TV: Sitcom Recreates Small-town Canada, Then Adds Muslims

Fatima and Rayyan are headed to aquafit when they notice a man wearing a tiny black Speedo standing on the pool deck. They scramble to cover their hair with towels before approaching Johnny, who they discover is their instructor. "There's been a mistake. We can't take this class," says Rayyan.
Fatima and Rayyan are headed to aquafit when they notice a man wearing a tiny black Speedo standing on the pool deck. They scramble to cover their hair with towels before approaching Johnny, who they discover is their instructor. "There's been a mistake. We can't take this class," says Rayyan.


TV: Sitcom Recreates Small-town Canada, Then Adds Muslims

Fatima and Rayyan are headed to aquafit when they notice a man wearing a tiny black Speedo standing on the pool deck. They scramble to cover their hair with towels before approaching Johnny, who they discover is their instructor. "There's been a mistake. We can't take this class," says Rayyan. "Oh, have you never met a friend of Dorothy?" says Johnny. "Friend of Dorothy?" whispers Fatima. "It means he's gay," says Rayyan, picking up on the Judy Garland reference. She turns to Johnny. "You don't understand. We're Muslims. Men can't see us in bathing suits. They're too revealing." This prompts another crack from the flamboyant and cheeky swim coach: "Not revealing anything I'm interested in."

The scene - filmed last week at a public pool in Etobicoke, Ont. - is part of the CBC's newest half-hour comedy, Little Mosque on the Prairie. The first eight episodes, originally slated for the fall of 2007, were rushed into production and will now debut on Jan. 9 at 8:30 p.m. The show, which is shot mainly in Regina, is set in the fictitious Prairie town of Mercy (pop. 10,000) and focuses on a group of Muslims trying to assimilate into a small Canadian community. "We try to find the hilarity in everyday scenarios," says Zarqa Nawaz, the show's creator. "Muslim women cover their hair because they're worried men will be attracted to it. But what if the guy is gay and isn't attracted to it? Does that count?"

Some of the other topics include how Muslims in Canada deal with wearing face veils and with Halloween. Nawaz is a big fan of Everybody Loves Raymond and her show's humour - including cheesy one-liners like "It's a good hijab if you can get it" - is similar family-friendly fare. "We don't want to be political," says Nawaz, 39. "We just want to be funny." Of course, making a show about Muslims post 9/11 is inherently political - even if it's on the CBC, and not, say, HBO.

Nawaz says she watched Little House on the Prairie as a kid, but that her show's title is just a cute play on words - not an homage to Michael Landon's classic series. Born in Liverpool, England, Nawaz grew up in Toronto (where she switched career plans in the early '90s from medicine to journalism) and moved to Regina after getting married - she and her husband, a psychiatrist, have four children. She now runs FUNdamentalist Films, a production company aimed at "putting the fun back into fundamentalism."

Her short films, while all comedic, have been more closely tied to current events. Me and the Mosque was about gender segregation in Canada's mosques. BBQ Muslims focused on two brothers considered terrorists after their backyard BBQ blew up. And Death Threat was about a writer who tries to get a fatwa to scare up publicity for her new book. "My parents don't quite get my comedies," says Nawaz. "They wonder if I'm making fun of people like them. I think it's a generational thing."

Little Mosque is "more Northern Exposure than Corner Gas," she says. "The Muslim community is dying for a portrayal of Muslims that is more dynamic and more nuanced than the traditional terrorist villain."

Aside from trying to be as "authentic" as possible, the biggest challenge facing Little Mosque is attracting non-Muslim viewers - vital to the long-term survival of the show - away from U.S. programs with far bigger budgets and production values. To make the show accessible, the cast includes several non-Muslim characters and the writing staff (all non-Muslims, aside from Nawaz) have built explanations into the scripts for some of the terms. "We do have the advantage," says Nawaz, "of making comedy with material nobody has ever dealt with."

As a mosque-going Muslim, Nawaz can afford to take greater comedic liberties with the material than a non-Muslim. And though she draws from personal experiences ("People back home," she laughs, "are more careful around me now"), she remains very sensitive to honouring the faith. "I know what I'd be offended by," she says. "This is an equal opportunity show. Both Muslims and non-Muslims will watch and ask, 'are they making fun of me?' I don't think either group can claim we're just picking on them."

Still, she anticipates some backlash. "A segment of the Muslim community will have wanted every Muslim to be a very good Muslim, for there to be no conflict and for everyone to follow Islam to the rule," says Nawaz. "But you can't make comedy without conflict."

See also TELEVISION DRAMA, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE.

Maclean's December 11, 2006


//