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Blog Archive – February, 2007

Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian TV Comedy

February 10, 2007

by Barbara Nimri Aziz

I wonder how the planners of the Little Mosque, a new TV comedy series, decided to locate Mercy, the mythical inter-faith community where this story takes place, out on the Canadian prairies? Did they know that Regina, Saskatchewan is said to be home to the oldest mosque in North America, built 150 years ago. (This record applies to modern times; we often forget about the much earlier African Muslim immigration of up to 700 years earlier.)

In any case, now as then, few of us associate the Canadian prairies with Arabs and other immigrants, especially Muslims. But of course, the inhabitants of Canada's prairies have heard about 9/11. And, like Americans, they are nervous about newcomers.

It is this anxiety combined with the personalities of a community of Muslims in this small prairie town that furnish the lines and laughs for this new comedy series. Anything and anyone is game for a laugh. Why not Muslims? Especially when interfaith dialogue and scholarship seem to be failing.

This comedy series appears to be an outgrowth of standup comedy routines, mainly by a new generation of young Arab and Muslim entertainers on the comedy scene in recent years, and the talent of Muslim-Canadian writers like its creator, Zarqa Nawaz.

Even so, I was a bit apprehensive when I first learned about Little Mosque. Viewing clips of the weekly program on YouTube, I immediately liked it. It is tasteful, well acted, and funny. Some of the lines seem to come straight out of the Arab American Comedy Festival.

 Little Mosque on the Prairie  has the requisite characters: Fatima, a Black Canadian who waitresses at the local deli; the blustering but harmless Baber, a new immigrant critical of anything and anyone White, Sara, a convert to Islam who works for the town's lady mayor and is married to Yasir, the community leader. They have a hip, pretty daughter, Rayyan. (Of the women, some cover their heads and some don't.) Into their midst comes the handsome bachelor Amaar; he's been hired as the Imam of the new mosque. Then we have a benevolent Christian, Rev. McGee, always ready to step in as mediator between the sometimes-bumbling Muslims and the suspicious white folks and incompetent police. It helps, I think, that many of the actors seem to be of Asian origin if not Muslims themselves. (Director Nawaz, born in the UK, moved to the Canadian prairies after her marriage.) They play characters who are cute and flirtatious, naive, conciliatory, aggressive, isolationist, provocative, and angry.

I guess Little Mosque falls into the genre of sitcom, 'situation' or 'family' comedy. It plays on misconceptions--not only those about Muslims-- and fears that we all recognize. The closest we have in fictional writing to 'Little Mosque' is the new novel Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, by Mohja Kahf where we find some of the same absurdities created by being Muslim in America. The humor in Kahf's novel has not yet hit home with American readers, although I could easily see it as a screenplay.

Political satire, although little recognized beyond its borders, has become a hallmark of modern Canadian culture. Perhaps the development of Little Mosque is an extension of Canada's deep-rooted quality satire. Yet, Little Mosque unquestionably is a breakthrough in political terms. It speaks to the universal, not only in its humor but also through its characters and the events they encounter. From the clips I reviewed, the foibles and fears that Little Mosque on the Prairie builds on are as American as they are Canadian, British and European.

The series, although widely reviewed in the US media, did not emerge from that culture where, we are told, American networks and administrators are desperately trying to win the Muslim public. I doubt if an American network will pick it up. Somehow Americans seem too attached to violence to work with something like this.

What about the rest of the clash-of-civilization world? I am particularly curious to see how viewers in Arab and Muslim countries will react. Having lived in many of those lands, I cannot imagine Islam associated with comedy entertainment. TV in the Gulf States, Syria, Algeria, Egypt address Islam in their abundant educational and spiritual programs. If they should care about difficulties Muslims face in the West, they can watch  deadly serious US (propaganda) documentaries--some State Dept-funded --laden with measured opinions and professorial conclusions--almost all by non-Muslims--along with predictable testimonies by US Muslim citizens, all predicated on the myth that our life began on 9/11.

We wait to see how, after a score of weekly episodes, if Little Mosque can reach beyond the clichéd sources of tension and conflict offered in the early episodes. What will be left to learn about these folks in Mercy, Saskatchewan, after we have run through the stereotypical airport scene, the gay swimming instructor, hijab shopping, and abundant 'explosives' metaphors? Surely there is a limit to the terrorism-related metaphors the series' producers are currently building on. Then the show's charm and talent will be put to the test. I hope they succeed.

You can view dozens on clips from the series on YouTube. Or you can go to CBC TV Little Mosque.

[ Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian TV Comedy ]


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