In the first-season finale of Ramy — a new Hulu series helmed by comedian Ramy Youssef — the hero, played by Youssef, stumbles through an Egyptian desert. He’s an American born to immigrants, on his way to meet his grandfather, a man who might, Ramy seems to think, help him understand his own confusing life. In the heat, Ramy hallucinates a striking woman, who calls to mind a few of his past lovers. In one hand she holds a fidget spinner, an echo of the married woman from his local mosque who ended an affair after Ramy bought her son one of those very gadgets. “We can take a shower together,“ the hallucination says, more or less parroting an invite from his Jewish former paramour back home. Then comes the thorn in the rose, a line that punctures the fantasy. “Who cares if I’m your cousin?” asks the vision in the desert. Ramy walks on. “I gotta shower by myself,” he mutters.
I watched this scene on a recent trip to my childhood home, after which my father unwound what sounded like the plot of a slightly off Nicholas Sparks movie: the story of a woman who visited her brother’s house regularly after her husband died too soon. Her young son got to know his first cousin during those visits and, eventually, the two first cousins married each other. My father spoke in a way meant to open my mind, it seemed. He needn’t have tried so hard. I wasn’t gagging at the thought. But I got why he assumed I might: The rightness of marriage between cousins constitutes one of the most quietly heated debates on the planet.
That the phenomenon ties up Ramy’s first season makes sense: The show pulls back a curtain on a world not often given public space to breathe. In his working-class Jersey town, Ramy identifies as both super-Muslim and not Muslim enough. His most consistent quality may be his inconsistency. He waffles on how to date, think, love, pray, how to perform as a son, a friend, a worker. His confusion about his sense of self complicates every romantic situation he finds himself in, no matter the creed or skin color of the woman. A clarifying force arrives in the show’s final episodes: a spirited, beautiful woman named Amani*, to whom Ramy is instantly attracted (it’s mutual) when he meets her during the first night of a find-himself trip to Egypt, the motherland. Amani is modern and devout, liberated yet intense. Only, as Ramy soon discovers, she’s also his first cousin.
Discussion ensues. “Hot Egyptian, speaks banging English,” says his friend Mo, outlining the positives on a video call, during which Ramy frets over his relation to Amani. “Lock it up.” “What part of marrying my cousin don’t you get?” Ramy asks. “What do you mean,” Mo retaliates. “It’s perfect … No in-laws, everyone’s just in.” Ramy hisses the word disgusting. In pipes his other pal Ahmed, also on the call. Any perceived repellency around cousin marriage, Ahmed asserts, stems from “propaganda.” Scares about birth defects are “bullshit.¨ Risks rise “from like 1.4 percent to 2.8 percent for something to be off. It’s only a real problem when the kids of the cousins start hooking up with the cousins,” he explains sweetly. “If you don’t have any cousins above you, you’re fine, bro.”
My father made his own such argument, not to a young second-generation American but to a peer. Years ago, his friend’s son, who was born in America, insisted on marrying his first cousin. I remembered that wedding from a different vantage. My own first cousin and I attended as guests. I rarely saw this cousin — he was India-based, in D.C. for a master’s (as was I), and forced by extended obligation to head to a wedding of strangers with me. The ceremony was to take place in one of the 20 American states that allow cousin-to-cousin marriages. (Twenty-four do not, and six allow it only if the couple is either too old or otherwise physically unable to procreate.)
As we packed, boarded a train, and made our way to Massachusetts, my cousin made fun of the dysfunctionality of the setup. I found the intensity and prolonged nature of his mockery curious. It struck me that he might be trying to send dual messages: to me, not to get any funny ideas, and to the world, that he was not one of those savages who do such things. In any case, he stoked my rebellious instinct. My mind wandered. This marriage was a hard-fought one, just not in the way one might expect. The parents were against it — it was they who thought the whole cousin thing seemed off, not the 20-somethings in the hot seat. My dad had consoled them — his argument revolved around the family’s considerable resources, which might attract a stranger for the wrong reasons; whereas this bride, one presumed, was in it for love.
