'Ramy': 2019’s watershed show (and Yaaseen Barnes approved!)

Ramy Youssef in 'Ramy'. (Photo supplied: Showmax)
Ramy Youssef in 'Ramy'. (Photo supplied: Showmax)

The year’s most original and groundbreaking show is not what you’d expect. So we asked one of SA’s top comedians to weigh in on Ramy.

Cape Town - "There’s Friday prayers and there’s Friday night, and I’m at both!” Ramy said, exasperated. A dazed and confused twenty-something, he’s having a hard time finding himself, caught between his culture and the modern world.

But this is unlike any show of that type that we’ve seen before. Ramy, which is streaming on Showmax, is the creation of Ramy Youssef, the American stand-up comedian with Egyptian heritage. Youssef has been building a strong career as a comic who explores cultural similarities and differences, as well as his own Muslim faith.


Ramy is comparable to Orange Is the New Black: edgy, smart and daring. Youssef plays the lead role, a fictional character named Ramy Hassan who, as Youssef put it, is a millennial Muslim struggling to make the two work together. Over ten episodes we get to know Ramy, his family, romances, own culture, other cultures, ecstasy, Ramadan, America, underage drinking, masturbation and Osama Bin Laden. It’s quite a ride!

"I really wanted to make something where it showed someone struggle with faith in an honest way," Youssef told Stephen Colbert on the Late Show. "A lot of stuff is very anti-religion, which I understand. It’s not like religion has been doing itself any favours as a culture and industry. But I still had faith and I wanted to show that. So, watching Muslims, in this case, Arab Muslims, deal with what they believe and what they actually do."

Does his show pull this off? We asked Cape Town-based comedian Yaaseen Barnes, well-known on SA’s comedy circuit, what he thought of the first season:

"I loved Ramy. It feels very close to my lived experience. It’s Muslim people being people. We have normal problems with the world, but also how we deal with our faith in the modern world at the same time. It’s that constant struggle of finding the balance."


Ramy Hassan is not getting his life together, even though he really wants to. Good intentions are no match for his agonised but laid back demeanour. Ramy looks to his faith to try and anchor him, but a lot of what he does is not really in synch with that. He’s not dysfunctional - Ramy just doesn’t have his act together.

Many of the people around Ramy compensate in some way by using their faith or their worldly desires, from his dodgy friends hanging in New Jersey to his crazy relatives abroad. Most prominent are his family: Ramy’s caring but strict dad, his loving mother, his acerbic and brilliant sister, and his incomprehensibly racist uncle. Most of the show is about Ramy. But the season also devotes significant time to the lives of his family.

"I think it’s a very real show," said Barnes. "If you look at his parents, of what they struggled for and what they had to sacrifice to get where Ramy is. It’s nice to see their stories as well."


But this isn’t a Muslim show. It’s a show about Muslims and other people. Ramy builds on similarities and shines a spotlight on the strange little things that we have in common.

In Ally McBeal, it was through a female lawyer in an absurd man’s world. In Blackish, it’s via an affluent black family in white suburbia. In Orange Is the New Black, it’s jail like we’ve never experienced before. Now it’s about Muslims trying to live a traditional life in the land of rock ‘n roll. This is why Barnes sees Ramy as unique:

"It shows you Muslims working at becoming Muslim. We’re not just 'I’m a Muslim and all I do is pray all day.' I just live a normal life. So I think it’s great for outsiders. It shows that we also struggle to learn religion, that we struggle to find ourselves in religion. It’s about people being people. These are just Muslim people."

But, he adds, that’s not why you should watch it: "The show is really good. Even if you take the whole Muslim factor away, it’s a great show. You see a person try and find their place in the world."

Also, there are conversations about sending pictures of your genitals and a good lesson on why you shouldn’t eat your friend’s powerful gummy bear pain killers. Ramy is something else.

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