How to Be an American Immigrant, as Told by Hulu’s Ramy
I'm going to start off this post by emphasizing that I am NOT a first generation immigrant. I do not know the firsthand struggles or cultural dichotomies that result from this. That being said, I grew up in a household with parents that are first generation Americans. Both their parents ended up in America, refugees of the Holocaust. Taking what I know about their lives, and their journeys up until now, I see similar narratives being told through the TV show, Ramy. These are my thoughts.
Hulu’s Ramy is as profound as it is simple, following Ramy Hassan’s exploration of himself and his heritage along with his role as an American immigrant. The series follows the titular character’s internal conflicts relating to his spiritual, romantic, and social search for meaning in a manner that proves to inspire audiences of all backgrounds.
In following a millennial character living on the east coast, the show opens itself up to endless tropes and attitudes being both accepted and refuted. Ramy is a first-generation Muslim American, whose parents came to America from Egypt. The show portrays aspects of American communities that often go unheard within the medium of popular television and film.
It is not only a show about Muslim immigrants living in America, but of a generation which finds themeselves battling tradition with progressive values.
Although the series is fictitious, creator and star Ramy Youssef explains that it is, in part, semi-autobiographical and based upon his own experiences growing up as a Muslim-American. Ramy never claims to be a show for this demographic, rather the show aims to highlight the nuances of growing up as an American while not feeling fully immersed in the culture all the same. It is in this process, along with the themes found within the varying plots, that engage viewers episode after episode.
From Ramy’s search for spiritual purpose through prayer and observance, to understanding the value of sex within relationships, to defining himself as a man before god and law, the show serves as a vision of the American dream as it is understood in immigrant communities.
Despite growing up amongst other Muslim immigrants in New Jersey, Ramy finds it difficult to distinguish traditional customs of his parent’s heritage with that of American antics. In Do The Ramadan, he vows to follow the thirty day fast religiously, only eating between the hours of sunset and sunrise. He attempts to abstain from sex and pornography during this month, but ultimately fails - a testament to the struggle between his urges and his faith. Another episode finds Ramy travelling to his homeland of Egypt in an attempt to reconnect with himself and his faith. What he assumes would be a spiritual journey to a land resembling his history is really just another country with values teetering away from tradition and towards progressive tendencies.
Hank Stuever writes for the Washington Post, “Ramy drifts along in a sort of permanent existential crisis, searching for that sweet spot between being devout and breaking free.”
The difficulty in growing up between two cultures is the lack of connection to both, and the expectation that one can only be fully immersed in the customs of one culture, and distanced altogether from the next. Ramy’s search for his own place in his world is a sentiment felt by many, and watching him on screen provides a narrative that often goes untold and unheard.
Like in many religions and sacred texts, sex before marraige is advised against in the Quaran and Islamic religion. Within the first episode of the show, we find Ramy not only engaging in sex, but doing so with a women who is clearly not Muslim. Interestingly, a majority of the girls Ramy finds himself with are not Muslim at all. This, in part, leads Ramy to question his motives for love and marriage, and in creating an eventual family for himself. In the aforementioned episode, Do The Ramadan, Ramy struggles to maintain a relationship with his then-girlfriend while also keeping track of fasting and prayer during the month long holiday. It is a metaphorical debate between his heart and his head, love and faith. In A Black Spot on the Heart, Ramy meets a Jewish American girl and they quickly become romantic with one another. When she offers him drugs at a party, he sees this act as going against the laws of Islam and ends the relationship with her. In recognizing the aspects of his past relationships that have made him feel unfaithful to himself and his heritage, Ramy learns the value of the sanctity of marriage. From this, Ramy seeks a faithful partner who shares his faith, heritage, and similar circumstances, and finds this with his religious leader’s daughter.
How does one go about partying and engaging in social functions while also maintaining his or her culture and tradition? Ramy struggles to define the boundaries of the teachings of Islam and the conforming values of his friends and families. Ramy’s friends can frequently be seen drinking and often missing daily prayers, which serves as a point of contention for him. It is in this dichotomy of two cultures colliding that Ramy finds himself questioning his actions. He refuses to conform to the customs of American society, but remains physically detached from the traditions of his homeland and heritage. The rest of his family - his father, mother, and sister - have all assimilated into American society relatively well through work, school, or activism. Yet, Ramy cannot seem to define his role within either community, leaving him in a state of constant uncertainty with himself.
“Had this only succeeded in bringing an ignored perspective into a mainstream streaming-service show, Ramy would still be one hell of an accomplishment,” David Fear writes in Rolling Stone. “It’s a lot more than a mere triumph of representation, however; you’re so in awe of how Youssef has given the world the Great Muslim-American TV show that you might miss the fact that its a great TV show, full stop.
Aside from its powerful themes of relentless faith in the face of conformation, and lack of purpose despite a supportive community, Ramy succeeds in highlighting the mundanity of immigrant culture as well. The show could have easily been about the cultural clash felt by Jewish-Americans, African-American, or Mexican-Americans in that it reveals the reality of living in America when you know your heritage lies elsewhere.