The boy had been born in the U.S.; the girl in India. I first met him on a family trip when we were both in high school. I’d been intrigued. He seemed to be managing America well, fitting in and all, a member of a band formed with white school friends with a comically lewd name. He cracked dry jokes. Yet some part of his persona felt perceptibly off, as if he spoke a foreign language too methodically to pass as a native. Then I heard in college that he’d become a fervent campus Hindu. I saw a swap of one costume — normal American! — for another — devout Hindu!
I could understand the need to overcorrect, to right an imbalance. Partly, I was projecting. My experience of America centered on a sense of being forever wrong for whatever role. Nowhere was my misshapenness more clear than in the field of romance. I’d barely been on a date at that point in my life. No man I met in the largely white school environments where I grew up in Texas seemed able or willing to suit the requirements of my life: navigations through family and social structures, the food, the clothes. Texas white guys seemed to see every deviation from the norm as a nonstarter. In college, I found East Coast white guys who seemed to view my variables as assets to convert their own lives into something interesting. Indian-American guys fell short in their own ways. One I’d found cute one high-school summer whisked me on a brief but thrilling AIM courtship. He had done a monologue as the unsung Mahabharata character Karna when I first met him at a statewide cultural convention, where everyone buzzed about the kid who spoke perfect Kannada, knew his scriptures, and had blond tips — like a Hindu analog of a kid at Jesus camp who plays Christian music on his guitar with tattoos peeking out from his sleeve. The bent of his costumery came off as almost comically overwrought. But after all, wasn’t an ability to perform precisely the quality I needed in a companion? I saw something like potential in his willingness to go all-in: to play the bad boy with the blond hair and the good boy with the Vedic piousness to equal extremes. Then one night he let me know he could never actually bring me home. My skin was too dark, Indian moms too prejudiced. I took the hit with a grin, as I recall, almost loving him for letting me slip back into isolationism, for validating a long-felt point: Everyone sucked, Hindu, Christian, whatever. No society seemed to value members based on anything but signals of status.
Years later, as I journeyed to Boston, some part of me understood the appeal of just going in-house, to companions bound by blood. Are cousins who marry freaks? Are blond guys who recite the Mahabharata? White people who wear shoes in the bedroom? People who measure worth by height or skin color or job title? Who is more freakish, for that matter, than an immigrant, who shows up in a foreign land and proceeds to try to fit in?
Ramy is never at ease in America, with himself or his various lovers. He hides his religion from one white woman; his confession that he abstains from drugs brings another date to a halt; things go sideways with a Muslim woman when it becomes obvious that he can’t see her as a sexual being. Amani alone seems to hold his full attention, to promise a chance for self-knowledge through connection with another. Their conversations carry the fullness of an entire relationship, as if laying the blueprint for what is to come: They discuss their grandfather’s death, their yearning for the spiritual, their private rebellions. She alone seems the right shape.
The season ends on a cliffhanger. After a perfect, impromptu date, the hesitant lovers acknowledge the fact of their cousinhood, as if to stop themselves from taking the logical next step. Then, in the final minutes of the episode, they do: A kiss pulls them together, a closer that shows just how messy the act of assimilation is. An American hyphenate might see a solution, offered by an age-old practice of the ancestors, to a modern problem — the isolation wrought by dislocation. Meanwhile, the parents’ generation might be the one to object. (Ramy’s elders haven’t yet, but there’s always season two.) After all, they didn’t come all the way to this country so you could act like a village kid who marries his cousin.
No better tension, to my mind, sets up a second season. For a certain strain of mixed-up person, to love one’s cousin is to enter into metaphoric terrain, rich with avenues for larger inquiry, as I discovered on that train ride to Boston. Not that I breathed a word of my contemplations to my wedding companion — my own first cousin, that is. He seemed to not want any weirdness with me, and, well, I did not want any with him, thank you very much. On which note I now ask of some higher power — Allah? Vishnu? — that this essay be kept out of the reach of all of my cousins.
*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Amani.