Growing up as a Muslim in America has been no easy feat. There has been a hyper-orientalized image (established from years of imperialism and colonial conquest) which portrayed the people of “the East” as exotic and fetishized yet oppressive, backwards, and barbaric. These themes have come up in cinema through The Sheik, The Ten Commandments, Arabian Nights, and the Sally Field starring masterpiece, Not Without My Daughter — films which objectify people of the Middle East as subjects to understand and conquer, whilst simultaneously depicting images of violence and peculiarity.
There is a colonial history rooted in these depictions — one that continues to perpetuate the themes of people who need to be taught and saved. These were heightened following 9/11 and George Bush’s declaration of a “War on Terror” when Hollywood and the rest of the nation became obsessed with Muslims in popular culture and on TV. Automatically, anyone from the Middle East was portrayed as a terrorist and oppressor (think 300, The Mummy, 24, Homeland, and quite frankly, 99% of all movies produced in tandem with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq).
Growing up with this cultural depiction peaked a lot of confusion for me. It shared no resemblance to the culture I knew and grew up with at home and I felt defensive and like I needed to explain to my peers that this was not actually reality.
Eventually I became resigned to the fact that it was something that was never going to change. This was forever going to be the “representation” I had become accustomed to.
However, as artists and activists in the industry began to fight for representation, not just for Muslim Americans but for minority groups in general, and shows like Blackish and Fresh Off the Boat gained popularity, there began a glimmer of hope. Shows that were about minority groups were suddenly being written and produced by and showcasing actors who were made up of the same minority groups! (Revolutionary, I know!)
Ramy is a Hulu show currently in its first season that is created and portrayed by a first generation Muslim American, Ramy Youssef. A semi-autobiographical dramatic comedy about a 20-something navigating life while torn between two communities, Ramy’s Egyptian-American home life and upbringing is set against his very millennial, American surroundings. The viewer observes as Ramy grapples with life as a practicing Muslim — torn between Friday prayer services and Tinder dates. It’s a show about real issues that Muslim Americans face: friends, family, love, and life.
In a recent New York Times article, Youssef comments on his depictions saying, “A lot of people look at Muslims [as either] the moderate Muslim or the good Muslim — it’s almost like we have this choice every morning that’s like, ISIS or breakfast? As if that’s like a genuine temptation. I don’t know anyone who knows anything about anyone who’s ever been in ISIS. We’ve got nothing to do with any of that. Really placing what our actual issues are at the forefront is the thing that I think makes us most human. That’s what I want people to see.”
And that is exactly what I see when I watch. It’s a show about someone who is still trying to figure out who he is and where he fits in the world around him. Ramy practices his faith, prays, and fasts during Ramadan but he mostly dates non-Muslim girls and has premarital sex. The show is rife with double standards… but isn’t that how life is? It does not depict an angry, controlling Muslim man, but rather a confused millennial just trying to figure shit out (aka: me).
Leila Lajevardi is a student living in London.