Ramy Youssef’s contemplative and timely comedy Ramy embarks on quite the voyage when the Hulu show for its third season on September 30. In the second episode, “egyptian cigarettes,” Ramy and his uncle Naseem (Ms. Marvel’s Laith Nakli) travel to Jerusalem for a business deal, giving viewers rare insight into what life looks like for Palestinian Muslims living under Israeli military rule.
Filming on location in Haifa and Jerusalem allowed the show to explore things rarely seen on streaming platforms (or broadcast television) in the U.S., like the checkpoints between Palestinian-inhabited East Jerusalem, the Israeli-controlled West, and the massive wall that separates them. It’s not unusual for Ramy’s story arcs to mark a bold step. The show centers on Youseff’s Ramy Hassan, an Egyptian American who constantly grapples with his faith, as well as his mother, Maysa (Succession’s Hiam Abbass), sister Dena (Moon Knight’s May Calamawy), father Farouk (Amr Waked), and uncle Naseem.
The Jerusalem-set episode follows Ramy jumping on the opportunity to make more money through a group of diamond dealers. The only catch? He has to travel to Israel to meet the boss in person. Given that his family is Palestinian, Ramy is immediately aware of the complications of this request. Nevertheless, this is his best chance to make get extra cash and help himself and his family. The A.V. Club spoke with Youssef and Abbass about their experiences of filming the pivotal episode.
The A.V. Club: What inspired you to include a Palestinian story this season?
Ramy Youssef: We wrote the bones of this episode a while ago, in February 2021. So, before Palestine [became] a blip on Instagram and opened up a bit more of a nuanced conversation in the American discourse. Before that, there’s been a more open conversation, even if you were in the UK or various parts of the world, and less so a level of awareness in America. We wrote it with the intention of that understanding. We want to evolve the show and evolve the family. And we obviously have this kind of real-life tidbit of Hiam being Palestinian. We’d written that into the show, even though I’m fully Egyptian, but then we were like, oh, Ramy has this side to him. That side of Ramy Hassan or even Uncle Naseem has been unexplored.
So, we have this character in a crisis of faith. And what does it look like to put him in a situation where he has to figure out how to survive and make it work for his family while also being in the middle of this very human crisis? The comedian in me was very much like, I really want to humanize what is happening in Palestine. And at the same time, how do we send Ramy to Jerusalem? And somehow he’s the biggest asshole in the whole thing, where most Israelis and Palestinians could agree, you know, like what the fuck is going on with this guy, and how is he bothering everybody?
AVC: Hiam, how did it feel to bring your Palestinian identity more into the role this season?
Hiam Abbass: It felt great. I was hoping that it would be Maysa going there. Kidding. This is to tease Ramy a little bit, so he writes another one with Maysa over there. I’d love to see Maysa back in Palestine. Honestly, I was very proud, [personally] as well, to see this whole crew with my Egyptian family, with Ramy’s, with my Ramy family just exploring something from Palestine in the show. Not related to Maysa, but to see Ramy and the crew going there and filming things that I know. For me, they’re so familiar, so homely. To bring them into the show was such a great thing. And I think working with director Annemarie Jacir, and seeing how she made the pieces [fit] together, with a very good understanding of the show, was an incredible thing to watch. I’m very proud of that episode this season.
AVC: I don’t think we’ve seen a show of this level go into the depths of what’s going on in Jerusalem with the wall and the checkpoints. I especially loved the story about the Palestinian kid getting detained by the Israeli military, and it wasn’t just solved in a half-hour episode. How important was it to keep this thread going throughout?
RY: It’s very symbolic of the way we care about issues. We care about it for a moment, and then we kind of get wrapped back up into our lives, but it’s still there, and it’s getting worse. And I think you could view so many of the crises that are happening on Earth through that lens. They become this blip on your social media, or this moment where you’re like, “Oh my God, how’s that happening?” And then you get sucked back into your own problems. And I think the way what happens with this kid boomerangs for Ramy, and becomes this ever-present haunting of what happened is, for me, very symbolic of the manifestation of guilt that I just feel as a person all the time. I often just look at any opportunity, or anything I have, and then just put it in the context of a lot of the suffering and a lot of what’s happening worldwide.
