9/11: 20 years later

Ramy Captured the Paradox of Being Muslim American After 9/11

Photo: Hulu

In the days, weeks, years, and decades since September 11, 2001, the event has taken on such sanctity to a certain kind of American identity that it’s become ensconced in a mythical untouchability. At a December 2001 luncheon at the National Press Club, actress Goldie Hawn said of an American flag she knit after September 11, “I was trying to knit America back together again.” Most pop culture followed in Hawn’s footsteps, spreading a fervid brand of “never forget” unity that usually ignored, condescended to, or patronized a central group in this narrative: Muslim Americans.

Shared among many of the TV shows and movies produced about September 11 is a hushed veneration for the day’s tragedies, a respectable distance from their occurrence, and an upholding of a white-America-first perspective. Rescue Me, Denis Leary’s FX dramedy about New York City firefighters living with PTSD, guilt, and anger. World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s film about responding Port Authority Police officers. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s torture-endorsing film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Infrequently discussed was the 500 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes after September 11, or the normalization of Islamophobia so broad it produced a December 2002 Saturday Night Live cold open mocking the pronunciation and spelling of Muslim and Arabic names.

There are outliers, like the melancholic inevitability of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (which equates the arrest and imprisonment of Edward Norton’s drug dealer Monty Brogan with the collapse of American empire) and the subversive sympathies of Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (starring Riz Ahmed as a Pakistani man and Wall Street wunderkind whose dedication to the American Dream collapses amid the post-September 11 racism he weathers). But for the most part, September 11 in American entertainment is always a Very Special Episode: purposefully meaningful, leadenly weighted, and unwavering in its us vs. them, American vs. Muslim, and patriot vs. terrorist binary.

And then there’s Ramy Youssef, starting “Strawberries” — the September 11 episode of his titular dramedy, Ramy — with a chat-room query straight out of the aughts: “How big are ur tits?”

When it premiered in 2019 on Hulu, Ramy was the first scripted series focused on Muslim American life, and has since been joined only by United States of Al, which is far more limited in its exploration and imagination. The first two seasons of Ramy (with a third on the way) follow its millennial protagonist as he navigates his faith, the expectations of his Egyptian family and community in New Jersey, and the intermittent aimlessness of his generation. By virtue of Ramy’s singularity, “Strawberries” — both written and directed by Youssef — provides what might be the only primarily Muslim American perspective on September 11 from any TV genre. And the resulting episode derives its power not just from its thematic loneliness, but from its meta awareness of that loneliness.

Being a brown person living in America during September 11 was to realize that the shock, confusion, and mourning you were experiencing alongside other Americans was probably not what a sizable chunk of those fellow citizens would ascribe to you on that day. And being a brown person living in America after September 11 meant loudly rejecting “radical Islam” immediately and consistently during a time when this country’s mask-on racism (the prevalence of Arab terrorists in blockbusters as varied as Back to the Future and Patriot Games) became mask-off racism (the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address and its “axis of evil” messaging, a widespread torture program magicked into law with the help of psychologists paid $80 million for their “enhanced interrogation” techniques, the judicial black hole that is Guantanamo Bay). Consider this line from Youssef’s 2017 stand-up appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert: “I’m like, ‘Whoa. Am I gonna do something?’” he says of internalizing Fox News’s near-constant Islamophobia. Youssef is perfectly befuddled in his delivery of a joke that is meant to divert an accusation, and the bait and switch he pulls off in that moment regarding his religion, his allegiances, and his loyalties as a Muslim American would be expanded upon thoughtfully and poignantly two years later in “Strawberries.”

Ramy cycles through honesty, empathy, absurdity, and discomfort in nearly every episode, and “Strawberries,” with its masturbation A story and September 11 B story, pulls from Youssef’s own life. “9/11 and me jerking off for the first time happened in the same year,” he said on The Last Laugh: A Daily Beast Podcast, and in “Strawberries,” that timeline is compressed into the same week. In early September 2001, tween Ramy Hassan (Elisha Henig, who also played a young Muslim in “eps3.7_dont-delete-me.ko,” the mosque-featuring episode of Egyptian American Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot) feels out of sync with his white friends. They’ve begun masturbating after receiving porn hand-me-downs from their fathers and advice from their older brothers. But Ramy — with his limited computer time, his devout and strict parents Farouk (Amr Waked) and Maysa (Hiam Abbass), and his own hesitance — hasn’t done it yet, and is afraid to admit this shortcoming.
Ramy’s friends, in particular baby ICE agent James (James DiGiacomo), already sense that Ramy is lying about his sexual experience. Then September 11 happens, and their skepticism of his six-times-a-night boasting curdles into paranoia and mistrust. Many millennials who were in a classroom at 8:46 a.m. on September 11 have a version of the “Then my teachers rolled in a TV and we watched the news” memory, and “Strawberries” acknowledges that as Ramy returns from a failed masturbation effort in a bathroom stall and walks past quiet classrooms, shocked teachers, and crying peers, including his crush, Angela (Raleigh Shuck). And many Muslims on September 12 flew the Stars and Stripes to signify their allegiance to this country and to defend themselves from suspicious neighbors, and “Strawberries” acknowledges that, too, with a scene in which Farouk affixes a gigantic American flag to the Hassans’ front porch.

