|Little Mosque, big humour|
by Angela Hill
Zarqa Nawaz created Little Mosque on the Prairie in hopes of showing Muslims as part of regular Canadian society. "My intention wasn't to make fun of Muslims or Islam, but to make non-Muslims see Muslims as part of the normal fabric in a comedic way," said Nawaz, at the University of Regina, March 22. She gave the annual Stapleford Lecture, entitled "Big Humour on the Prairies." Nawaz, who grew up in Toronto, moved to Regina after she married. Many differences between what she encountered in the Muslim community in Toronto and what she found in Regina became the topic of one of her documen- taries and the source for her TV show. When she learned she was moving to Regina, Nawaz admitted to being the typical Torontonian and not having a clue about the rest of Canada. She asked her husband if Saskatchewan was one or two provinces over. "It was a bit of a culture shock when I came here and you hated us [Torontonians]," she said. That wasn't the only culture shock Nawaz felt. The mosque she attended in Regina began to separate men from women in the prayer hall. She was shocked to arrive one day to find a physical barrier. This sparked her curiosity, and a three-year research trip around North America visiting mosques and speaking with top Islamic schol- ars. These visits and interviews became the National Film Board documentary, Me and the Mosque. She found the separation of men and women "a cultural and traditional bias, not a scriptural bias." And Nawaz was thrilled when her documentary became a starting point for discussions and debates about this issue within her community. "She is an activist by breaking stereotypes and demolishing barriers," said Volker Greifenhagen, a religious studies professor at U of R's Luther College, during his introduction of Nawaz. Me and the Mosque is only one of many films about the Muslim community. Her first, BBQ Muslim, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is a staple of many religious studies classes. She also created Fred's Burqa, Random Check, and just recently completed the screenplay, Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance. Her company, Fundamentalist Films (their motto: "putting the fun back in fundamental") is also the driving force behind Little Mosque on the Prairie. Within the first month after the show's release in January, Nawaz had completed over 1,400 media interviews. She couldn't under- stand why she was so popular, so she asked one of the reporters. He told her no one had ever seen the Muslim community portrayed as regular peo- ple. In many ways this makes the show a little tough on Nawaz - there are high expectations for the comedy. Non-Muslims ask Nawaz fre- quently what message they should be taking out of an episode. "No, no, no, it's not a moral tale, it's a sit- com," said Nawaz about her typical response to these people. Nawaz is happy for the popularity of Little Mosque on the Prairie. The first night alone it drew an audience of over two million viewers, the largest CBC debut ever. She said she is glad to be part of a growing trend of great Canadian television, along with the other Prairie-based comedy, Corner Gas. "The two shows show that we can have sus- tainable Canadian entertainment," she said.