By Fawaz Turki
April 24, 2019
Italian Americans are hopping mad. Earlier this month, New Mexico joined a growing number of other states in the United States that had replaced Columbus Day, a national holiday celebrating the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas on October 12, 1492, with Indigenous Peoples Day. Advocates of the switch want to recognise the contribution of Native Americans rather than the man who discovered — or conquered, depending on your ideological bent of mind — America, thus opening it to European domination.
Italian Americans consider the move an encroachment on their “ethnic pride”, and in the US — that sees itself as a “nation of nations”, whose diverse population trace their ancestry to every country in the world — everyone is ethnic, an ethnic pride is readily flaunted, indeed often paraded in the streets.
So when one of your own, an Arab or Muslim American, makes it big, you stand tall.
Consider the case of Ramy Yousuf, the Egyptian American whose 10-episode, wildly praised sitcom, “Ramy”, began streaming on Hulu last Friday to 25 million subscribers, and took the entertainment world by storm.
In “Ramy”, a comedy, the 28-year-old Youssef, who was born in gritty New Jersey and had earlier cut his teeth as a standup comic, tells the tale of a confused Muslim bro from the mean streets there, whose fashion statement is jeans, a T-shirt, sneakers and a baseball cap worn backward, and who is the product of two cultures — American and Muslim Palestinian — both equivalent centres of his identity. The character, also approximating Youssef’s age, still lives at home with his parents.
He has two Muslim friends who keep urging him to get on with it and “get married”; an anti-Semitic uncle who works harmoniously with Orthodox Jews in the diamond district; a best friend, Steve, who suffers from muscular dystrophy; and a major existential problem, namely, how to live a normal American life “between Friday prayer and Friday night”.
It’s hilarious, it’s riotous, it’s priceless — and we always laugh with the characters, who attract and co-opt us with their feisty, though earthy humanity. So much so that we forget that “Ramy” is not just a great Muslim American TV comedy, but a great TV comedy by itself.
All autobiographical? Assuredly so. And “Ramy” is an “autobiographical lyrical landmark”, according to Vanity Fair, which went on to quote Youssef describing the character’s family, the Hassans, thus: “They’re messy, they’re ignorant, they’re loving, they’re a little racist, they’re, you know, everything everyone is in America”.
To mine comedic gold out of this seemingly pedestrian cloth is the mark of an accomplished talent. As Rolling Stone, the ultimate arbiter of pop culture put it “Ramy Youssef brings his experience as a Muslim American immigrant to TV, and gives us a near perfect example of making the personal universal”.
True, there’s a lot of suffering in the complexities that, in this case, make up the tripod of life, faith an assimilation experienced by Muslim families in the US today. But when you turn that suffering on its head, that is, transforming grief into its dialectical opposite, joy, as Yousuf has one in “Ramy”, then you create, well, art. The social satirist Erma Bombeck once pinned it all own when she opined: “There\s a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humour and hurt.”
No question about the fact that the Muslim American Hassans will join other famous ethnic American TV families, such the African American Huxtables, the Anglo-American Keatons, the Jewish American The Goldbergs and the Hispanic American Alvarezes.
And please don’t put down ethnic pride in the US. It’s as normal as apple pie. And it is, yes, good for the soul.
There have been countless studies of “ethnic affect” — the positive feeling one derives from one’s ethnic background — and virtually all conclude that pride in one’s ethnicity correlates with measures of high esteem, well-being and social adjustment. Only in America, folks, where everyone has a hyphenated name.
An, yes, to T.S. Elliot, April is the cruellest month, but in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, April is designated Arab American Heritage Month, in recognition of the contribution that Arab-American Marylanders have contribute to the state — joining New York City’s The Arab American Street Festival, Seattle’s ArabFest, Phoenix’s Arab American Festival of Arizona, Wisconsin’s Arab World Fest and California’s The Arab American Day Festival.
If you were alive an “happening” in America in 1968, you might remember the irreverent slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby”. True, Arab and Muslim Americans have done just that. But given the ubiquity of Islamophobic bigotry in America today, there’s still more distance to travel before they get to the clearing.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.