Television

Inside the Making of the Year’s Most Uncomfortable Scene

It starts with an awkward exchange with a Holocaust survivor. Then it gets worse.

Ramy Youssef and Julian Sergi on Ramy.
Ramy Youssef and Julian Sergi on Ramy. Jon Pack/Hulu

In the new season of Ramy, the series’ protagonist, played by creator Ramy Youssef, travels to Israel to meet with the head of a jewelry syndicate called the Diamond Club. If the meeting goes well, he could expand his and his uncle’s business in New York’s Diamond District, and rake in huge profits. The syndicate’s head, Ayala, is an Israeli Jew, and explains to Ramy that it’s not easy for her to trust a Muslim like him. But there is one way, she says, he could set her mind at ease and prove he’s not a “religious fanatic.” Could he just draw a picture of the Prophet Mohammad?

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Youssef tries to hold in his laughter as he talks about writing this scene. “How do we go near something that really shouldn’t be touched?” he recalled asking himself. “We don’t do it. But even just getting close to it feels like almost an insane proposition. And so, all of that felt really right to me.”

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By Season 3, Ramy has already bent and broken pretty much every Muslim taboo, so I had no reason to believe this was a line he wouldn’t cross. My mouth felt like it could fall right off. But as Ramy reaches for the pen, Ayala cracks up and tells him to stop. She explains to him that the trust-building prank was necessary because her mother, seated at the end of the table and reading Torah, was “the only person of our family who survived the Holocaust.” He turns to the elderly woman and says, “Congratulations.”

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Youssef knew he wanted to reference the Holocaust in this scene because it’s tied to the narrative of Ayala’s family, and also because it’s a central tension in the debate over Palestine and Israel. He remembers writing the next lines very specifically. “I actually was just riffing something out loud to myself and I was feeling the awkwardness of what the scene was going to be. And I think I actually just said congratulations out loud to myself. I just started laughing really hard because I was like, that would be insane to say something like that.”

This scene is really hard to watch. Ayala gives Ramy a WTF look. “Are you being sarcastic?” she asks with a sharpness in her voice. I was smiling watching it, but I didn’t want to be. I care deeply about Palestine, and I also know how deeply this cuts. Just carelessly mentioning the Holocaust is enough to be immensely hurtful. The exchange made me want to hide.

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In the scene, Ramy looks shaken. He scans his mind for something to say. He doesn’t apologize. Instead, he puts his foot in his mouth trying to justify himself. “Congrats, that’s the sarcastic one.” he explains. “Congratulations? That’s for big events. “You just had a baby? Congratulations. You survived the Holocaust? … Congratulations.” Every time Ramy pauses, you expect Ayala to interject or the scene to move on. But Ramy doesn’t stop, going on for a full two minutes. It’s like watching a beached dolphin trying to kick its way back into the sea.

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It isn’t just me. Deena ElGenaidi, who recapped for each episode on Vulture, wrote, “I could barely watch it because it was so cringe you but also so funny.” On Twitter, CerauntheDivanun said, “I get so much second hand embarrassment from my boy.” Body Yachti said “This cringey ass scene in the second episode of #ramy is killinggg meeeeee! Why isn’t anyone telling him to shut upppp.” Another user wrote, “Congratulations, Ramy?! Congratulations?!” A few minutes later, they replied to their own tweet: “It just keeps going omg.”

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It’s as awkward on paper as it is on film. Youssef shared the scene’s script with me; the part where Ramy tries to explain himself goes on for a page and a half. “I remember sending it to the network and they were like, ‘Oh my God, that congratulations scene.’ I remember even hearing the marketing people, who put together marketing pitches, sometimes they just read scripts,” he told me. “They were talking about the congratulations scene, like it is such an awkward thing. They hadn’t even seen it yet!”

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a page from the script for Ramy's "Congratulations" scene
Courtesy of Ramy Youssef
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But for Maytha Alhassen, who co-wrote the episode, the scene articulates a real tension. “We’re watching the effect of a child in America who’s in the diaspora who is only given two extremist choices,” she told me. “Be a fundamentalist or be an assimilationist.”

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They filmed the scene in a mansion in Haifa, a mixed city, meaning that Jewish and Arab Israelis share the land. She remembers the American and British crew on set were more uncomfortable than the Palestinian and Jewish ones. “Everything is a constant reminder that you’re there,” she explained. “This proximity to comfort means that people live very differently than Americans that feel entitled to comfort. And so that scene is that tension of being there.” The episode includes a scene with young actors from the Jenin Freedom Theater in Palestine. “The kid who played Khaled Wadiya, that was his first time leaving the West Bank,” she said. “Part of our American crew bought him a swimsuit, took him to the beach; it was the first time he was in the water.”

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The episode was directed by Annemarie Jacir, a Palestinian director born in Bethlehem, who called the production groundbreaking for working with a mostly Palestinian crew. The production schedule was interrupted when beloved Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by an Israel Defense Force soldier, a tragedy a New York Times investigation found was unambiguously the fault of the IDF, although Israel has yet to take accountability for the death.

The tragedy put the region on alert, particularly after the IDF pummeled pallbearers with batons during Abu Akleh’s funeral procession. Ramy’s production was put on hold, but were able to salvage just four days to shoot the entire episode, and only half a day to film the scene at the table.

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“The whole arc of that scene, it had to be long—unusually long for TV,” Jacir said. “But I think that’s what’s great about it. The scene is long, but it doesn’t feel too long. You just want it to end. And it keeps going. He doesn’t know when to stop. And I think that’s also a theme for all of Season 3. It just keeps going when you think it shouldn’t.”

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But Youssef said extending the scene wasn’t just about making the audience squirm. “If it’s shorter, I almost think the scene can be disrespectful,” he said. “Sometimes when things are too fast, the wrong feeling can happen.” While TikTok is pushing creators toward shorter, more jump-cut presentations, he says the show isn’t “designed for just being pulled and put onto the Internet. It should feel like its own singular, separate experience. And so that motivates a lot of how I make the show. I think that the value of being able to sit with all of the topics that we bring up in this show is the value of it being a TV show, you know?”

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The third time I watched the congratulations scene, I was one of about 50 who gathered for a screening at a small theater in Manhattan, a good amount of them Muslim. While I swallowed deep in anticipation for what I knew was coming, it felt more cathartic in a group. We processed the awkward gaps of dead air and dread of a conversation like this together, with not a little laughter. It didn’t feel so long this time. That, Youssef told me, is why this scene exists.

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“The character, some people think he’s an asshole or think he’s whatever, but I think he’s really naked,” he said. “So much of the experience of viewing this show is, ‘How much permission do you think you have to laugh, and how much room do you give a character that looks like you or sounds like you or shares your culture or shares your faith?’ I found as someone who’s making this show now for three seasons over five years, we have a ways to go with allowing ourselves to have room around things that depict us.”

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