A Muslim Protagonist’s Angst: Jews Will Relate

If that capitalization makes you roll your eyes a little bit, you should. Our protagonist Ramy’s kind of insufferable sometimes, but the kind of insufferable that is deeply relatable. We all know a Ramy, especially within the Jewish community.  Ramy’s Muslim-American world strikes an instant chord: the centrality of food and cooking; the disparate restrictions on sons and daughters; the joys and challenges of a tight-knit ethnic framework; the angst of a spiritual journey within a religion that feels challenging and patriarchal; the sweet release of a mystical experience (Ramy’s Sufi interactions feel like a very sing-songy Friday night minyan, complete with some progressive gender politics); the attraction to Jewish women; the racist (in this case also anti-Semitic uncle).

We all know a Ramy, but there is a lot we didn’t know, and didn’t know that we didn’t know. The show entertains, but it also gently teaches: about Islam, about Arabic (of which there is a lot – be prepared for subtitles), about Egyptian food and religious customs, about – and this, to me, was striking – how short Muslim prayers actually are, even if prepping for them can take a while.

Ramy’s search for hook-ups, or romance, or even love, is a central focus of the show, even as it is an allegory for his search for himself.  And for his God. It’s no accident that his first few partners are all Jews: it is North Jersey after all, and they do share a Semitic framework after all.  I mean, he went to Rutgers, for Pete’s sake! He definitely had a Friday night dinner or two Hillel with his roommate’s girlfriend. Definitely.

The show manages to use these Muslim-Jewish interactions to celebrate what connects these two religions, to undo a lot of anti-Semitic narratives, and to show — quite movingly — how the geopolitical tensions (more than tensions) that divide Jews and Muslims may be less important to a particular generation than great banter, a shared understanding of religious restrictions, and a comfort with people who, no matter how different, are in many ways familiar.

That’s why it’s almost a relief when Uncle Naseem shows up.  He’s a caricature of the most egregious kind, spouting the grossest anti-Semitic epithets combined with a healthy hatred for pretty much everyone who isn’t him, and that’s just fine.  It’s fine because he’s the anomaly.  It’s fine because in this rare, rare show featuring Muslim-Americans, it’s okay for one of them to be the stereotype.  He’s not holding up the side for every Muslim-American out there.  He’s a foil that shows just how far away from his beliefs Ramy and those in his world actually are.  It’s a neat trick, actually: this show gently works to combat anti-Semitism and we only realize it when the worst anti-Semitism is put in the fore.  (And by the way, your heart will end up breaking for terrible Uncle Naseem. People are complicated, even terrible ones.)

And it’s not all Millennial fun and games. Season One feels like a person looking to find himself. Season Two is about that search going wrong, taking the form cringe comedy with a sad undertone and several painful twists. It’s hard to watch. A lot of the pain is Ramy’s fault. And he knows it, but keeps making the same mistakes.

Like Fleabag, Season One is enhanced by Season Two, but unlike Fleabag, in which the first season makes all the more sense as a journey when viewed in the context of the second, here the episodes underscore all the ways that Ramy fails to learn. We like him a lot less by the end of this season, even as we continue to love his friends, and love how his friends continue to love him. He reminds me of an observant Jew who will never eat a cheeseburger but definitely drives on Shabbos. In his case, Ramy would never have a drink but definitely has a lot of premarital sex, even on his ancestral (shades of Birthright, anyone?) trip to Egypt. 

The good news is that the second season focuses less on an increasingly insufferable Ramy on more on the (excellent) supporting cast of characters. There are several capsule episodes, and all of them are breathtaking, particularly any moments with Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. Ali plays Ramy’s Sufi Sheikh with grace, wisdom, and the kind of charisma that elevates everyone around him. Ramy’s mind and world move at a frenetic place; Sheikh Ali slows everything down and bring everything up. If there are shades of the magical Black man trope, they are dispelled by the diversity of the cast, whose character of color, characters with disabilities, and characters of diverse sexualities and gender expressions are notable by the shows focus on them as characters rather than tropes. Ali is not the only Black character, even if he is the one we can’t stop watching. It’s not just his wisdom and spirituality: we are all Ramy’s sister Dena, who, upon meeting him for the first time, gasps, “your Sheikh is hot.”

Sheikh Ali teaches that practicing Islam is like encountering an orange: the bitter outside protects the sweet, intimate inside. We need both. We are both. The show itself echoes this tone. 

I hope this character comes back for Season Three. Based on Ramy’s actions though, it’s not looking good.