But none of it — neither the Hassans’ insistence that they’re dedicated to America, nor Ramy’s stammering explanation to his friends that Egypt is in Africa and not the Middle East, so “if anything, I’m Black” — is enough to provide any sort of interior or exterior peace. Schisms grow within Ramy’s Egyptian community as its members experience prejudice and entertain conspiracy theories. Ramy’s friends subject him to a series of purity tests that equate his ability to masturbate with his enthusiasm while saying the Pledge of Allegiance: “Show us you’re not a terrorist,” they demand arbitrarily and urgently. So when Ramy dreams of a nighttime visit from an Osama bin Laden (Christopher Tramantana, in the only series role for which Youssef did not require an Arab actor), who raids his refrigerator for strawberries and Reddi-wip, he approaches the September 11 mastermind with fear and curiosity — but not outright dismissal.

This scene doesn’t indulge in much dream logic. Instead, its narrative impact is in its blunt extremes: the visual and aural contrast between Henig’s vulnerably wide-eyed, squeaky-voiced Ramy and Tramantana’s deeply baritone, perpetually in-shadow bin Laden. The vividly squelching sound of a juicy strawberry being bitten into. And the fluidity in Youssef’s dialogue as the scene moves from persuasiveness on bin Laden’s part (“Every year, Egypt grows thousands of strawberries, but they are not for Egyptians … They have less bread, so Americans can have strawberries in December”) to aghast repudiation from Ramy. Despite taking a bite of a seductive farawila, Ramy eventually realizes that bin Laden’s extremism (“We must restore the balance, even if it means killing Angela’s mom”) is not for him, and he leaves the half-bitten strawberry on the dining room table — a metacommentary on American consumption and an acknowledgement of the truth of some of bin Laden’s words, but not an alignment with his actions.

The scene represents the kind of public denial of radical Islam that Americans demanded from their Muslim neighbors after September 11, and Ramy is self-aware in giving viewers what they anticipate. “I’m not like you … I don’t want to kill people. I’m not a terrorist,” Ramy insists to the imagined bin Laden, but that’s only one-half of how he answers his “Are you really an American?” purity test. The other half comes when Ramy flees bin Laden, returning to his bedroom to successfully masturbate for the first time. The source of his arousal? Not only the cleavage of a white woman on the cover of a Hometime Goods catalogue, but the affirmation she offers: “You do fit in, Ramy Hassan. You fit in just fine,” he imagines the model (Erin Burke) cooing to him. Whether it’s her breasts or her acceptance that really seduces Ramy is purposefully difficult to parse. (No wonder he grows up to be a fuckboy who, when confronted with the sexual desire of a Muslim woman in series-premiere episode “Between the Toes,” gets so caught up in his own internalized, gendered stereotypes that she cuts the date short.)

But “Strawberries” really secures bittersweet poignancy in its final scene, which upends the acceptance Ramy expects to receive, and which we expect his classmates to give, now that he’s disavowed bin Laden and passed a sexual rite of passage. The next morning, Ramy sets off for school alone, only to immediately be greeted with a “Hey, terrorist!” from classmate Steve Russo (Nicolas Noblitt), who asks if they can head to school together. Steve isn’t aggressive or combative like James was — and Ramy watchers know Steve grows up to be a close friend of Ramy, played by Steve Way — but he assumes the worst of young Ramy anyway. And now that his former friends are nowhere to be found, Ramy and Steve travel to school together in silence. Both Ramy’s rejection of bin Laden and his masturbatory triumph ultimately matter only to himself, not to the classmates whose minds about him are already made up. Does their abandonment change his principles or his stance on violence? It does not. But September 11 affected all Americans, and Ramy’s identity shifts afterward, as evidenced by the backward baseball cap his 12-year-old self wears for the first time while walking to school at the end of “Strawberries” — his custom accessory in adulthood. Who he was before September 11 is not who he is after.

The precise vibrancy of “Strawberries,” like Youssef’s stand-up, comes from how naturally his writing meets and then subverts expectations. On the one hand, it appeases American audiences still hungry for Muslim crucifixion by giving them a direct rejection of Osama bin Laden and his ideology. On the other hand, it acknowledges that being a first-generation immigrant in the United States often includes realizing that your new country probably had a part to play in screwing up your old country. Youssef isn’t attempting to speak for all Muslims, but myriad elements of “Strawberries” are relatable enough and memorable enough to resonate across a broad spectrum of viewers of this faith — Arab or Iranian or Middle Eastern or South Asian or East Asian or Southeast Asian or African or Black, Sunni or Shia, male or female or nonbinary, young or old. And what “Strawberries” ultimately captures so well is the individual challenge thrust upon each Muslim American after the events of September 11: Apologize for your existence, or exist without apology? Watching “Strawberries” now — as the U.S. has finally left a forever war in Afghanistan, takes tentative steps to close Guantanamo Bay, and continues to struggle with the lingering impact of the War on Terror — is to understand that in the days and years after September 11, assimilation through flag-waving or masturbation was not a guarantee of kinship. But by taking a bite of that strawberry and leaving the rest behind, Ramy experiences a self-acceptance that presents a path forward — one that denying his religion or ethnic heritage to his friends did not, and could not ever, provide.

Ramy and the Paradox of Being Muslim American After 9/11