Canada: Quirky look at Muslim life in the sticks

The Guardian
For Zarqa Nawaz, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman living in the Canadian prairies, life in the west has always provided certain conundrums. For example, is a woman obliged to cover herself in the presence of a gay man?
Now Islam meets sitcom in a new Canadian show called Little Mosque on the Prairie.
The show, the first of its genre to deal with the Muslim experience in North America since the September 11 terror attacks, began on 9 January 2007. "It always struck me as hilarious. What if that man has no interest in you sexually, does he count?" Ms Nawaz, the show's creator, told the Guardian. "You normally can't ask those questions out loud in your community because they think it's too out there, so this series is almost a form of therapy for me."

Little Mosque's eight episodes unroll in the Saskatchewan town of Mercy, where life for its Muslim residents is centred on the mosque. In one episode, an imam warns his followers against the evils of television. "Desperate Housewives? Why should they be desperate when they're only performing their natural womanly duties?" he asks. A young woman in a headscarf whispers to her mother: "Did you tape last night's episode?"

Making light of such issues in the aftermath of the 2001 attacks is a source of high anxiety for the show's producers, operating in the shadow of outrage around the world over a Danish cartoon deemed insulting to Muslims.

But Ms Nawaz, 39, who was born in Liverpool, raised in Toronto, and moved to Saskatchewan after her marriage, says she is constantly bemused by the issues of living as a Muslim in western society. Should she allow her children to dress up for Halloween, although it's a pagan ritual? Is it OK to wear a conventional swimming costume to water aerobics if the male instructor is gay? In the show, the conflict is resolved by a woman donning a garment described as the "Haz-Mat Islamic swimsuit", covering her from neck to ankle.

But in a country that saw the disruption of its own homegrown terror cell last year, the upheavals since September 11, 2001, are not far from the surface.

The sitcom's pilot shows a south Asian man in an airport queue talking on a phone to his mother about his decision to give up the law for a job at a mosque in the Canadian prairies. The decision is not suicide, he says. No, he is not throwing his life away. "This is Allah's plan for me." Moments later, a police officer claps his hand on the man's shoulder. "Step away from the bags, sir," he says. "You're not going to paradise today."

Now that that's out of the way, Ms Nawaz says the series hopes to focus on a life more ordinary. "The only thing we draw from 9/11 is the paranoia and the misunderstanding and mistrust of Muslims," she said. "Comedy comes out of the quirks and foibles of everyday life."

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Tuesday January 9, 2007
The Guardian