Review: Ramy Is a Poignant Dismantling of the Myth of the Self

The series derives its soulfulness from the myths that Ramy, his family, and his friends tell themselves and those around them.

Photo: Hulu

Ramy (Ramy Youssef), the twentysomething son of Egyptian immigrants living in North Jersey, is an observant Muslim who prays regularly and doesn’t drink or use drugs. He also has a lot of sex, despite being unmarried. And it’s the tension between Ramy’s secular and spiritual leanings that serves as the thrust of the Hulu series that bears his name, as he considers what kind of person—what kind of Muslim, son, and man—he wants to be.

Intensely critical of himself, Ramy recognizes that he’s done much self-mythologizing, mostly in regard to his religious observance, and acutely feels his lapses in judgment. But as Ramy deconstructs his self-mythology by confronting the contradictions of his religious practices—reconciling with them, sometimes capitulating to them—the series romanticizes his personal reckoning. We’re rarely, if ever, not charmed by Ramy, thanks to the genuineness of his self-reflection and the naturalism of Youssef’s performance. Gradually, though, the show’s treatment of Ramy renders him more than just charming: less a flawed human being than a self-flagellating martyr powerless against the competing pulls of God and earthly desire.

But Ramy is, first and foremost, a comedy, albeit one with a semi-bewildering sense of humor made all the more jarring by its aesthetic construction. A scene involving Ramy’s best friends, Mo (Mohammed Amer), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Steve (Steve Way), encapsulates that dynamic. Mo complains in Arabic about Steve’s grouchiness, saying, “This guy’s an evil spirit. Dark energy, fucking satanic. I should have never donated to his GoFundMe,” as the camera cuts back and forth between him looking at Steve, who doesn’t speak Arabic and suffers from muscular dystrophy, and Steve looking at him. The sequence moves slowly, relishing the awkwardness, undue vitriol, and hilarity that each cut adds to Mo’s venting.

A masterful flashback episode gives a hint of how Ramy was driven to this motley crew of friends. Elisha Henig, in one of the better child performances in recent memory, portrays the pubescent Ramy immediately before and after 9/11. Following the attacks, Ramy’s all-white friends not only absurdly suspect him of being a terrorist, they also doubt (correctly) that he’s ever masturbated. And to test his loyalty and honesty, they send him into the woods with a leaf, ordering him to masturbate onto it. There, alone among the trees, Ramy panics, the camera flinching and rapidly swiveling toward the animal noises that spook the boy.

It’s as if Ramy is suddenly in a horror film, and after emerging from the woods, not having orgasmed, he finds himself abandoned by his friends. But soon after, on another walk to school, a boy in a wheelchair, Steve, asks if he can accompany him. This is when the friendship between these othered kids—Ramy because of his faith and ethnicity, Steve because of his genetic condition—was born. It turns out that the leaf Ramy took with him into the woods was edifying, because trying to fit in is a masturbatory act—a message Ramy has clearly carried into his adulthood as he works to define the terms of his identity.

There are limits to Ramy’s self-awareness, however, and a clearer-eyed depiction of him appears in episodes that divert attention to other characters. Like Atlanta, Ramy spends a few episodes focused primarily on its supporting characters, namely Ramy’s sister, Dena (May Calamawy), and his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), with Ramy making what amount to cameos in both stories. Maysa’s episode is a particular standout of the first season; it’s devastating to watch Ramy’s mother scroll through her like-less Facebook profile, to learn that she speaks French but has no one to speak it with. And Ramy’s brief appearance in the episode paints him not as the loveable smooth-talker that he’s been seen as up to that point in the series, but as an inattentive, ungrateful son. Which is to say that Maysa’s episode makes clear the degree to which the series builds aggrandizing myths of its own about Ramy’s growth.

The season ends in Egypt, where Ramy searches for his roots and spends time with his cousins, Shadi (Shadi Alfons) and Amani (Rosaline Elbay). Shadi seems straightforward enough: a happy-go-lucky, partygoing dude with a fondness for early-aughts American pop culture. But Ramy inadvertently cracks that veneer by asking Shadi about the Arab Spring and objecting to his cousin’s use of drugs and the n-word. Frustrated, Shadi explains that he and his friends don’t want to talk about the revolution because they saw people die—and questions why Ramy cares if he sniffs coke and says the n-word. “I see you being all spiritual and shit and trying to make meaning of all of this,” Shadi says. “I’m lost, man. Everybody’s lost.” In the moment, the show reveals that Ramy isn’t uniquely adrift. There are many strangers in many strange lands. Mythology, be it personal, national, or otherwise, is empty, everywhere.

The deeper explorations of Shadi and Maysa’s lives are welcome, but they’re too brief. The season might have had even greater impact had it focused more on developing its supporting characters, though one imagines Ramy will make room for that in its inevitable second season. But that’s a minor complaint, as the weight of Ramy’s journey is both significant and unforgettable. Consider the scene in which Shadi drives him past Giza. Ramy takes a picture of the pyramids with his phone, and then, with a quick cut, they’re gone. They disappear upon exiting the realm of abstraction and entering Ramy’s lived experience.

That night, at a party with Ramy, Amani nonchalantly points to the Nile off screen. “That’s the Nile?” Ramy asks, dumbstruck. “What else would it be?” she answers. No pharaohs, no reed boats, no babies in baskets. Later, we see the river in the background when Shadi shares his lostness with Ramy. The series derives its soulfulness from such moments of disillusionment, from the ruins of the myths that Ramy and his family and friends tell themselves and those around them. There’s profound pain to be found amid the rubble. And, maybe, peace.

 Cast: Ramy Youssef, Hiam Abbass, Amr Waked, May Calamawy, Mohammed Amer, Dave Merheje, Steve Way, Laith Nakli, Shadi Alfons, Rosaline Elbay  Network: Hulu  Buy: Amazon

Niv M. Sultan

Niv M. Sultan is a writer based in New York. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Drift, Public Books, and other publications.

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