"Maktub" is a word you will hear a lot during season 3 of Hulu's comedy series "Ramy." This Arabic word, which many may also know from "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho, literally translates as "it is written." But, as you will also learn in "Ramy," it also poses this philosophical question: Is life predestined?
The beauty of "Ramy" this season and as a whole, is that it not only entertains, but it also challenges you to ask hard questions about your faith, identity and purpose. I spoke to the Emmy-nominated creator and star of the show, Golden Globe winner Ramy Youssef on "Salon Talks" about the new season.
As Youssef explained, the idea of "Maktub," is widely debated in the Islamic tradition. Do we truly have free will, are we living in a big simulation, or are we making choices that we believe are our own but are in fact made for us?
Season 3 of "Ramy" also poses more real-world challenges, especially taking production on the road and filming in the Middle East. Through comedy, Youssef exposes viewers to the lives of Palestinians under occupation, from checkpoints to Palestinian Americans being denied entry to Israel and Palestinian children being imprisoned by the Israeli military. One of the most powerful moments comes when Ramy's Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli), who is Palestinian American, is told by the Israeli authorities who are interrogating him at the Tel Aviv airport that if he doesn't give them the code to his iPhone so they can view the contents, they will send him home, to which Naseem responds, "I am home."
Youssef — who I've known personally for over 10 years, back when he was a co-producer of the NY Arab American Comedy Festival that I co-created along with comedian Maysoon Zayid — has always understood comedy. What he has done with "Ramy" has intertwined his ability to make people laugh with making them better informed. Watch or read my interview with Youssef below.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Ramy, I've always wanted to ask you this question. On "Seinfeld," Jerry Seinfeld's the star of every episode. When you watch "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it's Larry David. Even "Mo," which you co-created, Mo drives every episode. There are episodes of "Ramy" that you're not even in. Obviously, you made a choice. Why that choice?
Yeah, we made that choice early. Even in the first season, I think I'm only in seven of the 10 [episodes]. That was something that the network [Hulu], at first, they were a little bit concerned. Like, "Wait, what? How's that happening?" I'm really interested in writing for other people. I really like directing other people. The more that we've gotten to do the show, I've been able to step into that more. I like the real-life pacing of planting a character problem, then stepping away from them for a bit, and then seeing where they're at with their problem. I like doing that with my character. The pacing, it creates something that is organic.
Every season, Ramy, the character, has struggles, but this season, faith was the most pronounced to me. Even though you are a person of faith, does it track that you have deep questions about God, faith, and that you're on the right path?
Yeah, doubt is a natural path for anyone. Doubt is healthy, it's a radar for getting deeper. In the same way that guilt can be healthy as a radar for what you want more of — even jealousy. All those feelings can be indicators for something you want to grow or something you want to figure out in a more meaningful way. With the character, we definitely take what, for me, probably in real life have been moments where it's a bit more muted than what we do in the show. The show definitely takes it to a different level and that's where you get to have fun in making a TV show, doing the things that don't happen regularly.
Take us behind the scenes for a second. In your writers' room, how do topics come up? Is it collectively with your whole team and then selections are made? Or is it about what resonates for the characters in the storyline and then you just pick the best of and go forward?
"We depict things that I like to describe as emotional or spiritual illnesses that people have, whether it be lust, greed, or shame. Those are things that everyone carries around."
It's a very collaborative environment. In terms of how it funnels through me, we talk about a lot of things in the room. A lot of stuff comes from stand-up bits I'm doing or areas I want to explore. Also, especially at this point of the show where we have these characters that have their own lives, a lot of people are bringing up really great ideas for how it goes. Our process tends to be that we talk about these things, we get them into beats of stories, then I'll take those beats, work on a script, then I'll bring that back into the room, and then we make it better. It goes through me, in terms of I'm the one who's doing a lot of those initial drafts and picking the things that feel right, but it's a show I definitely could not make by myself. Part of why it's grown and gotten so, to me, actualized in a place that I really like is because there's this great team that really understands what the show is and what the characters are. Working with them is really fun.
I have read you talk about not having long, long hours in the writers' room. It's more defined in a way, which I think is so much better. It's not like a job at Home Depot.
In the show, you talk about maktub. Your jeweler is called Maktub. It comes up in the last episode and other episodes. It's an Arabic word. Can you share what it means?
Yeah, it's this principle. We open the season with it, it's threaded throughout, we close with it. It's this idea that there are parts of our life, or our entire life. It depends, really. One of the most interesting things about Islamic scholarship is that there is diversity of thought. There are people who say, "It's all written," or, "No, no. Only certain parts are written." There are even people who will say what equates to a simulation theory. They all hold valid viewpoints that are open to interpretation.
That's part of what's interesting about diversity of thought in our tradition. The way we talk about it in the show is posing this question that things are written, but we also choose. "How can you choose what's already been chosen?" It's this impossible math problem that any believer struggles with. It's this idea that is supposed to not make sense and you see the characters struggling with that.
