever if he doesn’t get married to one of the community’s dwindling number of bachelorettes–or worse, doomed to spend his life with a white woman who doesn’t share their cultural values.
One of the series’ strongest elements is that it doesn’t flinch from showing Ramy’s flaws. It doesn’t let him off the hook when he attempts to stereotype Arab women as innocent and “pure,” or when he uses his male privilege over his sister to do as he pleases while she feels trapped by her family’s expectations. The show also points out Ramy’s hypocrisy, as in a scene where he refuses to take the drug Molly with a woman he’s been hitting on at a party because his religion forbids it–never mind that he’s been hoping to sleep with her. Ramy throws contradictions like this in the title character’s face frequently, forcing him to confront his own shortcomings.
Two of the 10 episodes are dedicated to the show’s female leads, Ramy’s mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass) and his sister Dena. Struggling with their own place in the world and how that world perceives them, they each try to break the molds they’re trapped in, only to find themselves back where they started by episode’s end. The lack of resolution shows that Ramy isn’t trying to force answers that it doesn’t have.
And maybe Ramy doesn’t have any answers to those big life questions because we’ve never really been able to even ask them before. For so long, we’ve been forced to spend our energy convincing the world that we’re safe and normal and not scary–that we’re just people–that we haven’t had time to explore our full identities as part of the Arab diaspora. I’m not saying that we’ve suddenly entered a period of cultural woke-ness that where Islamophobia no longer exists, how could I, when Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) is getting death threats and mosques are targets for gun violence?–but I can say that after decades of enduring countless evil “Samirs” in an ongoing parade of negative Arab stereotypes in pop culture, it seems we’ve reached a point where we can showcase our humanity, our pride, our flaws, and our contradictions in the context of telling our stories.
Finally, we can start asking questions without fearing the answers.