Wide Angle

The Ramy Youssef Experiment

With the second season of his hit show, the boundary-shattering star of Ramy will stun American Muslims. He’s ready. Are we?

People in traditional Muslim garb watch a frame on which Ramy Youssef is depicted, next to a sign that says "Ramy Youssef Exhibit 1"
“I have donated my likeness to Muslim science. Do whatever you want with it. Pick me apart,” Ramy Youssef said. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Erik Voake/Getty Images for Hulu, Indysystem/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Rawpixel/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Maria Novikova/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Rich Fury/Getty Images, and CreativaImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Just before the acclaimed first season of Ramy premiered on Hulu, I hosted about 60 other young Muslims to watch the show with me at Slate’s New York office. I had already seen the episodes a couple times. I was really there to watch the crowd.

Toward the end of the first episode, it began. The steady stream of laughter was suddenly devoured by an audible gasp. Then crackling bursts of awkward laughter. Then more silence.

On screen, Ramy Hassan, the semi-autobiographical character created and played in the series by Ramy Youssef, was hooking up with a Muslim woman in a car. Then she says, “Choke me while I finger myself.” Cue the gasps. “I want you to choke me. Use both hands.”

Like Youssef, I’m a Muslim American of Egyptian descent from New Jersey. We’re around the same age. I’m very intimately aware of the fire he’s playing with, and he is, too. You don’t accidentally make a show about a young Muslim man’s struggle to actualize his full spiritual potential through Islam, then put in a scene where he’s choking a Muslim girl in the back seat of her car in the very first episode.

I cringed with everyone else there. The scene brings up a few things: There’s the fear that the double lives many young Muslim Americans live are being exposed, right there, on a streaming service our parents get, too. It also shows the ways we box one another in—we’re gasping at a Muslim woman’s sexual kinks, like it’s surprising she has some. And then there are the odd nerves of watching something like this in a room full of Muslims and not being sure if it’s a good idea to laugh. Ramy has been heralded as a breakthrough for representation, as if its real power is showing how messy and complicated Muslims can be to people outside the faith. But I think American Muslims have the most to learn from it.

In a recent interview on Zoom from Los Angeles, where he’s sheltering, Youssef—who, at 29, is also an ascendant stand-up comedian—said he understood what he was inviting on himself when he made the show. And even with all the rapturous reviews and the Golden Globe, he said there has been plenty of anger.

“I have donated my likeness to Muslim science. Do whatever you want with it. Pick me apart,” he said, laughing. “It would make me smile if an imam ripped on a character from my show in a khutbah,” or a Friday sermon.

I suspect the debate about Ramy and representation is about to get a lot more heated. In the first season, Ramy’s sexual and spiritual misadventures take him many places American Muslims do not often go in polite conversation, much less on TV, and ultimately culminate in a romantic connection with his cousin in Egypt (so much for dispelling that “Muslims are inbred” stereotype). That was comparatively tame. In Season 2, which premieres Friday, Mahershala Ali joins the cast as a sensitive, deeply spiritual imam to whom Ramy can’t help but share every detail of his recent masturbation habits, among other things. They embark on a journey that goes to some jaw-droppingly dark places. I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the new season, and all I can say is that if Season 1 had Muslim viewers gasping, Season 2 will leave them stunned.

Mahershala Ali folds his hands and closes his eyes. Other Muslims stand behind him.
Mahershala Ali in Ramy. Hulu

Youssef said he expects to get hit hard. I’ve heard him make jokes about “random Fatimas writing about the show in their Medium accounts from their dorm rooms,” but the truth is, he’s worried.

“We put out the first season and I got a Golden Globe for it, and we’re putting out the second season, and I think I’m more nervous than I was the first time around,” he said. For a community starved for a decent portrayal on screen, Youssef’s lane is delicate: “It keeps me up. I’m constantly praying like, please, God, I really hope my intentions were right in doing what I’m doing.”

