January 08, 2007

Of Premieres, Prairies, and Prayers

These are interesting times for Canadian Muslims.

Tomorrow is the series premiere of "Little Mosque on the Prairie", a new CBC sitcom about the daily happenings of a young Muslim community in rural Canada. It is the brainchild of Muslim filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz, a young Muslim mother of four, who has a number of films already to her credit. There has been considerable excitement leading up to tomorrow's premiere, with international media attention falling upon this unique take on Muslim culture.

What I like about this is that it is advertising itself as a take on a certain part of Canadian culture, rather than a take on Muslim culture. That is, it runs on the assumption that Muslims are part of Canadian culture, rather than a community removed from the rest. Just as other sitcoms may take a humourous look at other cultures that make up the greater Americana, "Little Mosque" appears to take a similar approach. My initial worry was that while this may be hilarious to people like me who would likely understand all the "inside jokes", it would not appeal to a wider audience. When a father looks upon her scantily clad daughter and mutters "Astaghfirullah!", would Mr. Joe Average know what this means? That, coupled with the fact that CBC sitcoms rarely garner enough interest to turn viewers away from American television, lead me to believe that while creative, this project would likely not succeed.

But perhaps that isn't an issue. The humour for most people may precisely be in the fact that the protagonists of this story are different. It wasn't only stuffy aristocrats who enjoyed Frasier, and I imagine that only a few of the regular viewers of Prison Break are former convicts. Ultimately, what matters is that the characters tell an interesting story. I rarely watch television, but I know I've laughed at humourous takes on Jewish, Italian, and American culture. Can others laugh at ours? They laugh at my stories of flimsy stereotyping, innocent misunderstandings, and Jum'ah shoe-switches; perhaps there is potential. Perhaps I can even contribute my own scripts.

There are of course certain conflicts of interest that this whole series presents. I won't get into them here, except to say that the culture of the arts often presents significant challenges for a practicing Muslim. One little-known aspect of my life was my early passion for theatre and improv. There was a time in my life when I considered it a legitimate career option; in fact, many people from my former improv team actually have made a career of it, and have been quite successful on the national improv circuit. But as Islam became more and more important to me, I realized that there was little chance of finding the right balance in that environment, with those people. If the team behind "Little Mosque" has managed to find that balance, I would like to know how. If not, the series may fall into the trap of inviting to Islam by falling into the unlawful. A male can't introduce Islam to a female by flirting with her, nor can a person promote Muslim culture by having Muslim actresses demonstrate their normalcy by wearing skimpy clothes on national television.

The series premiere of "Little Mosque on the Prairie" is being aired at 8:30pm EST on CBC. Anyone else among the Canadians readers planning on watching this? I'd love to hear your thoughts. And for those outside of Canada, have there been any comparable projects overseas?


  1. I can't wait for it to start. I've seen some of Zarqa Nawaz's other stuff and it's pretty good. People seem to be very touchy about these issues, but I think it'll be interesting.

    I don't understand why people are so concerned about the show. Stereotypes about Muslims are rampant in the media, and this show is trying to put a human face on Islam and Muslims. I mean, this is the first show that's been made by a practicing Muslim woman about Muslims, it's bound to make ripples. Good ripples inshaAllah :D

    I think you could have made a good stand-up comedian, a la Azher Usman. There's still time.

  2. Slms,

    I find the prospect of something like Little Mosque on the Prairie rather interesting, more because of the numerous comments it makes for the North American audience.
    Starting with the title, its comments on the origins, and the suggestion of placing the image of a minority group squarely in the middle of what might constitute the pre-disposed culture out there.

    i read it as a billboard. and even though you have rightly pointed out the potential for smoothing out the possible misinterpretations of cultural rhetoric, theres worthy merit in airing works like these.. i hope we get to see some of that out here in South Africa!

    thnks for sharing

  3. Will try and catch the show I suppose or well have been meaning to. Although I cant recall the last time I made an active effort to turn on the tv at a specific time.

    As a side note the chap who plays the young Imam moving to the prairie's also played a gay man in Metropia which is one of those "after ten" shows. :). Just my two cents...

  4. Salaams,

    This looks funny, mashallah. "You look like a protestant!". Class!

    I can't think of anything similar done over here, though i'm not always in the loop with these things. Plenty of documentaries on Muslims, but no sitcoms.

