Visions of Selves and Systems: Muslim Lives on American Television
By Farah BakaariFebruary 3, 2023
But all hope is not lost. In the last few years, we have seen slow but significant developments in Muslims appearing on the American silver (and television) screen not as impenetrable aliens or foreign threats to the American way of life but as ordinary folk — characters who are trying and often failing to lead meaningful and ethical lives while negotiating family expectations, traditional ties, midlife malaise, and the ever-changing landscape of modern romance. Shows like Mo, Ramy, Chad, United States of Al, Ms. Marvel, and We Are Lady Parts have ushered in a new era of Muslim characters taking center stage in mainstream television. After decades of Muslims playing sadistic villains and single-minded terrorists, it can be a relief just to hear characters who are purported to speak Arabic, Urdu, or Farsi actually speaking those languages instead of whatever passes for Farsi or Arabic in popular shows like Homeland. But these recent shows also uncover the challenge of representing the complexities and idiosyncrasies of Muslim life while navigating the demands of non-Muslim audiences. How might one represent the way that Muslim lives are conditioned by Islamophobia and xenophobia without reducing them to such?
Not all Muslim-centered shows are interested in questioning this representational paradox. In United States of Al, for instance, Islam is thoroughly assimilated and digested through the gaze of whiteness. Muslims go from being the object of Americans’ fears to the object of their amusement. We Are Lady Parts, a joyful ode to the enduring power of female friendship and the autonomous language of music, entirely sidesteps any meta commentary on its historic arrival. Instead, it lets the diversity of its bold characters do the talking. In We Are Lady Parts, whiteness and Islamophobia are a daily nuisance, something to be endured and managed so that one can get on with her day to make a living, to make art. Shows like Mo and Ramy, however, are more explicit about their desire to not only represent Muslim lives on TV but also explore the perils and potentials of making art under the white gaze.
It is hard not to compare Mo and Ramy. Both have ushered in a groundbreaking new moment for Muslim American television. Both take up many of the same thematic issues: addiction, family, racism and Islamophobia, spirituality, the contradictions of immigrant lives. They share a co-creator, a production company, and key cast members. And they both occupy a contemporary genre of slim, observational, first-person dramedy series, or what Madeline Ullrich calls “self-narrative TV.” They are American Muslim shows that are, in some sense, about the vexed concept of the “American Muslim show.”
But there also key differences between the two shows. The primary focus of Ramy, especially in the first two seasons, is the individual and his (and occasionally her) quest for self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment. Mo, however, is not so readily invested in the trials and tribulations of liberal subjecthood, and instead dwells on life articulated from a set of impossible entanglements. Mo and his family are undocumented, living in Houston, where ICE raids and mass shootings are regular occurrences. He is a practicing Muslim, but unlike Ramy, he is not comically and self-destructively fixated on the minutiae of scripture. Beyond or perhaps because of these divergences, Ramy aesthetically — not just commercially and politically — paved the way for Mo.
To watch Ramy is to witness a Muslim show, one of the first of its kind, gradually and painfully figuring out its relationship to whiteness and to the white gaze under whose force and violence it was created. And it does so, bit by bit. The first season of Ramy, for instance, replicates the very script of Islam versus West that it tries to refute by portraying characters who are torn between the freedoms (temptations) offered by Western modernity and the prohibitions demanded by Islam. But in seasons two and three, the show slowly breaks free from the other’s imaginings of itself. It becomes less and less interested in the supposed incompatibility of Islamic scripture and Western values and more invested in exploring the multiplicities and tensions within Muslim communities.
There are frank depictions of pervasive anti-Black sentiments in Muslim communities and devout couples coming up against the limits of scripture. We see the intricate ways that gender, race, and class mediate the experience of being Muslim in the United States. As the seasons develop, Ramy’s mother Maysa breaks out of the trope of the dutiful bored mother and grows into a fiercely and furiously desirous woman whose anger, much like her desire, finds no outlet. Her daughter, Dena, strives to figure out who she wants to be in life outside of the pressures and expectations of her parents. Neither the mother nor the daughter has the luxury to lament the precise metrics by which to please God. They are busy keeping the family together, applying for citizenship under Trump, and enduring male tow-truck drivers’ demands that they assimilate because “[i]f you stayed back in your homeland, you would have been too busy getting your clit sawed off to do any of this law stuff.” Both find themselves stranded between two worlds: an inside world that often fails to see them beyond their designated familial roles and an outside world that is only interested in saving them from their Brownness.