Youssef says this, then sort of shrugs his shoulders and does whatever he wants. “It’s almost like the process for making the show is if there’s a scene I’m afraid to shoot, it’s probably the scene we have to shoot,” he said. “It’s my job to push conversation. That’s really all it is. This is not educational. It’s not representational. It’s more just like, what combos come out of this?”

He emphasized that point. “It’s not mathematical. These are just the things that I find funny, and they’re just who I am. The filter for the whole show is like, am I into this? You know, like, does this make me laugh? And like, that’s pretty much it.”

Even for me, as someone who’s increasingly disinterested in being the representation police, it’s a little frustrating to hear him talk like this. Consider one of his own jokes from his stand-up, in which he introduces himself with, “I’m Muslim—you know, like from the news.” He knows what’s at stake here—how rare it is for someone like him to have the spotlight he does for reasons other than political attacks or extremism.

Even while he can be circumspect, Youssef flatly rejects this responsibility. “Look, my whole thing is to complicate the context,” he told me. “The show on all ends fucks with context. That’s the goal.”

Ramy, especially in Season 2, certainly … complicates some contexts. And it shows, at least to me, how much more interesting the show is when you consider it from within an American Muslim perspective, not in its potential to be (mis)read by others.

There are the Muslims who believe there’s only one way to be Muslim. “I do think there’s a lot of Muslims—talking hard-liners—who were like, ‘There’s no way that anyone could go out and do these things and still be a Muslim,’ ” he said. “And that’s not true. It’s just not true.”

He’s right—it isn’t. But there are much more nuanced reasons for Muslims to question what Ramy is doing, too. It’s not just the sex. In the fourth episode of the first season, we see a flashback to Ramy Hassan’s past and how he experienced 9/11 in elementary school. In the middle of the night, the pre-pubescent boy wakes up to the sounds of someone rummaging in his fridge. He finds that Osama Bin Laden is in his house. He describes Ramy as a relative, and the two break out in conversation about the justification for the terrorist attacks.

I didn’t enjoy that scene. My stomach sank, and my anxiety kicked in. I’ve all but exhausted myself trying to separate Islam as I understand it from the Muslim terrorists in the news. I immediately thought of the non-Muslim watching who already thinks of 9/11 as an Islamic assault on New York—back to that responsibility thing again.

In Season 2, Ramy takes things even further. The show explores anti-black racism in the Muslim community, religious hypocrisy, homophobia, and polygamy. The cousin love plotline continues. In creating his show, Youssef’s admirable desire to take us into the darkest and most complicated corners of Muslim American life can start to feel like he’s just piling on all the provocations he can, no matter whether he really has something to say about any of them.

And then there are questions about the show’s blind spots in these boundary-pushing depictions. In one widely read critique, writer Shamira Ibrahim took issue with the show’s Muslim women. She argued that Ramy trafficked in tired ideas: “Muslim women in Ramy’s life are focused on all the things they seemingly can’t do.”

I caught up with Ibrahim just as she finished watching Season 2, and she lamented that she’s had to tell so many people that her criticisms of the show don’t mean she’s aligned against it. “I don’t think we would be having this conversation if it wasn’t a show about Muslims,” she told me. “We are actively looking for this content. We are looking for ‘representation’ that is for us, by us. I definitely think that it’s good. And we also pick it apart when we get it, because that’s what we do.”

We immediately got to discussing our favorite scene of the entire season: when Sheikh Ali, the Mahershala Ali character, meets Ramy Hassan’s family for the first time. Uncle Naseem, played by Laith Nakli, asks him what prison he converted to Islam in, riffing off an embarrassing anti-black stereotype. Sheikh Ali snarks back, pointing out that Arab-owned liquor stores are part of the reason black neighborhoods are disadvantaged. “I was surprised—pleasantly surprised, actually—that they made the point,” Ibrahim said.

