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Ramy’s May Calamawy Is Ready For Dena to Make More Mistakes

Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images

Ramy’s May Calamawy remembers attempting to not be consumed by thoughts of hasad (destructive envy) and the evil eye, which together form the spine of season two’s “3riana Grande,” by way of Dena Hassan’s law-school acceptance and ensuing hair loss (a storyline inspired by Calamawy’s own alopecia areata). “I would see the therapist and they’d be like, you know it’s all about the power that you give it,” she says. “But I was raised with it; it’s fully programmed in me. There have been so many times when someone has complimented something and then it’s fallen through or broken.” 

With Ramy’s second season now streaming on Hulu, Calamawy is thinking a lot about reconciling the traditions of Islam with who she’s become. A self-described “nomad” for the past three years, the Bahraini actor has found a routine in the pandemic — and a home. The lockdown coincided with her visiting friends and family in Los Angeles. So she stayed. “Corona just made it an easy decision for me,” she says over our Zoom conversation. It’s the first time in years she’s found a routine again: waking up early enough to find time for herself before spending it with her little nephews, meditating, journaling, praying. She’s also having tough conversations with her family about the anti-Blackness rampant in Arab communities and itching to tell stories about Muslim women that are more than just the box they fit into.

Did it feel scary to do an episode about your own alopecia areata? 

I didn’t want to, and I was victimizing myself a little, like, why is this happening? I’m feeling great, and feeling bad, because I’m aware that there are people who lose their whole head of hair. So on top of it, I’m feeling like I should be grateful. Dena’s character thinks beyond superficial things, and then she’s sitting there and she’s stressed about her hair.

There were days that it was just weird, and people were like, “We’re just going to film the bald spot right now,” and I was like, ugh. One of my friends was like, oh, they did a really good job on that [bald] spot.” And I was like, “What do you mean? It’s real.” [Laughs.] I had just hid it from people, but now I’m at a place where if I had a bout of alopecia, I’d be like, embrace your alopecia right now, it is what it is. 

In a recent interview with InStyle, you said Dena’s storyline has given you a hunger to tell more and share more. What is that hunger?

There’s still so few of us — Arab Muslim women — that you can in this public, tokenized way become “the voice.” If I don’t contextualize that something is my experience, then suddenly it becomes ascribed to every single Arab Muslim woman out there, and that shouldn’t be the case. It’s this collective burden that we have. I’m not a spokesperson for the Middle East or Arab Muslim women.

Especially with Ramy, a lot of people did not feel represented by it and had problems with it. And here’s the thing: I love that. But when it’s an attack because you feel we’re giving this blanket statement on Arabs, it feels stifling. There’s a lot of undiagnosed colonial trauma that our parents have experienced, and so they have a lot of protection over the Middle East because of how it was viewed as less than or behind or backwards. And there is a perception like we’re airing out this dirty laundry with what we’re doing. The more angry people get that they don’t feel represented by Ramy, the more I’m like, oh, this is a hunger for you to share your story, then … I want Arabs and Muslim Arabs to have that experience, because there’s not one way to be Muslim, in my opinion. Especially women, they need that representation to feel seen and accepted and to let go of a lot of their shame.

Why do you think the show still shies away from exploring Muslim female sexuality in the same way it affords Ramy?

I don’t know if it’s that it avoids it versus it just hasn’t gotten to it yet. The show is based on Ramy, but naturally his story can’t be told without the perspectives of the people around him. And this is something we’ve spoken about for the ongoing seasons.

I remember the first season had a lot to do with sexual shame and Dena getting agency over her body, wanting to feel beautiful and accepted. I’ve experienced that growing up. So it was cathartic for me and fun to do, but I remember telling Ramy, “I don’t want this show to be about her having sex and discovering sex.” We’re past that in many, many ways.

I personally didn’t want the second season to just be about a guy. I wanted to show how there are different areas in life that we can get agency for women. It’s not just through men and your body but work and how you put yourself out there and taking space.

When we see a Muslim woman who has completely renounced Islam and can do whatever she wants, people are like, okay. But the narrative I’ve always been interested in is a Muslim woman who’s still into Islam, is close to Allah, has her own interpretation of it, but is also sexually and otherwise liberated. There’s still a bit of shying away from that. 