It's something that goes through my mind a lot. As Muslims, we say, "insha'Allah," a lot, "God willing," but is it already been willed by God? Is your path already been defined by you or is it free choice? I think a lot of people know Maktub from "The Alchemist."
It transcended everything. It became the hummus of the world. You're like, "Maktub, I know. Why do I know Maktub?"
This season, Ramy goes to the Middle East. You go to Palestine and Israel. To me, that was a real change for the show. Your character's half Palestinian in a way, but it really feels like you're Egyptian. You filmed there. You show checkpoints, you show children being arrested by the Israeli military, you show Laith Nakli who plays Uncle Naseem, who's Palestinian. IDF stops him at the airport and say, "We're sending you home." He goes, "I am home." I'm like, Wow. This is remarkable. Tell us a little bit behind that. What drove you to do this episode from a creative point of view? You point out things that we don't see in mainstream media, but Palestinian Americans have lived through it bluntly and know exactly what you're talking about.
In Season 1, we established the Palestinian heritage of the Maysa, [Ramy's] mother. Hiam Abbass [who plays her] is Palestinian. We were establishing the dialect of Arabic that she was speaking and how it differed from the Egyptian dialect that Amr Waked was speaking as Farouk, her husband. It's something that we always were excited to figure out, how we were going to dip into. It started to feel like a really logical place for where we wanted Ramy's character to go, in terms of his business ambitions, that working in the Diamond District would bring him to Tel Aviv.
For me, positioning Ramy's character when he goes overseas is always about making him an American. As a show, we show what is complicated about living in America and almost not understanding what your space is when you have a different background and a different faith – especially in terms of how Islam is dehumanized and what the lens is on that. The really funny thing is, then you go to a Muslim country, and he's so clearly an American. That's something that we have a lot of fun doing, whether we did it in Egypt or we did it when he goes to Palestine and Israel. You really see his privilege. We wanted to highlight that because there is this difference. There are massive advantages to being in the diaspora as opposed to living there. Everyone's negotiating their space with that.
It's something I saw firsthand when I was in Jordan crossing a border. Clearly, they looked at me like I'm the white guy, but I'm like, "No, I'm you. My dad's Palestinian." They're like, "You're a white guy." They treat you a little bit nicer, to be honest. I did have a U.S. passport and that is part of it. There was an episode you did, and I don't know if you're getting any feedback yet or not about, "More than one wife." You even have a warning at the beginning.
Share more about this warning you had for the episode dealing the character Ahmed potentially getting a second wife.
"If I'm going to be generous to Hollywood, there's just more room now. ... Hollywood used to be way more of a numbers-driven game. Now there's more latitude and space to try things."
We put it up as a spiritual warning, which we thought was tongue in cheek, because this is obviously a conversation that we don't want weaponized into something that it's not. Really, the episode is about open communication. I would probably sum up the episode as we watch this character wondering if he should open up as a relationship, but really, what he needs to do is just open up.
The spiritual warning that we put in front of it was mainly for comedy. Just noting the elephant in the room that this is a massively heated debate within our various communities and we're not actually trying to provide any answer or, honestly, even an opinion on the ruling. It's more just watching the nuanced debates that happened with just a few characters. Obviously, we don't cover all of it, but it was probably mainly for comedy.
For me, the conversation more so sits in the context of we're in a time where everyone is speaking about all sorts of types of relationships and how they can look. In general, monogamy is under the microscope for all sorts of communities. It was more about looking at what, at this point in time, is considered alternative relationships, but looking at one through a different lens. It's not something I personally would ever be in a position to practice.
But it was something that felt funny to, again, look at a few nuances within. When people see the show, the reasoning behind why the character is exploring it is not sexual. It's actually more about him loving his wife, her not wanting to have children, what that might mean, and how you build a family when maybe there are alternative points of view on how that should happen. It felt like a philosophically interesting way in that wasn't just about – yeah, it wasn't about more sex or anything like that. It was about a philosophical issue of how to build a family.
There was a lot of nuance. Even subtle little things. They each had the same house, he's treating them all equally, which is, Islamically, if you're going to do this, what you're supposed to do. Treat all the wives equally, which is impossible.
Azhar Usman, who's in the cast, plays the episode of the man with four wives. I'm like, "That's your next show." The man with four wives, Ramy.
What's interesting is that's a famous Egyptian sitcom.
It is? I didn't know that.
Yeah, it's a really famous sitcom premise of this guy who has four wives. It's funny. Part of what's really interesting, too, about this show and thinking about media in general is we start to zoom out and realize there are so many stories being told all over the world. We categorize stuff that happens in different countries and put it just in, "The foreign box." Maybe some of it historically was made only for those places, but a lot of what we're going to see more of in the next 10 years is anything made anywhere can be for anyone. Everyone has a real global view of how they're viewing things, especially with the way streaming continues to be available in almost every country at this point.
