This piece was originally published for The Atlantic on June 11, 2020
In Season 1 of Ramy, audiences are introduced to Ramy Hassan—the character loosely based on the show’s creator, Ramy Youssef—and his Egyptian American family in northern Jersey. With a formidable mix of surrealism and humor, Youssef explores the complexities of being a religious Millennial man, namely through navigating the difficulties that young Muslims face coming of age post-9/11. Season 2 is anchored in Ramy’s wish to find purpose and direction in his spirituality, but his obsessive need to present a righteous version of himself only sabotages his effort at redemption.
The show is preoccupied with the idea that ritual for ritual’s sake—without deeper consideration of context or circumstances and without disposition of the ego—can often reveal one’s truest, ugliest self. Ramy has returned from a sojourn in Cairo more aimless and prurient than ever before. Back in the States, he engages in gluttony and lewdness (through the haze of a porn-filled laptop screen), and isolates himself in shame. He admits, “I feel like I have this hole inside of me, this emptiness, and I’m always trying to fill it with something.” But once he finally musters up the resolve to return to his mosque after a hiatus, his imam (played by Alok Tewari) meets him with reproach: “Read the last three surahs of the Quran every night,” he says. “It will help keep the shaitan away.” (Shaitan, in Islam, are evil spirits that tempt humans into sinful behavior; their commander, Iblis, is known in Christian texts as Lucifer.)Despondent, Ramy finds his way to the local Sufi center, led by the charismatic Sheikh Ali (Mahershala Ali). Enamored by Ali’s presence and steadiness, Ramy convinces himself that his absolution will come under the approval of the sheikh’s watchful eye.
What ensues is an empty religious performance by Ramy.Desperate to prove that he can ascend to the levels of perfection he associates with the sheikh, Ramy adheres to a rigidity that his loved ones find disconcerting, imposing stringent standards not just on himself, but also on the people around him. When Ramy attends the strip-club bachelor party his friends throw for him, he admonishes one of them, Ahmed, about the optics of the occasion. But Ahmed retorts, “Do you know how many times I’ve watched you do crazy things? Slowly waiting, praying that you’d do the right thing? I never judged you! I just prayed for you.”Ramy’s understanding of discipline is misguided, and his overcompensation and ego leave no room for the inevitability of human error, creating a built-in tension in the show.
Similar to Kanye West and his self-righteous Sunday Service performances, Ramy has understood only the trimmings of deliverance and religion, and has done so in the most self-serving ways possible. For instance, when he wants to encourage a new revert’s adoption into the Sufi center, Ramy fails to disclose that the man was a U.S. soldier in Iraq—responsible for the torture and deaths of Arab and Muslim innocents—and that he has crippling PTSD. As a result, the man is involved in a fatal incident at the Sufi center, for which Ramy is indirectly responsible. In another episode, Ramy translates his adoration of Sheikh Ali into a delusion of romantic love for his daughter. He pursues a relationship with her and then sabotages their imminent nuptials by engaging in infidelity under the guise of religiously sanctioned polygamy—a practice reserved for those who have both the resources and mutually agreed-upon consent.
Ramy’s family members also learn the cruel irony of empty performance. In contrast to Ramy’s capitulations to what he thinks is religious surveillance, his mother, Maysa (Hiam Abbass), capitulates to a literal agent of surveillance—the United States federal government—in the journey to obtain her citizenship. She studiously reviews her notes for her final exam and absorbs American vernacular. But when she incurs an infraction at her job driving for Lyft that could potentially flag her final background check, she collapses into a panic.
In an effort to determine the complainant, Maysa engages in a frenzied review of her recent passengers, ultimately assuming that a nonbinary customer named Sophia (whom she had misgendered) was the culprit. Unraveled and distraught, Maysa confronts them at a bar, and tries to appeal to their common marginalization as members of two different targeted communities. Maysa’s self-serving plea comes amid her own prejudice—in a previous conversation with her daughter about Sophia, Maysa casually asks, “Allah created him as a man, no?” But in order to protect herself,Maysa exhibits a remarkable inversion of power and imposes the same surveillance tactics on Sophia that she herself fears.
Perhaps the most tragic story within Ramy’s family is that of his uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli)—a boorish, bombastic man who revels in uncompromising bigotry and cartoonish toxic masculinity. The show ultimately reveals that his behavior belies his hidden queer identity; Naseem allows himself to indulge in his sexuality in a few furtive moments, only to then again reclaim his external presentation. He struggles with what kind of Muslim he is supposed to be and what kind of man he is expected to be, which amounts to tremendous overcorrection at the expense of himself and everyone around him.
The last three chapters of the Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (“Sincerity”), Surah Al-Falaq (“Dawn”), and Surah Al-Naas (“Mankind”), are commonly invoked in Islam as protection against malevolent surveillance—jinns, shaitan, or the evil eye. The ritualistic performance of these invocations reasserts fealty to God’s will. At the beginning of the season, Ramy dismisses the advice from his imam to invoke these rites, noting that he’s “trying to find God, but it’s not there.” But Sheikh Ali informs him, “If someone only gotthe rules and rituals, they might think Islam is tough and bitter … but there’s an inside, a juicy flesh, a divine intimacy, a spiritual experience. The rind without the flesh is bitter and useless.”
Ramy’s Achilles’ heel is his inability to grasp the journey of restitution via non-egotistical means, and he exercises self-imposed discipline without empathy. Just like his uncle and mother, Ramy is crippled by the perception of the absolute binary of haram and halal—what’s forbidden and what’s permitted—applying its maxims without consideration of the impact they may have on others. It’s a contextual failure that absolves a person of the responsibility of care in pursuit of moral righteousness.
Most Abrahamic religions are peppered with tales of the fallibility of human character: the person you want to be versus the person you are. In Season 2, most of Ramy’s characters are going through this journey; not just in front of God, but in front of their own communities. In trying their hardest to present themselves as the people they want to be, they consistently harm those around them—exposing the worst of who they are in dangerous bursts. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then Ramy offers a look into where the road obsessed with perceptions will lead.