Growing up in Bahrain, I wasn’t educated in Islam the way I’ve started to learn now. And it was so fear-based, and there was zero connection; it was mechanic. And by the time I was 25 — I moved, my mom passed away, and something switched off in me. My spiritual connection just cut off. It’s almost like I was doing it for my mom. And there was so much shame and fear in that world that something felt wrong. I didn’t enjoy being in my own body. I wasn’t accepting myself, and I had to move away from the religion for a second and explore other practices.

Recently I have come back to a curiosity about Islam. I question sometimes when people get angry at a Muslim woman exploring herself sexually or doing things that the Quran would say is wrong, haram, because sometimes it’s those things that you do that bring you closer to God. And knowing yourself sexually can bring you closer to God. I understand how if someone could hear that, who doesn’t understand it, they could be like, astaghfirullah, haram. I understand that and I can hold space for that, but I’m saying there is a world where that will resonate for women. And there is definitely a needed space where women want to feel like they can be who they are and explore their needs and still turn to God through Islam.

There’s a reckoning around race happening in media right now. Was there any extra anxiety for you related to the ways Muslims are typecast and are offered such limited roles when you moved to New York? 

It’s funny; I was only thinking of where I’m from as a positive. And I was thinking in a very strategic way that this is probably how I’m going to have to break in, using the Arabic language and playing these roles before I get looked at as, you know, a Jessica. I felt aware of that, and it wasn’t a problem for me. I didn’t get emotional about it. But because they were small roles, there wasn’t a lot of room for me to discover layers in the characters. Even when I tried. There was one role I had where I played the audition in a way where I was stronger and I had convictions about my choices — [the character] was working with ISIS — then when we went in to film it, they told me to come in with a different tactic. They were like, she’s actually scared and not sure. That was frustrating to me, and the turning point. I told my agent I don’t want to take these roles anymore.

While Ramy doesn’t completely dive into this, it hints how the Middle East and South Asia have an anti-Black problem. Mahershala Ali’s character calls it out gently in the show. 

I appreciate that when people watch a few of the episodes, they notice the criticism of the anti-Blackness that is prevalent in the Arab community, and I love that the Sheikh is Black, because sometimes it feels — well, a lot of times it feels like Arabs feel almost an authority over the religion because the Quran is in Arabic. But that’s not the case at all.

This period has definitely given me more of a push, as everyone else, to further educate ourselves. I’ve had to have conversations with my dad, and I tell him all the time, like, “You grew up in Egypt.” My dad is blonde and he’s white-passing. He never had to face anything — besides his name being Muhammad, there’s nothing else — no microaggression, no instance that involved race. So it’s easy for him to make comments, and I love him, and my dad’s incredible and very well-read, but sometimes he shocks me.

Recently on a family chat, he was like, “May’s just at that age where she likes to fight for people,” and I was like, what are you saying? And I feel grateful that I’m able to talk back to him through the reading that I’m doing. He does have views that I disagree with, and if I can at least open his eyes a little then I will feel accomplished during this time. And like everyone, it is frustrating when you start to realize, why have I not been more educated on this subject earlier? But again, we’re all learning now, and it’s a collective learning, which feels hopeful, more hopeful than the past.

How do you experience it when Ramy seems to be poking fun at the ridiculousness of the American Muslim diaspora and at people who practice, for lack of a better word, “shortcut” Islam? Or is it just an earnestly accurate portrayal of someone who’s going off the rails but at the same time wants to be better through Islam and family?

Season one is aspirational — [Ramy’s] on this path of self-discovery — and then season two is transformational, where he is like, oh, this is who I am, I have to deal with myself. And he’s figuring out what that’s really like. And there is some fun that’s being poked, but I don’t know if it’s fun or if it’s just hey, this is what’s happening. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of confusion, because again, it’s not really things that we talk about. If I had any questions, my mom would be like, you can’t ask that, haram. So then, at a later age, I’m like, why am I coming of age in my 30s? It’s because we weren’t given that space to really explore and ask questions when we were younger.

Sometimes people ask, “Are you just poking fun?” And it’s more that Arabs — especially Egyptians — are a funny culture. The language is sarcastic. It’s an honest representation in that respect, too. And Ramy knows that he created an unlikable character. That’s the whole point. He’s always like, who wants to see someone doing everything perfectly anyway? That’s what I want for Dena, too. I want her to make more mistakes.

Ramy’s May Calamawy Is Ready for Dena to Make More Mistakes