    The closest thing i can think of was a BBC comedy sketch show called "Goodness Gracious Me"; British-Indian comedians taking the mick out of British-Indian culture. This included a light-hearted jab at all the religions of India: Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam!

    Have you watched the Reminder series, by Ummah Films? Now that is Muslim humour at its best!

    "I rarely watch television, but I know I've laughed at humourous takes on Jewish, Italian, and American culture."

    I have a good Jewish-Italian joke (IMO) that i overheard from my colleagues (one Jewish, one Italian!).

    Q. What is the difference between a Jewish mother and an Italian mother?

    A. The first one says, "Eat this, or i'll die", and the second one says, "Eat this, or i'll kill you!".

    I've been trying to think what an Indian mother would say...

  5. *Sulking* The show is on RIGHT NOW but I can’t watch it because my father forbids me to!
    If you've managed to watch it, tell me what it's like, okay?

    iMuslim – there’s a hilarious joke about Indian mothers… it’s really long, though, so I don’t remember it exactly. But I’ll try to find it and email it/ post it on my blog for you!

  6. So the first episode is over. What did you all think?

    Asmaa: I do expect it to have good ripples. Personally, I'm not one to criticize any Muslim trying to do something good for the deen. I just remember it being difficult to be a Muslim in the arts culture.

    Stand-up comedy? Wow. Well, I do enjoy getting up on
    stage for my somewhat infamous wedding poems... I think I'll stick to the wedding speeches and the occasional emcee gigs.

    Kimya: After watching the first episode, it plays exactly as I expected it to: very carefully, and very politically correctly. I do believe there's merit in the show; see my overall thoughts at the end of the comment.

    Saira: I can't recall the last time I actually turned on a TV at a specific time for a specific purpose either. Which means that CBC did a good job advertizing this one.

    On that side note.. that's the sort of conflict of interest that I find about Muslim actors in the western arts culture. You never know where you'll end up..

    iMuslim: Wa'alaykum assalam. I've heard of that show "Goodness Gracious Me", but never saw it. I can see that being funny, just because there's so much material to make fun of.

    I've seen some of the Reminder series videos; I found some of them somewhat amusing. They seem to have struck a chord with a lot of people; not really my brand of humour, but they're doing great work regardless.

    An Indian mother would say, "Eat this, or no one will marry you!"

    AnonyMouse, and everyone else: so here's my brief commentary on the show.

    From a purely artistic point of view, it was only mildly entertaining I found. They played the same joke over and over again, about the locals being suspicious that the Muslims were terrorists. While they could conceivably stretch that joke over one entire episode, I doubt they can successfully do so across an entire season; they'll need more material.

    But as an homage to Muslim culture, it did quite well. In just this first episode, it touched upon a number of "that-reminds-me-of" situations that reflect experiences we've often dealt with. In general, the actors were good.

    One common failing in a lot of CBC shows, I find, is the one-dimensional nature of the characters - rather, each character was more of a caricature representing a single perspective. As the first episode, I suppose this was inevitable, as the audience is being introduced to the community for the first time; we weren't ready to appreciate subtle nuances yet as we were just learning who these people were. But for the sake of comedic effect, I do hope they introduce a little more subtlety as the show progresses.

    As it is, the show seems rather simplistic. While that style may have worked in the past, I don't think it'll work in the post-Seinfeld era. We need to develop an attachment to these characters. We need to see them as real people. So far, the non-Muslims in the show have generally been portrayed as bumbling, paranoid bigots. I don't think they're identifiable yet, but perhaps that will come with time.

    So overall, it was amusing; nothing spectacular, but definitely fresh and original. As a concept, it has a lot of potential if the writers diversify their material. We'll see where things go from here.

  7. I thought that it was alright. Some of the jokes were lame and corny - like all those terrorist jokes. Not very original. But everything else was interesting.

    Baber is the best character. I especially like his uncanny desire to wash and shroud dead bodies in the laundry room.

    Goat anyone? :D

  8. Asmaa: I agree. That was the only line that actually made me laugh out loud: "We can use the laundry room to wash and shroud the dead bodies!"

    I also liked the whole "oh, you're that bigshot from Toronto" small- town versus big-city thing they had going on. As someone who has lived in the second, third, and fourth largest cities in Canada, I have more than my share of anti-Toronto sentiment. I can definitely relate to the whole "centre-of-the-universe" mentality we dub you Toronto people with. :)

  9. Assalaamu Alaikum :)

    I was expecting to be really wowed but it wasn't as great as I thought. Then again, it's only the first episode, right? It is "said" that the funnier jokes are to come much later ...

