‘Ramy’ Star & Producer On 9/11 Aftermath, Arab American Muslims & A Real Bite Into “Strawberries”

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Editor’s note: This article is derived from a conversation between Ramy Youssef and producer Maytha Alhassen and is one in a series of Deadline stories tied to the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

It’s a fairly sunny fall afternoon, and we see Farouk Hassan, the father of an Egyptian-Muslim family based in Rutherford, NJ, securing a wall mount of a USA flag, an aerial welcome mat to alarmed neighbors. In the Emmy-nominated fourth episode of the first season of Hulu’s Ramy, Farouk (played by Amr Waked) explains to his family, “The way they are looking at us. Things are different.”

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For many Arab American Muslims, our September 12th vividly resembled this protection spell. Before we had a chance to grieve, to locate our missing loved ones, to wrestle with a local, national and global nightmare, we were forced to run risk-assessment diagnostics and enact those contingency plans immediately. The flag, a common sight for the cheerleading of an impending war, became our violent-backlash-repellent. The construction of this episode offers insights and questions that we hope can be revisited to navigate this moment.

As a longtime creative thought partner before I was a producer and writer on the show, I sent Ramy jarring articles about the conversion of Egyptian wheat fields (primarily used for domestic consumption of basic food stuffs like bread to feed the nation in the 1960s) to strawberries, mangos and citrus fruits for international export as part of International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs that conditioned loans on stipulations advantageous to Western markets.

Maytha Alhassen and Ramy Youssef - Credit: Courtesy of Maytha Alhassen; AP
Maytha Alhassen and Ramy Youssef - Credit: Courtesy of Maytha Alhassen; AP

Courtesy of Maytha Alhassen; AP

This was a couple years prior to the pickup of Ramy, but it stayed forcefully etched in Ramy’s consciousness, and why the Season 1 episode engaging 9/11 from the perspective of an Arab American Muslim child on the verge of adolescence is anchored in those articles and titled “Strawberries.”

If you are expecting us at this point to assure you we are the “Good Muslims” who will assuage USA guilt for waging a decades-long war on families, basic needs, social, political, economic and cultural institutions, and the earth; this is not the right article for you today.

You see, this kind of global financializing of “Big Ag” guaranteed that, for example, Americans could purchase strawberries “off season,” like in December, while Egyptian locals were barred from consuming strawberries. And that buffered convenience, year-round access to strawberries in the West, had devastating effects on Egyptian livelihood.

As part of the IMF loan agreement, austerity measures like slashing government subsidies for basic foods staples and utilities were instituted. Bread cost rose dramatically, as did inflation, while jobs and wages stagnated, contributing to the bottoming out of the middle, working and peasant classes. The effects of these neoliberal programs became one of many impetuses for the Egyptian “January 25th Revolution” in 2011 — you see why we ended our first season in 2019 with a two-parter in post-uprisings Egypt.

We recently spoke to think through our reflections on the timeliness of this episode to our national reckoning with 20 years post-9/11.

What did we build after 9/11?

As Kabul unravels before our global witness, continuing to displace Afghans, Taliban rule is entrenched by the total absorption of state institutions and land, we are undeniably faced with a sobering 20-year retrospective. To paraphrase historian Robin D.G. Kelley (“What shall we build on the ashes of a nightmare?”), we built a nightmare on top of the ashes of a nightmare covering the buried bones of even more nightmares. In many ways, we all became trapped as the “Muslim” became an expedient scapegoat for the erosion of our civil liberties.

In that context, it is only fitting then, that a pre-pubescent Ramy Hassan of Ramy encounters Osama bin Laden shortly after the 9/11 attacks in a Jersey kitchen in a nightmare sequence (Ramy Youssef drew from his post-9/11 nightmares ominously OBL-frequented—even the lurid coloring of the sequence is based on those sleep realm memories). Ramy, dumbstruck that the most wanted person in the world sits across from him dipping crimson red strawberries into a mountain of whipped cream. OBL summons the Egyptian-strawberries “free” trade tale to explain to a child his critique of the U.S.

Although Ramy is eventually repelled by OBL’s violent fanatical methods (leaving a half-eaten strawberry on the table), ‘Strawberries” serve as a metaphor for the invisibilizing of a suffering that American convenience requires—and thrives off of.

Mounting a USA flag in front of our homes and our places of business was our first line of defense against a patriotism rooted in revenge.

Some of us chose the Home Time Goods magazine, as the young Ramy does in the “Strawberries” episode and the U.S. flag because that is how being a “Good Muslim American” was defined for us. Every other reaction, including a critique of our drum beats for war, surveillance and torture, was narrated as “Bad Muslim American” behavior. That’s the suffocating/imprisoning paradigm the Bush administration constructed with the threat, “You are with us, or against us.” Another slogan that robbed us of crucial critical thought, “Why do they hate us?,” obfuscated the real questions we should have been asking: “Why did this happen?” and, “ How do we prevent more suffering from happening/how do we break cycles of violence?”

As folks thaw frozen December strawberries for blending keto power smoothies, we wanted to direct viewers to who the “they” are in this “why do they hate us?” refrain popularized in 2001. Those “they” are everyday people who are enmeshed furtherer into a global food crisis that our supply chains and global economic systems created (which have also accelerated climate change). This is but one small fragment that stands in for the macro sentiment that American cultural life, even outside of military bases, weapons sales and private contractors, actively wages war on the world every day. A Greek tragedy that is mischaracterized as “freedom” (to consume).

For both people who practice and do not practice Islam, we were told “Strawberries” was one of the first times that they either saw themselves as Arab American Muslims or witnessed the Arab American Muslims experience of 9/11.

In 20 years of film- and TV-making, how could this be? In addition to a military industrial complex that great theorizers of freedom have implored us to interrogate, we must unpack and disabuse ourselves of a cinematic military industrial complex that did not just start with 9/11.

“Strawberries” wasn’t just one of the first times USA saw 9/11 from Arab American Muslim eyes, it was also one of the rare moments we were not a terror trope in a highly marketed Orientalist and anti-Muslim terror genre about war.

We must contend with how malicious supply chains for hyper-capitalist plundering protected by a U.S. military subsidized by our tax dollars and supplied by our teenage children’s compromised life choices produce a system of “convenience” where strawberries can be purchased in winter (reminder that U.S. military personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001, 2,455, is outnumbered by contractors, 3,917 — that number should tell us something).

Our episode asks viewers to sit with this critique, to use as a guiding question to replace “why do they hate us?” with: are “strawberries in December” worth all this, worth the world being made undone?

Art might not offer us an explicit cause-and-effect change, but it can help us process, critique axioms, probe paradoxes and shift cultural narratives and imaginaries that make political realities possible. When we commit to rewriting the storytelling trajectory of our nation at war, domestically and globally, we will be worthy inheritors of a destiny, a freedom, beyond a collective night terror we have yet to wake up from.

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