Scrubbing the Guilt Away: Ramy and the Scales of Righteousness

Ramy Youssef on the Whiplash of Religion and Sex

Sam Guthrie / 7.7.20

“Religion can be kind of crazy,” comedian and actor Ramy Youssef quipped during his monologue on the Colbert report back in 2017. Two and a half years later, the Egyptian American’s one-liner has found fertile soil in his self-titled Hulu original series, Ramy, where Youssef plays a not-so-fictionalized character of himself navigating career, family, relationships, politics, and culture, as a Muslim millennial on the outskirts of NYC.

Each episode is a piece of the unfinished puzzle of Ramy’s life. From humorous to heartbreaking, the show honestly portrays the difficulty of aligning belief and action and the lengths we go to close the widening gap between the two. Ramy’s attempts to close the gap come through a litany of religious practices: prayers, religious observances, ritualistic cleansing, and altruistic acts on behalf of the poor and neglected. Throughout the series, these themes of repeated cleansing and purging represent the desperate attempt to balance the scales of what should be done and what is never done.

For Ramy, absolution through repeated self-cleansing often comes on the heels of romantic turmoil. After a mistake, he helps the janitor at his local mosque. He doubles down in the ritualistic washing before entering the mosque for prayer, being sure to clean every nook and cranny before bowing to God. He commits to a strict and devout Ramadan–no girls, no food, and no missed prayers. He even wears traditional Arab garb from his youth, although it is frayed and two sizes too small. For most of the show, when Ramy does “bad things,” he remedies them with “good things.” And when upholding the streak of “good things” proves to be too much, he finds the beaten path of old habit, hitting reset on the vicious cycle. 

In the episode “Strawberries,” Ramy pays homage to his childhood and provides a snapshot of where some of the roots of his wrestling began. The episode shows the difficulty of growing up as a Muslim in America post-9/11 and delves into the challenges of middle school friendships and his insecurities and ignorance about sex. The episode serves as a point of reference for Ramy’s complicated relationship with faith and sex and brings his guilt surrounding the two into clearer perspective. For Ramy, and for many of us, the difficulty in balancing the scales of belief and action is a matter of conflicting desires.

If there was ever a show with an honest insight into conflicting desires, I don’t know of a better one than Ramy. After a particular string of good intentions ends in a one-night stand, Ramy finds himself swimming in guilt. Lying in the sheets of a stranger’s bed, he sees a child enter the room and stares at him. The boy’s presence is one part conviction and one part reset: yet another day Ramy must sling the two-ton sack of guilt onto his back, heavier with yet another day’s shame. Ramy goes to great lengths to scrub the guilt away and appear clean in the eyes of God and man. Soil, rinse, repeat.

While the moral whiplash of Ramy happens within the context of religion, one would be hard-pressed to find reprieve amongst the nonreligious; the urge for cleansing is familiar, if not stronger, in our current cultural cadence. In the words of David Zahl, “[R]eligion in real life is more than a filter or paradigm. It is what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, that our lives matter, another name for all the ladders we spend our days climbing toward a dream of wholeness.”

As long as we have an altar to sacrifice on for our mistakes, we’ll continue bringing peace offerings. 6 AM workouts on the altar of body image. Meticulous budgeting on the altar of financial righteousness. Workaholism on the altar of promotion. Calculated pandemic predictions on the altar of control. Social justice zeal on the altar of wokeness. And while the relationships, practices, and ideas we commit ourselves to may be worthy of our time and efforts and loves, the slope is always the slickest when it comes to feelings of guilt and longings for righteousness.

Our desire for wholeness so readily becomes the lifeblood of our actions, the measuring cup we use to heap condemnation or acceptance on ourselves and others. The little boy who convicts Ramy in the early morning after infidelity is like the reminders we all get, that our dreams of wholeness remain dreams, our sacrifices in exchange for expiation fall short. The deity of religion, relationship, cuisine, or calorie count will never be satisfied. There will never be enough blood on the floor.  

One Golden Globe later, Ramy made it back to Colbert, to discussed the show’s success and Ramy’s faith. Ramy shared with Colbert explicitly what the show portrays implicitly, which is the pervasive nature of guilt. Youssef jokes about this conflict as it relates to Friday prayers and Friday night–“It’s like getting a car wash right before a hurricane.” What Ramy accomplishes in almost all of its episodes is that it feels normal. But it’s a sad kind of normal–like we’re all part of the punchline to the same joke or that we’re all seeking shelter from the hurricane. Regardless of where Ramy’s relationship to Islam falls on the scale of orthodoxy, the common ground the series paves is one of exhaustion, where the double-edged sword of guilt and righteousness cuts deep and true. 

Considering the crazy lengths we go to purge, cleanse, and balance the scales on our own volition, I’d wager that the promise of grace for the guilty might be the craziest of all. Despite our dirt, we are washed and declared clean. The God of mercy peels our rags away, swallows the hurricane of guilt, and wraps us in an everlasting banner of righteousness.

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One response to “Scrubbing the Guilt Away: Ramy and the Scales of Righteousness”

  1. Sj says:

    I keep thinking all this scrubbing,sanitizing, hand washing, mask wearing, social distancing, etc is about something, deeper than covid.
    It seems bazaar to me…..spooky!

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