    I found their portrayal of women in Islam very interesting. I suppose directed at the stereotypes of women who wear hijab and mistreatment by men. The hijabi woman had her hijab off in the house scene which I guess shows non-Muslims that we actually do take off our hijabs at some point in the day haha And Yasir or whatever the father's name was, would always refer to the women as "beautiful women".

    (come to think of it, I found the "dead bodies" joke to be funny as well hehe)

  10. I started reading your blog recently, and fell in love with the way you write

  11. As-salam 'alaykum

    After watching the sitcom and reading many responses to it, one of the many apparent things is that it's causing some tension between Canadians and Americans. Canadians are trying to put their freedom of speech and expression in somewhat practical terms, why in America, theyare still struggling with a lame definition that they have for "freedom of speech". They even claim that a show like this would never air in America, not too sure why, but they sure like to contradict themselves. OK, alright, this is just an upright stereotype -- of course, I dont mean all Americans, but most.

    My take on this sitcom:
    Everyone's well aware and most have experienced such stereotypes, but I guess now it's good to see it exposed in the media as there are people who still believe that 'terrorist' is indeed a synonym to Muslim, and that ignorance is too due to what's portrayed in the media, and it's no question now that media rules the minds of many. So why not get the media to clean the mess it made. How about try to expose the true nature of Islam and Muslims (which btw this sitcom is less likely to do, heh), using that very media; how about take this as one of the steps to replace stereotypes with conformity, acceptance?
    Anyways, this first episode wasn't all that exciting, but I hope that it takes off, and brings about some positive change, with laugher.
    And may Allah guide us all to the righteous path, Ameen.


  12. Squeeky: Wa'alaykum assalam; that seems to be the reaction of most people who watched it - it wasn't that funny, but has potential. I never really thought about that hijab angle, but I guess it's true that many people might surmise that hijabis never take their hijab off. I like how they showed different types of Muslim women; it did a good job of describing that not everyone is at the same level.

    Anonymous/H: Thanks! Much appreciated.

    Maria: Wa'alaykum assalam, I don't think a show like this would fly in US either. CBC is known for lots of "wholesome" television, which just wouldn't work with an American audience. Heck, it hardly works with the target Canadian audience, as CBC sitcoms generally fail.

    I see this show doing some good in breaking down stereotypes, provided that Muslims take the time to talk to people themselves and not just rely on the show to do the talking. Lots of non-Muslims I know tuned in for the first episode, and some found it much funnier than I did. Most importantly, it opened up a channel for discussion, and I was able to discuss many topics about Islam that otherwise would have been difficult to introduce. I think that if we take advantage of this newfound curiosity, we can do some good bi-ithnillah.

  13. Firstly,i luurve calvin n hobbes! i also would have loved to b an actress,but as a young muslim woman in hijab,i accept its nt possible.i think the idea is good,but i also hav doubts bout promotin the lawful in an unlawful manner.its a tricky dbate.but i kno id like to c mor muslim producd shows,especialy here in south africa.im typin frm phn,limitd space,so i'l just say gr8 blog

  14. Salaams,

    I watched the show, jazakallah for the link. It was funny in places, but i think i agree with those who have commented before me; it leaves a lot to be desired. I especially didn't like the dynamic between the new Imam and Yasir's daughter (i forget her name). I can totally see them becoming some kind of item in future episodes; I don't mean in a haram way, just that the potential for "marriage" will be inferred.

    Plus what is with the girl's totally overplucked eyebrows, and her step-mother praying salat with half her hair uncovered??? Hmm, progressive!

    One thing i did find very interesting though, was one of the adverts that was aired during the interval. It was about how highly educated immigrants were being forced into applying for crummy, low-paid, low-skilled positions, simply because they were immigrants. There was a man who had degrees in engineering from Tehran university i think, who was applying for a fast food job! Very degrading, but unfortunately, i can totally see it happening. It happens here in England, too.

    On a lighter note, the Strepsil's ad featuring the cartoon man with the scary looking sore throat is the exact same as the one shown here! Except the voice-overs were Canadian, and there was some note about the pills being "doctor-approved". I don't know why i so amazed by the commonality, but i was! "Wow, Canada has Strepsils too? Dude, that's awesome!". hehe


  15. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah

    I had no expectations, thus no disappointments. I am glad that the acting is half decent.

