How close are we to God? And how close need we be? Ramy—an American-born Egyptian Muslim, played by Ramy Youssef—tells a girl the difference between a yoga stance and the path to salvation may be one of intent. “Child’s Pose and prayer are the same position," he says. “We are almost doing the same thing." Ramy, a hit Hulu series that has finally arrived in India on Amazon Prime Video, is about a Muslim boy clumsily trying to cope with information, superstition, prejudice and his own warped preconceptions. In my mind, it is about the fine line between being led and being misled.
I fell for it in the first episode, when Ramy goes for an arranged-marriage match set up by his elated mother (at her son finally caving in to meet a nice Egyptian girl, she has only one question: “Covered or uncovered?"). He picks the latter, and meets a young lady free of hijab, and of hesitation. At the end of the evening, she’s unbuttoning his jeans in the back seat of her car. A rattled Ramy blurts out “we aren’t even married", voicing a concern about premarital sex being forbidden by Islam. The girl, Nour, has an immediate answer. “Oh, I didn’t even know you were that strict. I mean, yeah, we can get married. Um, my cousin does nikahs over the phone if you want to do, like, a temporary marriage. There’s this imam she uses…"
The scene is a triumph of insight and originality. This idea, of someone eager to find loopholes in the religion to maintain the fastidiousness of their faith, is fascinating. Ramy is mortified at the suggestion of cheating God, at which Nour readily asks him to pleasure her differently, by choking her. He begins this but stops almost immediately, for it doesn’t feel right to him. Nour’s reaction is righteous and fiery. “I’m in this little Muslim box," she says, correctly calling out Ramy’s hypocrisy for sleeping with white women but being scandalized by her. “I’m supposed to be the wife or the mother of your kids. But I’m not supposed to come."
Ramy, created by Youssef with Ari Katcher and Ryan Welch, is an exploration of that “little Muslim box". Ramy is struggling to look inside as he grapples with faith and identity in a modern world, agreeing with the aspects of his religion he deems most convenient: He chooses not to drink, but has an affair with a married woman. This tug of war between ritual and religion is intriguing, and most of us can relate to the picking and choosing of aspects of faith based on the most easily applicable. As we observe this clueless fellow do (some) things by the book, Ramy offers a meditation on the arbitrariness of religious rules.
To an Indian audience, the show will feel frighteningly familiar. Egyptians living in America pack suitcasefuls of department-store gifts for thrilled cousins in Cairo, and the family back home applauds Donald Trump from a distance, for reasons all of us with casually bigoted old relatives will understand. “You criticize Trump," they lecture, “But Trump loves his family. He gives them hotel, he gives them work." That may be the most Indian line of dialogue spoken on any show, ever.
Ramy is a character in free fall. Bereft of professional or creative direction, he’s clutching at straws and looking to family and faith for answers—even if he might not know the questions to ask. In a phenomenal flashback episode called Strawberries, set around 9/11, a school-going Ramy tells his friends the truth about his family knowing nothing about terrorism while simultaneously lying to them about masturbating. As the boy dreams of a gentle Osama bin Laden, Ramy skilfully explains the radical perspective while condemning terrorism.
Everyone around seems to know more than him—but not much more. His mother, Maysa, played by the lovely Hiam Abbass (whom you will recognize from Succession), decides to become a Lyft driver and charms a man in the process, briefly conjuring up romance in her head, but knows just what she has settled for: a man who laughs at a rerun even while having sex. His sister, Dena (May Calamawy), is sarcastic and brassy, but not as worldly as she pretends. His best friend, Stevie, played by Stephen Way, shrugs off his muscular dystrophy at most times but is candidly okay about crossing a sexual line. A boorish and heavily racist uncle leaps out of a car to protect a woman’s honour, and Ramy follows, unable to square one aspect of this man with the other. This is, therefore, a show about judgement.
It is also a show about guilt. Ramy writhes in the idea of shame, flagellating himself for every flaw while not committed enough to actually better himself. Blaming himself does no good at all, yet at times it’s all he can do—even as he sinks into increasingly inappropriate behaviour over the course of the season. Throughout the 10 episodes, two Egyptian-American friends, married and financially stable, lecture Ramy in a way that compels him to behave otherwise. Consider them a fenugreek chorus.
The show’s visual grammar is inconsistent and the pacing sometimes feels off, but this is old-uncle nitpicking in a series this essential, and I shall duly sit down. Ramy is an eye-opening show that offers a window into a culture and a mindset, and doesn’t shy away from prickly questions. Today, What If God Was One Of Us? would be an immigrant song.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.