“On a scale from 1 to 5, how comfortable are you with your cultural identity?”
“3 most days, some days it’s a 5 and others it’s a 2. It just depends on the scenario.”
I think back to this conversation I had with someone who interviewed me for a class, now a friend of mine. It’s the foundation for everything I write that deals with my diasporic identity, because it was the first conversation I had with somebody that addressed the issues we’ve faced being children of immigrants, from religion to dating to self-realization.
It seems that this generation of people who’ve grown up in a place that’s the complete opposite of their parents’ came to the same realization at the same time. I remember the slew of shows, movies and specials that came out to portray the life of a Desi Muslim kid as he grew out of everything he was taught as a child: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, Hassan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick — all programs that carried their own identities but dealt with the same issues, like the family’s reaction to dating/marrying outside your culture and religion, losing religion, and dealing with being an outsider in the United States. I remember it fondly, as I’d felt like I’d for once gotten adequate representation for my experiences here. So when I heard about Ramy, a semi-autobiographical show created by and starring standup comedian Ramy Youssef, I figured it’d be another one of those.
I was reluctant to watch at first for that reason, and perhaps the fear that I might relate too much to it. After having read multiple reviews on it, most notably the New Yorker’s review about its spot-on portrayal of millennial Muslim relationships, I thought I might come out of it confused about my identity again. Maybe it would show me something I was doing wrong. Before even watching it, it reinforced doubts I’ve had about my identity — am I doing my parents’ heritage a disservice, and am I ever going to fit in in this country? But eventually I bit the bullet.
Ramy, with all its Egyptian family dynamics and Ramy’s moral ambiguity, depicted moments of clarity and love that I hadn’t seen in the aforementioned shows. Whether it be through the comedy of uncomfortable situations, the heartbreak present throughout a looming presence of infidelity in the community, the bigotry of Ramy’s uncle, or Ramy’s frequent religious rebirths, I found my identity in the most unexpected moments.
It hit me in a scene when Ramy visited a Sufi gathering with his cousin in Egypt. The Sufi leader reminds the gathered, “You do not enter paradise until you believe, and you do not believe unless you love each other. And if you love each other, spread peace amongst yourselves.” The proverb is followed by a song that builds up from the phrase “La ilaha ha illallah (There is no god but God),” which Ramy eventually joins to a climax when everything stops for a few seconds and he remains aware in that moment of where he is and who he is. His life continues as normal afterwards, confusing as ever but with the experience of having felt his clarity in that single moment when he, as he describes it in the show, stops overthinking things and just gives in.
Rewinding through the whole show from that moment, I began to see several of those moments of clarity: Ramy finally washing between his toes before he prays following a bad date, cleaning the mosque after his conversation with a white convert, working for his uncle realizing he can change him, evaluating his decisions as he listens to his grandfather’s tapes from Egypt.
What this show addresses that I hadn’t seen in Master of None or Homecoming King or The Big Sick was the recognition of the dynamic psyche we carry as products of diaspora. I’d encountered this idea first in college when I studied Gloria Anzaldua’s notion of the mestiza consciousness, which asserted that as opposed to their structured ancestors, Latina women maintained a psyche that adapted to different environments. Reacting against the stronghold of machismo in their societies and the impact of colonization from the outside, they became flexible in their adaptation to environments and created a third identity that manifested in every situation. I encountered it again through the paintings of Driss Ouadahi who coined the term “transcended space” to describe the identity that Maghrebi immigrants in Europe developed together as they experienced similar displacement from their North African countries and within their European ones. And finally it revisited me as I’d found these moments of clarity in this show.
The notion that we reach our clarity at a point in our lives and live onward without looking back was the myth that Ramy destroyed, and I realized that it’s not always a happily-ever-after interracial marriage, it’s not always a separation from one culture to another, it’s not always a rating of 5 on the scale my friend proposed. Rather, we live our lives to find those moments, like the Sufi gathering, or the mosque-cleaning, or the bond between Ramy’s mother and father as they relive their first date when she spoke French to him. And those moments, though our confusing lives continue after them, live in us as a reminder of who we are. At those moments we rate ourselves a 5, when in all other moments we might rate ourselves a 3. Yet we remember what the 5 felt like so we can strive to reach it again.
I can’t say I have seen a program that depicts those moments of clarity and the space in between them in a better way. My reaction to the ten short episodes, fluctuating between grabbing my sides from laughing so hard and breaking down in cathartic tears, was the most connected reaction I’ve had to a work in a long time, and perhaps that brief watching period was my moment of clarity as I begin to understand my confusing, diasporic life as I continue to interact with my family, friends, mentors and everyone else.
Originally published at http://alihaider.org on May 8, 2019.