For Quality Cultural Diplomacy, Watch Hulu’s ‘Ramy’

With laughter and understanding across religions and culture, 'Ramy' is the future -- for the next generation and beyond.

Ramy Youssef at LMAO Comedy Night 2017. Photo: Lee Roth.

The 28-year-old, Queens-born, Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef is the creator of Ramy, a new semi-autobiographical Hulu series. A little more than a week ago, Youssef also premiered Feelings, his stand-up comedy special, on HBO.

On Ramy, Youssef plays a first-generation Egyptian-American named Ramy Hassan, who is on a “spiritual journey in his politically-divided New Jersey neighborhood.” As Hulu puts it, the show:

…explores the challenges of what it’s like being caught between a Muslim community that thinks life is a moral test and a millennial generation that thinks life has no consequences.

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Even given the enormous diversity and originality of current TV, Ramy has the critics taking notice. Sopan Deb of The New York Times called it “quietly revolutionary”; in Rolling Stone, David Fear called it “a show about being a Muslim-American in which both of those words are given equal weight.” In Vulture, back in April, Gazelle Emami provided a glowing inside look at the making of Ramy, particularly its portrayal of the Muslim-American experience — from the looseness of hijabs to having sex during Ramadan.

Ramy, then, is also an experiment in domestic diplomacy; its very existence may increase inter-religious understanding within an American context. Yet what I would call the show’s global cognizance also makes it a trailblazer, an illustration of a type of cultural diplomacy the world could use right now.

When I think of Youssef, or when I catch one of his many media appearances, I can’t help but to compare his story to that of Ramy Essam, an Egyptian musician who, like many artists, is considered one of the main voices of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Essam was tortured by the state and now lives mainly in Sweden: his homeland revoked his passport. The Arabic-speaking Youssef first gained national attention on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with this:

Youssef was also busy at the time with a recurring role on Mr. Robot alongside the star of that show, future Oscar-winner Rami Malek — also Egyptian American.

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It’s also not lost on me that in 2017, after Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769 — the Muslim Travel Ban — Hulu ordered the pilot that became Ramy. It premiered with 10 episodes; a second season for 2020 has already been ordered. (Spoiler alert: Season 2 will pick up from from where we left Ramy at the end of Season 1 — kissing his cousin on a city bridge over the Nile.)

The stories of these Ramys are distinct but related. Whereas Youssef’s parents are both Egyptian (meeting after separately immigrating to NYC), the mother of Ramy Hassan is Palestinian. The first season peaks with Hassan’s near-pilgrimage to Egypt in the hope of finding socio-religious clarity. The cast and crew traveled to Cairo to shoot the season’s final two episodes.

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While skirting direct political discussions of Trump, current Egypt President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the 2011 revolution, Ramy does allude to them. Indeed, as Youssef told NPR’s Terry Gross, the show sticks to topics that he’s “uniquely qualified to talk about.” In this sense, you could say that Ramy has flaws in its treatment of female characters and sex; it can also fall flatter than the weaker bits in Youssef’s standup. But Ramy is brilliant in terms of multi-directional cultural diplomacy, for inasmuch as the show explicitly speaks to non-Muslims and non-Arabs in America, it attempts to serve Egyptian and Egyptian-American audiences as well. For example, the official plot summary of Episode 9 is in Franco-Arabic, untranslatable to English speakers by digital means:

ramy min amreeka! iz3yak ya bro! 3amel eh ya hbb? wa7eshni awi ya brence, wallahi. so pumped ur coming bro. haven’t seen u since we were 8!! a5bar new york eh ya basha?? and enta landing when? tell me all the flight infozzz, i’ll be there — whatsapp me habibi.

It turns out that this is made-up text from Ramy Hassan’s Egyptian cousin, who is picking him up at Cairo International Airport. No dark hidden code here, but rather an inside joke to Egyptian and Egyptian-American viewers. And in this sense, finally, Ramy is steeped in its Arab-ness; the cast includes Bahraini, Israeli Arab and Lebanese-Canadian actors, all reasonably solid in the Egyptian Arabic dialect. As for the exhaustion and trauma of a generation of Egyptian young people who fought a bloody revolution that has devolved back into dictatorship. Ramy gives them space, compassion and empathy.

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Numerous Egyptians round out the cast, including Rosaline Elbay (Turkish Egyptian) and Shadi Alfons, who is recognizable from his work with master satirist Bassef Youssef and the Egyptian version of Saturday Night Live. Palestinian-American stand-up comic and writer Mohammed “Mo” Amer brings some of the biggest laughs as one of Ramy Hassan’s best friends in America. The show’s crew, too, is diverse: Palestinian-American artist-activist Cherien Dabis helmed four episodes in Season 1, while Egyptian producer-director Jehane Noujaim, known for the Oscar-nominated The Square (2013), directed the final two episodes of Season 1 (with script monitoring by the government omnipresent throughout).

Playing Ramy’s father is Amr Waked, an award-winning Egyptian actor known for his work in Syriana (2003) and Lucy (2014). Earlier this year, Waked tweeted that he cannot return to Egypt because he was sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison for speaking out against military court verdicts and mass trials. Waked was also kicked out of Egypt’s film union, so landing a role on an acclaimed new Hulu series is especially meaningful.

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In February of this year, I wrote here on CFR that we should pay attention to Egypt. Since then, el-Sisi has met with Trump at the White House, and a national referendum to extend el-Sisi’s presidential powers into 2023 passed with almost 90% of the vote — if you don’t believe those widespread claims of vote-buying. In April, Waked and other Egyptian artists met with US lawmakers and voiced their opposition to tyranny in their homeland. In that meeting, Rep. Tom Malinowski said that the referendum:

…is a statement to the young people of the country: That none of you matter, that there is only one person who can hold power, only one generation that can hold power. It is wrong; it is stupid, and it is generally very, very self-defeating as we’ve seen throughout history.

Last month, attention swung to Egypt once most as host of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, which is now ongoing; careful observers noted the impressive opening ceremony as human rights abuses and injustices go on and on.

If Ramy is not the best TV show ever, it is nonetheless strong in terms of its international collaborations and multi-directional outreach. Stimulating laughter as well as understanding across religious, cultural and international differences, it is one of the best responses to the dispiriting aftermath of the Arab Spring. This is why I believe Ramy is the future of cultural diplomacy — for the next generation and beyond.