Ask Youssef what he makes of all of this, and he has two responses: He can’t make the show everyone wants, because that’s impossible, and he built the show to provoke these conversations. “It’s not a beacon of how to be, because I think that would be a much worse and manipulative use of television,” he said. “To try and make some show on how to be a Muslim, what prerequisites do I have for that? How dare I?”

Ramy Youssef puts his arm around May Calamawy.
Maytha Alhassen and Ramy Youssef on the Season 2 set. Maytha Alhassen

The first season works best when Youssef sticks to what he knows, his own personal experience. But the pushback to it does seem to have affected him. More Muslims with different experiences are now in the writers’ room. Maytha Alhassen, a historian who has written extensively on Muslim representation in media, was a consultant for Season 1 but was tapped to weave together deeper storylines in Season 2, for women and others.

Over the phone, she called her transition “artistic activism.” “We’re having interesting conversations about choices that characters make within the context of the things that I’ve researched,” she said. “In the room, I go back-and-forth. Sometimes I put on my Islamic studies hat, then I think about what it really feels like to be an Arab American woman.”

Alhassen said she has always been obsessed with the subtle ways Muslims have embodied their identities in America. What made her presence in the writers room so valuable was her intimate knowledge of the conversations Muslims weren’t having, like those regarding porn. “Some might ask, ‘Why would you tell folks about that?’ No, we’re talking to each other about it.”

This is where Ramy shines—it is utterly ready to go there. Many fellow Muslims aren’t yet. “I call it piety policing,” Alhassen said. “Performative policing. We are obsessed with the external manifestations of our faith practice, but I think if you truly do place your trust in God, then the judgment of others should melt away.”

As a critic herself, Alhassen understands why Muslims get defensive over how they are portrayed—even when portrayed by other Muslims. But she said that doesn’t really affect how the show is made. “Do we have in mind what people are going to say? Yeah. We saw the reaction to Season 1, but are we constricted by that? I don’t think so.”

“I think that’s why ‘representation’ feels so hollow, because you can’t just put a character out there and the community will think that’s enough. People are craving full characters in a full story,” she said. “There are other communities that have fought really hard to be in this place, and so there [are] a lot more of their stories out there. So we’re on that journey.”

This puts Youssef is in an untenable position. He not only has to write a compelling show with sophisticated characters but also reluctantly play ambassador for all Muslims, no matter how much he refuses to. It’s a position many of us can relate to but none of us can ever fulfill. So why do we continue to pass that mantle among ourselves?

“No one’s ever like, oh, have you seen ‘the white show’? That’s not a thing,” Ramy told me. “But people do say ‘the Muslim show’ and that’s not really fair. I’m not even saying not fair to me. It’s not fair to the viewer. There are so many of us and the only thing they’re getting is me?”

Around this time, I realized that even while I’ve tried to resist it, I had been doing this, too, in my head. I was doing it in the room with those 60 other young Muslims last year. And watching Season 2, I was more nervous than ever about how non-Muslims would relate what they see on screen back to me. I was wanting Youssef to “perform” Islam for non-Muslims for the same reasons I resentfully do the same to neutralize what non-Muslims might assume about me. It’s internalized Islamophobia, and it’s likely why many Muslims demand one another to be perfect. But by wanting to shield ourselves from outside judgment, we become ensnared in judgment.

Ramy’s new season seems certain to invite plenty of that.

Ramy Youssef speaks to Uncle Naseem in Ramy.
Ramy Hassan speaks to Uncle Naseem in Ramy. Hulu

I’m most worried for Laith Nakli, who plays Ramy’s bigoted Uncle Naseem. His character arc deals specifically with homophobia, a taboo still largely unbreached in many Muslim families. Nakli, for his part, told me it’s been the most fulfilling role he’s ever played.

“Every artist dreams of having that opportunity to be a part of something that’s culturally shifting,” Nakli said. “I’m always afraid of what fucking people think. You go through this as an actor, you’re always worried about what people think and the reviews say in blah, blah, blah, you know? But in the end, it’s all about the work.”

