Canada: Television: Zarqa Nawaz, creator of "Little Mosque on the Prairie"

Common Ground News Service
An interview with director Zarqa Nawaz ("Me and the Mosque", "BBQ Muslims", etc.) on her new television series, "Little Mosque on the Prairie".
"This year marked the premiere of a new comedy on Canadian television: "Little Mosque on the Prairie". The show – recalling the popular 1970s television series "Little House on the Prairie" – is the latest creation of Zarqa Nawaz, founder of FUNdamentalist Films and producer of four short films and the documentary, "Me and the Mosque".
Her sitcom drew an average of 1.2 million viewers per episode and has since been picked up by the French television company Canal+ for distribution in Switzerland and French-speaking Africa. As Nawaz prepared for the show's second season, she shared some of her experiences as a Muslim woman working in a primarily non-Muslim environment.

When Nawaz first thought of writing a sitcom about a Muslim community living in a small Canadian town, she pitched her idea to WestWind Pictures, an independent film and television company that has an office in Regina, Saskatchewan where Nawaz resides. With the help of her new local partner, she took the idea to CBC Television, which invested in developing all eight episodes for the show's first season. The idea was well-received by both Canadian partners because, according to Nawaz, "the show is the first of its kind and fits well in today's global context."

The show's novelty stems from Nawaz's belief that only a Muslim writer could conceive and pitch such an idea – she being one of the few in Canada. Having a Muslim perspective is necessary because non-Muslims do not fully grasp the etiquette of Muslim life, explains Nawaz. She believes her role is to inform her non-Muslim colleagues of such details, which is somewhat challenging as she has to remain on the lookout for the characters' subtleties and the nuances of their interactions. The show also hires religious consultants who check the script for authenticity and loyalty in its depiction of various Muslim customs and lifestyles.

However, working in a non-Muslim environment also has its benefits. It helps keep the show universal, she says, and makes the stories relevant to everyone, not just Muslims. As Nawaz's colleagues become more familiar with the Muslim community, they are able to take the lead on scriptwriting, moving away from issue-based stories towards character-based narratives. This is important because the show was never meant for a Muslim audience exclusively, but is simply a "television show about people who happen to be Muslim."

Indeed, the show's main audience is non-Muslim, and this has undoubtedly had a positive impact on cross-cultural understanding. Many Westerners are rarely exposed to media that shows Muslims interacting with others in their day-to-day lives. Little Mosque on the Prairie portrays them as spouses and parents who work, pay bills, dine together, etc. While the prevailing representation of Islam in the West is rather negative, the show provides a refreshing depiction of the religion's practitioners – an assertive female doctor who wears the hijab (headscarf), for instance. Nawaz believes that "comedy is a universal language that helps overcome stereotypes and misunderstandings between people." And it is precisely through comedy that her show attracts diverse audiences and rectifies misconceptions.

According to Nawaz, the show's overwhelming success is the result of excellent scriptwriting and the decision to hire actors based on their abilities, not their religion. A show about Muslims does not attract an audience in and of itself, Nawaz argues; it must be produced well. Viewers seek entertaining, quality television and that should be the primary goal of producers – creating a show that entertains, yet is also meaningful. When these two elements are combined, high ratings tend to follow.

In particular, Nawaz thinks the show's success can be replicated in the Muslim world, among people who are curious to learn about the unique Muslim way of life in North America. For example, in Canada, mosques are more community-oriented, whereas in much of the East, Nawaz claims "mosques are the private domains of men". Nawaz is known for addressing such sensitive issues, as she believes that no topic is off-limits so long as one approaches it with respect and dignity. In her opinion, issues such as sexism, racism and extremism are important to acknowledge because they are very much alive in many Muslim communities. She maintains, "as long as you're respectful and you communicate in a responsible manner, you have wide latitude." Judging from the success of her television show, she may indeed be correct."

By: Farah Dib

30 October 2007