    I wanted to watch the second episode before trying to decide where I stand on the matter...but now I think it may not be necessary because that's not all together the point.

    You said,"The series may fall into the trap of inviting to Islam by falling into the unlawful." When I read this, I couldn't agree more with you. I still agree, to a point. I've read the opinions that Shujaat sent out and the ones here (and a few elsewhere)... and tried to shuffle them all out a bit. Then I wondered what the intention was behind starting this series. I think Muslims often think of it as a da'wah effort, an invitation as you said, but I don't think that's the case and thus my whole angle toward it has changed.

    The show 30 Days: Muslims and America is by far closer to a da'wah effort than this comedy show. But, that doesn't mean that this new comedy doesn't have any value. People chuckle at the expense of exaggerated Muslim stereotypes or personalities... but for what? It's not sheer entertainment either. My perception of it is that it is simply the push that Muslims continuously whine about needing or lacking. The rest is up to us...insha'Allah. We can turn this push into something more profound such as da'wah and introducing the world to the truth about Islam.

    So instead of us being super duper critical and unproductive about it, we can really use this comedy for the betterment. The issue isn't that the she has shaped eyebrows, or that she is seen without hijab, or that she and the Imam have 'a moment,' nor that the Imam shakes hands with a strange woman. The fact is that the people who viewed the show now know that Muslims have lives besides the rules that we all seem so hung up on. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for following the deen by the book (and all the rules with it), but the book is also about character and higher order thinking rather than mere rituals with rules and regulations.

    The bright side is that they produce this show making it known that it is a "progressive" outlook. AlhamduliAllah. Think about it for a second... if the show had Muslims who represented to the 'non progressive' way of things, then their characters would be more Islamically sound... but how would they relate to the millions of people watching the show? The Makkan revelations weren't about rules and regulations. The introduction that people had to Islam at that time were at their level of understanding until they had developed a concept of tawheed and taqwa. This is where we are with our fellow Canadians. Our fellow Muslims cannot view this as a source of spiritual guidance, since it clearly isn't worthy for such a purpose.

    My bottom line is this..if the criticism doesn't benefit, then it's just more noise in an already unnecessarily noisy world. We can make something good out of most things, and this is no exception. Wa Allahu'alim.

    AlhamduliAllah for the benefit in it. May Allah protect us from all that which is displeasing to Him, ameen.

    My apologies, as always, for making this too long. Believe it or not, I was trying to be concise.

  16. Salaams sister Farzeen,

    Though i commend you for looking for the benefit and not just concentrating on the harm, there is an important point to remember here: the majority of people watching this show are going to be Muslims.

    Thus for the producers and script writers to include anything haram in their show, especially a light-hearted comedy, is essentially giving good press to bad behaviour.

    As Muslims, we are not allowed to openly discuss our sins; the more you discuss them, the more acceptable they become in society, and the more fitnah will result.

    So that is why we should criticize any haram we spot, lest someone of lesser knowledge get the impression that these things are OK in Islam, because they saw other Muslims doing it on TV.

    It may sound simplistic, but many people (including myself) are susceptible to such trains of thought. Which, again, is why we must not advertise our sins in such a way that people will imitate us, thinking, "well, if she's doing it, it can't be that bad".

    We want the best of both worlds; we want to connect with the people on a personal level via light entertainment, as well as keep within the limits of Islam. But can it really be done?

    OK, rules are not everything, but they are something. We sacrifice certain habits for the sake of Allah, so we may benefit in this life and the next, inshallah. We should be proud of said rules, not hide them away so as to make Islam more palatable to the non-Muslims.

    If we want to connect with non-Muslims, remind them that we are human like them, we can do it through universal acts of kindness, charity, love & justice, which all people recognise as distinctly human traits. We can also tell jokes, but why should any of us have to sacrifice our deen to make people laugh? It's not a fair price.


  17. Assalaamu'alaykum wa rahmatu Allah sister "IMuslim"

    I agree with you, rules are definitely something and they must be respected...but television is not a legit source of guidance..and any person who thinks he/she can learn his/her faith (regardless of which faith it is) from a comedic sitcom on national television is in trouble.

    I just watched the second episode of the series and quite frankly I'm not comfortable with the way they've presented some issues. It's not all that appropriate and I think they've dropped the standard that I prefer to carry as a Muslim.

