Detox | Adaptation
 
 
“The Twins, Kate and Grace Hoare” - John Everett Millais, 1876
 

It is safe to say that this whole coronavirus thing has changed us. We’ve learned to adapt to the new code of being: the isolation, the domestication. We’ve been forced — even the most extroverted of us — to accept doing everything online, with no physical mingling involved. And among the many things we’re still trying to adapt to — as we follow the curve that refuses to flatten, at least here in Egypt — is wearing a face mask every time we dare to venture outside. 

Adaptation has been our metaphorical shield of resistance, the one thing that’s kept us together these past months. The literal shield — the face mask — is proving a little harder to deal with, though. But there are ways to make this obligatory addition to our daily attire more appealing. We like to think of it as a form of disguise, sometimes — part of a costume, if you will. As though this is all a performance that we’re part of, and soon it will come to an end, as all performances do. The curtain is bound to come down at some point. Or so we tell ourselves. 

In response to this new element that’s made itself ubiquitous as part of urban landscapes around the world, the UK’s Fitzwilliam Museum has released new versions of some of the most popular masterpieces among its collection to fit the current reality of the pandemic, with masks on the subjects’ faces in the paintings. The idea was part of the museum’s attempt to garner some revenue in light of its continued closure since March, as the re-imagined works are available to buy online as prints. Another form of adaptation. 

We’re not encouraging you to indulge in an online shopping spree or anything; only to keep adapting, stick to your masks, and take a look at our recommendations this week — may they help with the boredom of isolation and the anxiety of going out in the daytime and being locked in at night.

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-In her piece titled “The Diva Mode of Translation,” published in Asymptote Journal, Russian literature translator and scholar Fiona Bell argues for the acknowledgment of literary translators — particularly those who make their authorly voice heard through the original text — as artists in their own right, comparing them to one of the most coveted interpreters in the history of art, the opera diva: “Somehow, we’ve neglected our desire to surrender and be thrilled in our interactions with some of the most vital interpreters of our time: literary translators. Although we praise them for being seen and not heard, translators are more like opera divas than we assume. By denying them the right to thrill us, we also deny ourselves a more joyous and complete relationship with literature.”

-Penguin classics has recently reissued a 1978 translation by Wadida Wassef of Yousuf Idris’s most well-known collection of short stories, The Cheapest Nights, as highlighted today on ArabLit. An excerpt from the collection can be found on Penguin Random House’s website. Meanwhile, the new edition has a foreword by Egyptian novelist Ezzedine C. Fishere, titled “How Yusuf Idris’s Stories Upended Respectability Politics in Egypt,” published in full on Literary Hub: “In my experience, reading Idris’s stories considerably shaped my relationship with Arabic fiction … Idris organized modern Arabic words for me; their meaning, their use, their relationship to external and internal realities, and to my own imagination. He did this by charting a course to follow, not by preaching.” 

Penguin Classics edition of The Cheapest Nights

-In “Whose Grief? Our Grief,” a personal and poignant piece by Saeed Jones, the African American poet uses the haunting chant called out by anti-racist protesters across the United States to frame his and so many others’ position in the current moment, in the midst of an uprising and a pandemic, in a world teetering on the edge: “I didn’t want to watch the video of George Floyd struggling under the weight of officer Derek Chauvin’s whiteness for more than eight minutes, and I still can’t see the number ‘two’ without thinking of the two seconds it took for Cleveland cops to start shooting at 12-year-old Tamir Rice. I didn’t want to watch the video of George Floyd saying ‘please, please, please’ because, as it is, every breeze the air gifts me already belongs to Eric Garner. But in this organized crime, we call a country, you don’t have to watch the videos or gaze at the grotesque photos in order for them to act upon you.”

-In our Watch section, we recommend a show that finally offers a nuanced portrayal of Muslim immigrants in the West, and we encourage you to pair it with this conversation — published last month on Mada Masr — between poets Sara Elkamel and Noor Naga, on the latter’s debut poetry collection/verse novel, which centers on an immigrant Muslim woman having an affair with her married professor. From Elkamel’s introduction: “‘If your character is going to be a Muslim, why make her a mistress?’ (Naga’s grandmother) asked. ‘Muslims can be mistresses too,’ Naga responded. I imagine she did not say this defiantly. I imagine she did not say it provocatively. I imagine she said it as if she were about to show someone a small bird cupped in her hands, and so whispers, ‘look, here.’”

WATCH

Nada Nabil recommends Ramy:

Ramy is a show about, well, Ramy: a young Muslim-American man and his family of Egyptian immigrants living in New Jersey. Disenchanted and empty, he begins a spiritual journey riddled with an unhealthy number of embarrassing situations. But there’s more to it than that. 

The thing about Ramy is the way it delightfully conjures shame. Shame inflicted upon one while growing up, shame in scrambling for any semblance of an identity, shame lurking around prayer mats and noble pursuits. Watching Ramy is a bit like an act of confessional. Here, the widely loved genre of self-deprecation comedy is coupled with an unlikely but fitting ally of religious coming-of-age. 

In our cultural imaginary, I’ve grown up with long romanticized stories of repentance. Of bad boys — always boys — gone good. It is a trope of those who leave sin, suddenly turning over a new leaf, and becoming new men. This is not one of those stories. Ramy earnestly strives for a spiritually fulfilling path, yet refreshingly subverts all tropes by being consistently flawed, cringeworthy, and disappointing to both his family, himself, and, of course, the viewer. The situation is so dire that he resorts to the help of a Sufi sheikh — played by Mahershala Ali — to set him on the right path in season two. It’s a joy to watch. 

