"Little Mosque on the Prairie"

Allah Is Great – and Funny

The comedy series "Little Mosque on the Prairie" plays on the confrontation of North American and Muslim cultures. But of course it doesn't come from the USA, but from Toronto, Canada. Adrienne Woltersdorf reports

​​A young Pakistani in a suit and tie is standing in line at the airport check-in desk. He talks into his cell-phone, gesticulating wildly. "If dad thinks it's suicide, so be it," he says, and continues, "This is Allah's plan for me."

Predictably enough, he is immediately dragged out of the queue by security guards. His journey to paradise stops here, the struggling man is told – even though he protests that the suicide his father referred to is his newly formed plan to abandon his law practice and devote himself to social projects.

The scene is from the eight-part Canadian comedy series "Little Mosque on the Prairie", the title a pun on the cult US series "Little House on the Prairie". The show is broadcast by the Canadian public television channel CBC in Toronto.

Confusing and provocative scenes and dialogues

Going by the word of the blogosphere, which has shown great admiration for the recently launched project, there are some really confusing and provocative scenes and dialogues. After all, the series is the first of its kind in North America, with a humorous take on religious life in a fictional Canadian town by the name of Mercy.

Zarqa Nawaz (photo: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)
Writer Zarqa Nawaz: "People always automatically assume that Muslims always go straight out and demonstrate, issue Fatwas and set fire to embassies"

​​Unlike the airport scene in the show, negative experiences are far from fiction for Muslims and Arabs in post-9/11 North America. The prime example is the recent arrest of six Imams in an airport in the US state of Minnesota, who had aroused their fellow passengers' suspicion by praying to Allah – leading to the six clerics being banned from flying.

The makers of the sitcom say themselves that they're curious about reactions. Curious about whether viewers really can laugh about people most North Americans view as a serious threat.

"Everyone's expecting the series to be completely controversial and political," says Zarqa Nawaz, the 39-year-old writer of the show. "But it's just a comedy revolving around Muslims living in a Canadian prairie town."

Is she most interested in what Muslims think of it?

"People always ask that question," says Nawaz; "they automatically assume that Muslims always go straight out and demonstrate, issue Fatwas and set fire to embassies."

Satirical input

"Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour." This central motto of the series is precisely the kind of satirical input that comes mainly from Zarqa Nawaz herself.

​​Nawaz is a mother of four of Pakistani origin, and wears a headscarf. She has faced difficulties of her own in provincial life, having moved from Toronto where she grew up to Regina, a small town in rural Saskatchewan, more than ten years ago.

"You have to overstep the borders a little bit more every day to grow and develop as a community," Nawaz sums up her attitude to life.

So it comes as no surprise that the question of suitable clothing for Muslim women plays a central role in the series. Like in the episode in the local swimming pool, when the female water aerobics coach is suddenly taken ill and replaced by a man – Johnny. The Muslin women, who usually only leave the house fully covered, come out of the changing rooms laughing and chatting, only to freeze in horror.

Initially, Nawaz was unhappy with the actresses' performance. "They didn't really look like they were panicking. But for a Muslim who wears Hijab it's an absolute catastrophe to be seen without her body covered." In the comedy it turns out that Johnny is gay – and protests that women's hair doesn't turn him on in the slightest.

Muslims celebrating Halloween?

"I always start that kind of conversation in my community," Nawaz laughs. Conversations like whether gay men count too? Whether women have to cover themselves in front of them? "These are subjects that are never debated in Muslim countries, or by imported Imams in North America either." Or questions of whether Muslim children should be allowed to celebrate Halloween, more of a Christian matter, like their classmates.

But the makers of the series don't just want to entertain. Just as humour and comedy have helped Jews, Italians and gays to gain recognition in mainstream society in the past, Nawaz and the producers hope to help the approximately seven million Muslims living in North America with their show.

"On the news, they're always talking about Muslims with extreme positions. Our comedy just tells a funny story of perfectly normal people," says Nawaz.

Adrienne Woltersdorf

© TAZ/Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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