In 2019, when you first started "Ramy," America was different. Trump was president, the demonization of Muslims was off the charts. The guy rants on banning Muslims, we see a spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes. Now it's 2022, Trump's sort of gone. He's not president anymore, he still lurks about. Anti-Muslim bigotry is not at the same level as it was. Does that inform anything, in terms of what you first started doing in the first season to what you wanted depict on screen?
Not really. Mainly because anyone who's been watching the show from the beginning knows that it's more about the spiritual debate that pretty much everyone has going on inside of them. I really describe this show as watching, at first, the guy, but then you realize a family is navigating the space between their higher self and their lower self, and who they want to be versus who they actually are.
That's something that becomes algebraic. I have this experience where people of various faiths and people of various cultures say, "I have this, but I'm Mormon, I'm Jewish, I'm Jehovah," or, "I've got that uncle, but he hates Muslims. He's Islamophobic instead of this uncle that is antisemitic. We depict things that I like to describe as emotional or spiritual illnesses that people have, whether it be lust, greed, or shame. Those are things that everyone carries around and we watch them navigate it within the specificity of a type of family that hasn't been covered with much nuance. That's where the Muslim part comes in. I never felt like the show was a reaction to Trump or anything that was happening, it felt more like an inevitability of getting this portrait of this type of story.
As time has evolved, I think Laith's character, Uncle Naseem, might end up being a remarkably unique point of view that we haven't seen. At the beginning, he was more like the funny bigoted guy, then it turns out he's closeted gay and he's struggling with this to gray points. Almost like in the last episode, in the Chinese restaurant. You're like, "OK, put the gun down." I'm like, "What is going on here?" Was that something that just organically happened as he got more integrated in the cast himself?
That's a character that we've learned more about the more that we've worked with him and looked at him. At some point towards the end of the first season, I was watching this scene and I was trying to understand a bit. At first, I was writing this machismo and aggression because it was familiar to me in the community. I've seen it. Putting it on screen, highlighting the ridiculousness of it, and what I think is a generational divide on what a man should look like, was where we started.
The more we watched the performance, saw what was going on, and started to dig into it, I had this thought at the end of the first season of, "Is this what's going on with him? What if this is what's going on with him?" That became what we explored in Season 2 and, obviously, now into Season 3. He's really gray, and I don't think being in the closet condones half of what he does or even any of it.
You watch it and you go, "I know that guy."
That's the thing that happens with a lot of the characters on this show. It's not much to condone. I prefer it that way, because I never want television to feel instructive and I never want anyone to be lulled or deluded into thinking that we are putting out any how-to guide, especially when we're talking about spiritual stuff. The more that people can feel, "This isn't the way you should live," I actually like that.
Over the years that "Ramy" has been in production, we've simultaneously seen Hollywood become a bit more embracing of our community. Not hugely, there's a lot more work to be done, but a few examples, "Mo" which you co-created with Mo Amer on Netflix, "Miss Marvel," the new Hasan Minhaj Netflix special. Do you credit it to more people being born here and getting more getting involved in entertainment, or do you think actually Hollywood was standoffish and now a little bit more embracing?
A lot's happening at once. Everything you've said and I also think that streaming is a massive boon to networks. If I'm going to be generous to Hollywood, there's just more room now. There's more room to do more. Hollywood used to be way more of a numbers-driven game. Now there's more latitude and space to try things. Even if Muslims are only three to four million in America, that used to be a, again, metric for what was going to get made. That might feel like a low number, but now you have all these streamers looking to get a foothold, and making things that feel unique and feel definitive.
Even what we did with Hulu at the time was part of defining their comedy brand three years ago, four years ago. We were part of a slate of two, three things that might not have ever been made anywhere else, but it started to build something over there. Immediately after that, we walked into Netflix, I pitched Mo's show with him, and they were excited to do that. There's just space in a really cool way.
There's a business upside. It's an international audience now.
This episode ends the season with prayer. It actually made me pray. I'm not even kidding. Watching you, your dad, and your family there praying. I heard, though, that the next season might be your last. Is that true?
I'm hoping that we're able to do one more, but in terms of me, creatively, where I am, that feels like a very satisfying end to where I think this is going. Just because we could keep it growing, keep it exciting, and keep it really definitive for one more season. My dream has always been to put it down for a while and then maybe, who knows? At some point, in many years, I have different experiences further on into my adulthood and we could bring back what I feel is one of the best, most beautiful casts on TV. That would be exciting.
Your next show, just throwing out there, half Italian, half Palestinian guy from Jersey show.
Yes. The Sicilian Palestinian. It's got to have a rhyme.
"Salon Talks with Dean Obeidallah
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story listed Ramy Youssef as an Emmy winner. He is a Golden Globe winner for best actor in a musical or comedy TV series, and has two Emmy nominations, for acting and directing. Salon regrets the error.