25 June 2009

Behind the Mosque

Zarqa Nawaz talks about her controversial comedy series, Little Mosque on the Prairie
By Stephen Cole
January 8, 2007

Zarqa Nawaz, creator and producer of Little Mosque on the Prairie.(Sophie Giraud/CBC)

Toronto’s Zarqa Nawaz was a researcher on the CBC radio show Morningside in 1994 when she decided that host Peter Gzowski “was having all the fun.” She resolved to quit journalism, have a baby and become a filmmaker. Around the time, the Ontario government decreed that doctors from outside the province had to wait three years before gaining residency — which prevented her husband, a Regina-trained doctor, from working.

“We were surviving on my mat leave, and decided this is crazy, so we moved to Regina,” Nawaz recalls, where she became “a Toronto Muslim girl in Saskatchewan.” One big culture shock, she says, “was going from a cosmopolitan Toronto mosque to a little mosque on the prairie.”

While the couple had four children in the next decade, Nawaz hung on to her movie dream. “I timed the pregnancies so I wouldn’t miss the Toronto Film Festival, where I networked,” she says.

Going with the theory that you write best about what you know, most of her pitches were about Muslim life in North America. One turned into BBQ Muslims, a comic short about two Islamic men in the suburbs of Toronto who become terror suspects when their gas barbecue explodes. It was a hit at the 1996 Toronto International Film Festival.

Recently, Nawaz decided to bring it all back home by creating a TV comedy series inspired by her first days in Regina. Little Mosque on the Prairie premieres on Jan. 9 and stars Sheila McCarthy, Carlo Rota and Sitara Hewitt. CBC Arts Online recently spoke to Nawaz on the phone from Regina.

Q: Little Mosque on the Prairie is a sitcom. How funny was your own move to Regina?

A: Well, I was obviously not thrilled. I hoped to be a filmmaker, which I figured meant staying in Ontario. And I was a total Toronto ignoramus about the rest of the country. I would say to my husband, who is a Prairie boy, “So, which one is Saskatchewan? Is it the one three provinces over, or is that Alberta?” He would just shake his head.

Q: What are the big differences between a Toronto and a Regina mosque?

A: Size, for one thing. Toronto mosques are bigger. They’re also more impersonal. You might not know anyone. Here, it’s much smaller, but you know everybody. If a newcomer arrives, everyone gets their phone number. It’s a big deal: “Hey, there is a new Muslim in town!”

Q: Your film BBQ Muslims was a social-political statement, but you are on record as saying that you wanted Little Mosque on the Prairie to be a sitcom, as opposed to a political satire. Why?

A: I made BBQ Muslims in the wake of the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma City, when police were pulling Muslims indiscriminately off airlines before they discovered, oops!, a white guy did it. But Little Mosque is a [social comedy]. I want people to know and like the characters in the little town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, even the ones they don’t agree with. We have one character who is a right-wing radio talk show host, another who is a feminist Muslim.

Q: The fish-out-of-water scenario was once a sitcom staple: The Beverly Hillbillies, My Favorite Martian, The Jeffersons, Diane on Cheers. What influenced your comic style?

A: You know, it comes as a bit of a shock to me that I have a comic style. I was surprised when the audience laughed during BBQ Muslims at the Toronto film festival. They’re laughing with me, I hope, I kept telling myself. Truthfully, I didn’t watch much TV growing up. I listened to CBC Radio. The only comedy I really loved was Woody Allen’s. His films are all comic situations. That’s what I’d like to think of is my strength. Because I’m not the kind of person who can sit in a room and out-joke a bunch of guys.

Q: Did you feel any restrictions in making this sitcom, in light of the revolt in some parts of the Islamic world when Danish newspapers printed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad?

A: No, we are making fun of people, not prophets, and when you make fun of people, you can get away with anything. Look at Borat.

Q: Viewers may be surprised to find Sitara Hewitt, the scantily clad co-host from the Comedy Network game show You BET Your Ass, playing a wisecracking feminist in Little Mosque on the Prairie. How western will her character become? Will she always wear a headscarf?

A: She is now, but that could change. Characters are changing as we go. I get a little sensitive to questions about how Muslims are supposed to be portrayed in film. The stereotypical Muslim is a wife beater trying to blow up the world and Muslim women are subservient, silent. I consider myself a feminist Muslim. My husband initially moved to Toronto, a place I don’t think he really cared for, so I could pursue my career. He wanted a wife who was fulfilled, who had a career. I’ve read the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad’s wife was a businesswoman 15 years older than him. I believe a lot of the chauvinistic dogma surrounding Muslim women is a holdover from Victorian times.

Q: How important was it to get Sheila McCarthy — an actress Canadian audiences will recognize from the Anne of Green Gables TV franchise — to play the small-town Muslim convert in the series?

A: Well, it was important for the audience to identify [with] all the show’s characters, but I know what you’re saying. Sheila is an iconic figure on Canadian TV. But the reason she’s so popular is why she is so valuable to the show. She’s an old pro. Give her a scene and a few lines of dialogue and she fills in the rest, becoming someone you know, someone you like in an instant.

Q: While the sitcom is dying, if not dead, in Hollywood, there are currently two Canadian half-hour TV comedies – Corner Gas and Little Mosque on the Prairie – set in small-town Saskatchewan. How do you explain it?

A: [Laughs] I don’t know, I’ll ask Brent Butt next time I see him. Although, thinking about it just now, there are aspects to small-town life that make comedy easier. Everybody knows everybody’s business. In Toronto, it would be remarkable for an ordinary person to know the city’s leading media personality. In a small town like Mercy, however, a cook at the diner, an opinionated Muslim like Fatima, could befriend the town’s right-wing radio personality. Where else is he going to go to eat?

Q: I think it’s safe to say no Canadian sitcom has ever generated as much advance buzz as Little Mosque on the Prairie. The New York Times did a profile of your show. CNN has as well. Even The Colbert Report has expressed an interest in the show.

A: The Colbert people have phoned. We don’t know if they’ll do anything yet.

Q: Were you expecting this reaction?

A: I wasn’t surprised. Depictions of Muslims are controversial. My work has received attention in the States. I knew we’d be noticed. But I’m not really comfortable doing TV interviews; it’s not my nature. I’m not really a political person; I don’t argue Mideast politics. I’m afraid I’ll be terribly disappointing for reporters. We want the people to be talking about the characters in the show. They’re who I’m worried about now. How far can Fatima go in her relationship with Fred, the right-wing talk show host? We’re trying to get that Sam-and-Diane feeling from Cheers.

Q: You’re sounding like an old sitcom pro.

A: [Laughing] I hope so.

Little Mosque on the Prairie premieres Jan. 9 on CBC TV.

Stephen Cole writes about the arts for

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