These meticulously layered portraits are possible because Ramy continues to cede the floor to its minor characters. One of the most affecting episodes of the series depicts Naseem, Ramy’s macho, foul-mouthed, conspiracy-loving uncle, as he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality. Naseem goes on set-up dates with women that go nowhere and has anonymous sex with men he meets online or at the gym. Things come to a head when a lover breaks things off due to Naseem’s refusal to discuss or even acknowledge his queerness to himself. After a particularly harrowing 48 hours, Naseem shows up unannounced at the home of a former lover, Yassir, an Arab man who is now married to a woman and has a kid — both of whom adore Uncle Naseem. Alone, the two men find a way to address what lies unspoken between them. Yassir tells him, “There comes a point when you have to choose. I made a choice. I decided to be who they said Allah wants us to be.” Naseem does not demand otherwise. There is so much tenderness, sorrow, and generosity between the two men. There are no concessions made to an imagined non-Muslim audience, no gestures to preempt charges of homophobia that might be extrapolated from the scene. The dialogue is almost entirely in Arabic. The scene immerses the viewer in a certain exclusive grammar that could only be shared between two old lovers. There is no bid to universalize Naseem’s anguish even if most of us can relate to the loneliness, yearning, and shame that come with soothing our punished and banished selves.
Ramy grows not because the main character’s problems deepen or because minor characters receive more screen time, but because the show learns to outgrow the extroverted impulse that so often plagues art by minoritized individuals and instead recommits to its characters, to the folly and fatigue of surviving incommensurable desires.
Beyond that, Ramy grows so Mo can arrive fully formed and furious. Mo takes a more antagonistic approach to the white gaze. There are very few white characters in the show, and yet whiteness is everywhere, its violence material, visceral, corporeal. When Mo gets shot while buying cat food and refuses to let the paramedics take him to the hospital because he cannot afford the anticipated bills, he goes to a tattoo artist to stitch him up. But when he tries to pay, the tattoo artist announces, “This one is on the house. Crazy-ass white people.” Mo wants to examine the economic and political precarity of Muslim immigrants in the larger context of white supremacy and the brutality of American capitalism. Mo’s vision is one of systems, while Ramy’s is one of selves.
When Mo loses his job at the mobile repair shop because the owner is frightened by the surge of ICE raids in local establishments, he begins to sell counterfeit high-end merchandise from the trunk of his car. He also gets a job at a strip club, where the owner enthusiastically informs him, perhaps in the ventriloquized voice of a network executive, “You wouldn’t be our first illegal, but you’d be our first Arab. And that would be a historic hire for us here at Dreams.” On his first shift, two ICE agents walk into the strip club, and Mo takes cover until the owner assures him not to worry — those men are just Earl and Gene, the “motherfuckers [who] come here every week trying to get their dicks sucked.” He then instructs the ICE agents to take off their branded jackets. We see how the raids are not intended as a strategy to regulate the workforce but rather as a concerted effort to push immigrants into unsafe, underregulated, underpaid professions that are then deemed illicit. And so, whatever spiritually inflected shame Mo feels about his time working at the strip club is acutely refracted through this matrix of racialized labor disenfranchisement.
The show often returns to labor as a way of exploring the ongoing regimes by which marginalized communities are continuously rendered vulnerable. Mo’s brother loses his job at a fast-food restaurant because he tries to include halal options on the menu. A white male customer tries to get Maria, Mo’s Latina girlfriend, to lower her repair rate by claiming that another auto mechanic down the street had agreed to do it cheaper. And when, seeing through the ruse, she asks for the name of the mechanic, the customer responds, “José or Carlos, Yordan maybe.” The white customer’s logic is not dissimilar to that of the ICE agents who terrorize small business owners but then knowingly frequent establishments that notoriously exploit disenfranchised workers. It plays into the tenacious belief that Brown and Black labor is negotiable, interchangeable, and disposable.
Mo succeeds not because it rejects the white gaze but because it is invested in the intersectionality of domination: the dynamic is not a matter of Islam versus the West or Arab versus white, but is instead an exploration of the ways a subject, a couple, and a community attempt to survive the brutal matrix of class, gender, race, ethnicity, and nationalist oppressions. The show illuminates how structures of white supremacy supersede any straightforward affinity with a particular racial group. Maria’s business is thriving, but she cannot secure a bank loan, forcing her to endure the humiliation of asking her college best friend for assistance. The friend sees the loan as a license to treat Maria like the help but rebuffs any charges of microaggression, maintaining that she cannot be racist because she is Indian. “You have not been Indian since 2009” is Mo’s brilliant response. Conversely, Mo gets a job with a white olive farmer who is moved by Mo’s knowledge and love of olives. He also agrees to let Mo’s mother press her olive oil at the farm. And yet, he often makes Islamophobic jokes at Mo’s expense. The show is not necessarily arguing that class supersedes race, but that whiteness exceeds white people. There are more ways to assess subjugation and build solidarity than the limited schema of identity politics.
Before Mo and his family escape Kuwait during the Gulf War, Mo’s father repairs his Walkman for him. “Maafi ishi fi dunya binkasr ila wa bitsalah,” he reminds his son. This prophecy, this hopeful prayer, this almost-question is a guiding axiom for immigrants everywhere. It also conveys the repair staged and insisted upon by this new era of Muslim American television. There is much more work to be done. Someone would have to write the multilingual, multifaith Senegalese show, the magnificent poetry and the melancholic lives of Somali diasporas, the men of Saint Paul, Minnesota, in their apartments. But this is no longer an impossibility, and that is no slight thing.
Farah Bakaari is a doctoral student at Cornell University.
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