He first met Youssef in 2008 at one of his random stand-up sets in New York. They formed a local sketch comedy group called Sketchy Arabs. Nakli later convinced Youssef to take on acting classes at Esper Studio in New York. That’s where Youssef met May Calamawy, who’d play his fictional sister, Dena, on Ramy.

“I’m going to get blowback from it, but I’m OK with it, because it’s important,” Nakli said of his role. He winced at the thought of homophobic people he knows watching the show and reacting to it in anger. “I might have some moments where I’m going to be really sad,” he said. “Not because of my own insecurities, but it makes me really sad to see that people are like that. And that’s part of what made me want to do it.”

One of the weirdest parts of being a first-generation Muslim American is growing up without obvious role models. Watching Season 2 of Ramy, I’m fantasizing about Muslim leaders who can empathize with the fictional Ramy’s desire to be understood fully for exactly who he is and try to connect with their congregants in the same way Sheikh Ali, played by Mahershala Ali, does in the show.

Ali joined the series after he praised the first season in an interview. Casting him as a spiritual sheikh was the obvious choice. But writing one of TV’s first nonterrorist sheikhs was on its own challenging. “We don’t want to come in and do, like, the trope of a ‘Magical Negro,’ ” Youssef said. “But it’s interesting because sheikhs are very much spiritual, and then sometimes they feel a little magical.” The goal, like for the rest of his characters, was to make them human.

So how do you make a sheikh human? Make them sin. Sheikh Ali, like all religious leaders, tries to hold himself to an otherworldly standard, always taking the high road. Rarely do we see him buckle. In Season 2, he offers protesters outside his mosque coffee with marshmallows. But when Ramy’s character reaches a breaking point with the sheikh, we get a glimpse at his darker side.

It’s in characters and relationships like these that Ramy shows its real power. Its specificity and even its admittedly narrow point of view have turned out to be great assets. It’s one of the first shows that articulates the divide many American Muslims feel between the spiritual ideal espoused by many of our parents and how we actually live. Yes, it does this with maximum mess. By the end of Season 2, it is almost impossible to like Ramy. But his path to self-destruction turns over so many stones of Muslim American fears, desires, taboos, and aspirations that watching the show feels liberating. Some conservative Muslims are shocked by Ramy because it stays true to a very misguided character and exposes him again and again. It’s about how he is, not how he ought to be. The same goes for the sheikh—Muslims are starving for role models who aren’t perfect but simply trying. Even if that means failing and ruining a marriage the same day it starts. Not just because we only see ourselves represented as villains, but because in our communities, we only represent ourselves as perfect.

There is one person whom Youssef still wants to see him as perfect. His grandmother got sick while he was in the middle of producing this last season, and as she headed into her final days, he produced a personalized edit of the first season for her to watch—without any of the sex. He told me that after she finished watching the show, she made a point to tell all the nurses that her grandson was a star. She died shortly after.

The rest of us aren’t his grandmother. We can watch this. We can have the conversation. We can admit we’ve done some of these things. We can be Muslim and be the people on this show. This doesn’t mean we’re leaving the old traditions behind or betraying our new ones in America. In Season 2, a tow truck driver confronts Ramy’s sister, Dena, at the sight of her hijab, holding up his own efforts to assimilate as praiseworthy, and her holding on to her culture as backward: “It’s a melting pot, so fucking melt!” If only it were that easy.

Youssef, through both his semi-autobiographical show and his rise in Hollywood, shows just one way to do this. The magic of his comedy, acknowledging the clash between who we are and who we want to be—and making it funny—has made me feel like I belong, I make sense, as a Muslim American a little more. And Youssef himself is proving to be model for how to make yourself an object of criticism. He says the fact that it’s a fictional Ramy who’s under the microscope, and technically not him, helps. We joked about how it’s always easier to ask for advice when it’s for a friend. “Exactly,” he said. “I’m asking for Ramy Hasan, not Ramy Youssef.”