    I agree with you some of your sentiments, but then this brings us to a much larger issue. What is TV all about? And where is our guidance?

    My concern, when I watched the first episode, was regarding which actors are Muslim or not because I'd hate to watch them wronging themselves for the sake of trying to get Muslims into the "we're humans too" limelight. Like Brother Faraz suggested in his initial post, it just isn't worth it.

    As for whether we can keep within the limits of Islam while connecting with people on a personal level.. I believe Brother Faraz also addressed this in his initial post and I agree with him there too. There is a fine balance... which the producers of this show may very well have not achieved.

    I don't believe we should sacrifice our deen to humour anyone, but is that what this show does? It does sacrifice some finer aspects of deen, but I don't think it's for the sake of comedy. I think people's fascination with the show has little to do with the punch lines.

    The show brings light to controversial topics and areas of disagreement that Muslims have within the community. While a sister might not be wearing hijab in the show, it is not presented as "Islamically correct." I wouldn't be surprised if some of the Muslims who are way off from Islam learn a bit from this show because the aspects of the show that make some Muslims uncomfortable actually hit right home for other Muslims.

    You mentioned a few things that we can do in our communities for our non-Muslim brethren to see the goodness of our faith, but you said it in another comment yourself.. we aren't doing it. Brother Faraz's post "Small Kindness" also bring light to areas where can be doing something but we aren't.

    This show alone cannot do the work that our community needs to do. It can only help reduce our alienation, leaving the real work for the rest of us. We need to get in touch with our fellow Muslims, our neighbours, and all those that we are surrounded by. We need to study our deen properly and strive to implement it properly, insha'Allah.

    I hope, in the least, this show can serve an ice breaker. We can make something good out of something that isn't perfect.

    The criticisms will always be there I guess. I am afraid though, dear sister, that the people who will read them are likely be the ones who are already well aware of them.

  18. bibi-aisha: Thanks for visiting! Given the constraints, do you think there is a reasonable alternative for Muslims who want to engage in theatre or television?

    iMuslim: Wa'alaykum assalam. I don't mind the issues of the overplucked eyebrows or the salah with the hair half uncovered, because it is an accurate reflection of the different types of people in any Muslim community.

    Yes, we have Strepsils, though I think Halls is the major brand in the competitive coughdrop industry. I'm sure there are lots of other common brands; Canada and UK aren't that different.

    Farzeen: Wa'alaykum assalam. I think the show has value so long as we don't consider it a "da'wah effort" in and of itself. One thing it has done is opened up dialogue to an extent; often, non-Muslims come up to me at work and ask me about things specifically because of the show. And that's a good thing, if Muslims are taking up those opportunities to express themselves. It can serve as a good icebreaker.

    I think part of the objective is to really show that not all Muslims are the same; they have different values even amongst themselves, and are susceptible to the same issues as everyone else.

    It's easy to be critical about this show, but I think the very fact that it was made, and has been relatively successful thus far, is encouraging. And while I agree that it may be "giving good press to bad behaviour", I also know that there's much worse on television that I put up with. So it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to lament on small details of this show while I tolerate everything else.

    As long as we're not thinking this sitcom absolves us of the responsibility of invitation ourselves, I think it's still a worthy experiment. I don't think it's making things worse than they were before; but I just don't think it's making things much better either. We still have our jobs to do.

  19. Hmm... I would like to add a rather solemn important piece of information.. In South Africa, we also have Strepsils and Halls :)

    I guess the worlds a little cough drOp, afterall :P

  20. Salaams all,

    Re-reading my comment, it does seem like i was nit-picking the smaller issues rather than taking the programme as a whole.

    In my defense, i was in a bad mood with TV last night, after watching a programme that was broadcast on one of the main UK channels this week, accusing "moderate" British mosques and preachers of being secret extremists (you can view it on my blog, under Channel 4 Protest).

    I suppose i am just fed up with Islam being packaged and re-packaged for the sake of viewer ratings.

    If some good comes out of Lil Mosque, then subhanallah, who am i to complain?

    In the end, when it comes to unfavourable media attention, i always remember a great saying i heard at a talk on "How to give Dawah":
    Allah guides the people to Islam in spite of the Muslims, not because of them.


  21. A pretty good discussion is ongoing here at Lota...
    It's my first visit to your blog... looks interesting. Keep up the good work!

    Musings of a Muslim Mind