 

Make no mistake, Ramy is still very much a show about and written by a member of the white Arab male Muslim demographic, or the classic “Muslim bro” — the one demographic that has so far largely been able to hold a monopoly over the rare narratives coming from Muslim/immigrant communities. Ramy Youssef, the stand-up comedian and creator of the show, is aware of this. This Ramadan, there was a vigorous online response when the trailer of the second season was released by Hulu because “How could (former porn star) Mia Khalifa be on the show and how could Amr Waked be quiet about it?” Youssef took to Instagram to state that the show is a “messy, immature comedy from a cishet male POV” and how shows led by black or women creators, for instance, are needed for any comprehensive “Muslim narrative” to be out. It’s worth thinking about, however: Who can afford to create a show about both Islam and a dedicated porn addiction?

Yet, the show tries. So much of Ramy isn’t about Ramy. May Calamawy gives a wonderful performance as Ramy’s overlooked yet brilliant sister struggling with double standards, white boys exoticizing her, and maintaining sanity in her household. Hiam Abbass is Ramy’s hilariously resilient Francophone mother who reminisces on her helpless past and tries to find agency in her present. Amr Waked, who plays Ramy’s father, has made me cry in his poignant scenes in season two, as his character navigates the difficult realities of being an immigrant father while still managing to be heartwarmingly funny. Ramy’s uncle, Nasseem, is one of the most interesting characters, going from the creepy, sexist uncle who consistently makes anti-semitic jokes to a man with a back story that leaves us in awe at the end of season two. 

 

“How does one describe Mahershala Ali as a Sufi sheikh?” I ask my sister for help in wording. “Enchanting?” she offers. I take her words to be accurate enough. The two-time Oscar winner is a main driving force in this season, gently attempting to put Ramy in place through impeccable, heavyweight acting. “Discipline, Ramy. It’s a muscle.” His character provides an important conversation on colorism in Arab communities, or as Ramy’s uncle simply puts it: “I don’t trust the blacks.” It’s also funny that Mahershala Ali functions within similar parameters that his character in the 2018 film Green Book was criticized for: the transformative black companion who attempts to save and change his non-black counterpart. In Ramy, however, this trope is amusingly challenged, and eventually backfires. 

Ramy is tastefully made and superbly nails cultural hybridity. Its soundtrack is shrewdly put together and has me reminiscing with my mother on (popular 1970s band) Al-Masrieen’s best tracks. In season one, Ramy is accidentally high and cleaning a mosque to the background tunes of Abdel Halim Hafez’s “Ahwak” (I Adore You). In season two, he and his friends are jamming to Abo El Anwar’s rap hit “Scoo Scoo” at a nightclub in Atlantic City. Ramy’s Egypt isn’t disconnected from reality. When the protagonist decides to visit home, it hits home. And Shadi Alfons, his on-screen cousin, gives a painful speech about disenchanted post-2011youth struggling to find the meaning that Ramy thought he would find in his homeland. 

The most fun part about Ramy, however, is really the show’s quirks and cultural tensions. They are endless — from Khalifa’s bizarre and noteworthy appearance, to an Emirati sheikh with a menacing British accent, to a surreal exchange between Osama Bin Laden and a young Ramy, to Ramy’s friends experiencing a heartfelt virtual Umrah powered by VR. The show dubs Ramadan as “Coachella for Muslims,” white folks ask Ramy to “do that Ramadan thing” and pray for their loved ones if it works, and Dena, the sister, is lectured not to walk around half-naked like “Eriana Grande” (Eriana is Arabic for “naked”). It is absolute pop culture chaos and I am here for it. 

 

Still from “Ramy”

Finishing season two, I am left with many emotions. The most prevalent are those of admiration as to how Ramy doesn’t merely address one core plot on this theme of faith and then sprinkles some representation on it. It actually has ambitious intentions of challenging this core story of religious repentance and piety. How can the pursuit of individual meaning or piety hurt others along the way? How can this pursuit happen on a communal level, without leaving anyone behind? What happens when the narrative of piety does not hold room for many disenfranchised people in our societies who aren’t Ramy? These are timely questions to think about this weekend, as I try to get Hani Shenouda’s theme music out of my head.

Ramy is available to stream on Hulu and OSN.

LISTEN

Ramy is a fresh and in some ways groundbreaking show, yet some of its elements are very familiar to Egyptian viewers, especially the music. The intro’s hero — other than the striking colors and memorable Arabic typography — is iconic Egyptian composer Hani Shenouda, namely his famous piece “Longa 79,” released with his band Al-Massrieen. Shenouda has described the piece as “pure instrumentalization” intended to drive listeners to wander in their minds, dance, or do whatever they please as it plays. 

The show’s soundtrack aims to reflect the protagonist’s heritage but also his different moods and the confusion that plagues him throughout its two seasons. In this Pitchfork interview, the show’s creator and lead actor, Ramy Youssef, says that he chose to repurpose “Longa 79” as the series’ theme because “it does what the show does: It doesn’t feel old, but it doesn’t feel new.” He also speaks about the collaboration between the show’s music supervisor, Rob Lowry, and Habibi Funk, a Berlin-based record label whose work centers on old North African music that’s so far received little attention beyond the Arab world. 

You can delve into the soundtrack of both seasons of Ramy in the Spotify playlist below: 

 

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