And then you have these moments where you’re wondering what any of it means. We try to figure out a way to make that darkly funny. We’re all really proud of how that emotion and feeling [got portrayed]. And like you said, it doesn’t get tied up neatly. Even by the end, there’s something that represents an understanding of the character of Ramy. He has this act where he gives all his money to this kid. Again, it’s another symbolic act, but you can kind of tell that might not even be enough. Getting to do this over the context of the season, and really using the medium of TV where you get 10 episodes and really get to sink into this, was exciting for us. In many ways, this season, we utilized the format of TV. Don’t just watch the second episode, because what happens in the second episode affects the next thing.
AVC: And how was that experience for you, Hiam, having to produce something like that?
HA: It’s incredible because I don’t know how I became a producer, and I don’t know, even still today, what it means really to be a producer of one of the episodes. All I know is I like my collaboration and work with Ramy. Our trust and our faith in each other, and our artistic understanding of what we’re doing together here were what drove me to travel with him and help. All I wanted to do is help. I’m from there, I speak the language, I speak both languages. I was able sometimes to speak directly with extras, some of them spoke Hebrew, and not Arabic, and couldn’t understand.
RY: And this is some context that Hiam isn’t mentioning. The way she dealt with the number of extras that we had on set, translating between English, Arabic, and Hebrew, was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. I mean, she was so on it, and I think she’s also underselling her level as a producer. As I said, I’m Egyptian. And so, going into this story, it was really important from the beginning to say, “Okay, Hiam, I want to put you in a co-decision-making position with me.” We hired Annemarie, who has done a lot on the ground as well with the Palestinian cause.
So it became this process, where we’re there and it’s just very collaborative, whether it be Hiam saying, “Oh no, no, this person wouldn’t say that in this dialect” or “Well, what dialect is the cab driver speaking?” We’d go into one version of it, and then Hiam was like, “No, I think it would be that.” For me, as the person overseeing everything, on an episode like this, I’m really leaning on Hiam and Annemarie and making sure that we’re making something that feels as emotionally specific as possible. I think all of the crew in Palestine read the script, and they were just like, “Oh my God, are we really making this?” They couldn’t believe that this was something that we were doing. Hulu was totally backing and supporting us. That’s why we’re here. It really was probably just one of the most profound experiences of my life, for sure.
AVC: What really connected with me was how Ramy’s journey with faith tied into the Palestinian idea of perseverance. The idea that his faith was there all along, you just didn’t see it until the very end. I love the way that coincides with the story that you’re telling about the Palestinian resistance.
RY: These are things that we all talked about a lot for the season as a whole piece, and getting to that moment, for Ramy, which I wouldn’t call a full redemption, but the beginning of an awakening, and the beginning of a reconnection. Getting to track that perseverance that you’re talking about, and that idea that we’re going to keep praying and keep having faith, that is something that is very universally spiritual. It’s not so much of the show we’re looking at is through the lens of an Arab Muslim family, sometimes it’s just [about] an Arab Muslim guy. That idea of perseverance of that faith, even in those dark corners, is universal. Everyone has that piece of them in some form in their heart, no matter how it comes out. We really see it on display there.
HA: By the way, I watched that [final] scene when it was shot. And I really would love to say that Ramy’s performance is just so impressive. For me, to watch it as an actor was just breathtaking. That moment where you feel that he had the whole show and the whole emotion of the show in him. It was just like, I mean, you tear up. It was really amazing.
AVC: Sometimes I feel like even if I talk about Palestine a little bit, it’s still too much. To have this entire conversation, and have you two be so willing and open to talk about it, feels game-changing.
RY: We appreciate that. Part of this show is always about what are the conversations that we can start. And I think we go through a couple of [conversations] this season, but Ramy’s connection to the boy in Palestine is something that is at the core and the heart. We were really kind of cognizant of how we wanted it to happen. It’s organic for it to happen earlier in the season instead of the finale. Especially since last summer in this country, [Palestine] has been more of a kind of open human conversation. We’re really excited to be a part of continuing that and doing it with as much nuance as possible. And obviously, there’s humor and love, but also bringing up stuff that sometimes is tough to look at or think about. And we kind of hope that because we’re doing it in the context of this dark comedy, it becomes a little bit more digestible.
HA: I agree. I think it’s a force and a strength of telling this story in Ramy’s form of comedy. Because through that, you allow yourself to go to places where normally they’re so painful to show. Through comedy, somehow, they’re easier because they heal the pain better and become easier for the spectator to accept. This is really where Ramy has been very, very intelligent about the writing, and how the show has been evolving from season one to now. The comedy got to a very, very deep place and to the edge of always asking the worst questions ever in the worst situation. And not necessarily giving answers, but at least that stage makes you just swallow things differently.