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'Little Mosque' Creator Zarqa Nawaz On Mixing Comedy And Religion

May 7, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 2:34 pm

Growing up Muslim in Canada had its challenges for Zarqa Nawaz, starting with school lunch. Her mother insisted on sending Nawaz off with home-cooked chicken that smelled of cumin, when all she wanted was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, like all the other kids. Years later, Nawaz has turned a lifetime of culture clashes into a career as a writer and filmmaker. In her work, she uses humor to humanize a religion she loves, but others fear.

Nawaz is probably best known for creating the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, about Muslims living in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Now she also has written a memoir called Laughing All The Way to the Mosque. She tells NPR's Lynn Neary that everything was fodder for her memoir — even her son's circumcision.

"My son, who's 17, he was so excited when the book came out. He goes, 'Oh, what part of it am I in?' And then it turned out it was the circumcision part. You know, his friends in high school read it and they teased him mercilessly. You don't anticipate those things when you write!"


Interview Highlights

On deciding to create a sitcom about Muslims

There had been no representation of Muslims in a sitcom before in the Western world, nothing positive anyway. So, you know, instead of sort of going baby steps like The Cosby Show and having ... a comedy-about-family show, I decide to make the very first sitcom about a mosque and make it into a comedy about religion, right? And so this was really shocking to a lot of conservative religious people.

On a joke from Little Mosque on the Prairie that offended a man at her mosque

I said [the Prophet Muhammad] didn't buy a telescope from Costco because Costco didn't exist in the seventh century. And [the man] started crying, and he's like, "How could she make fun of the prophet?" And I wasn't making fun of the prophet, I was just making fun of Muslims who insist on visually seeing the moon, you know, which signifies the beginning of Ramadan. And this is the traditional fight that we have.

On how she reacted to some mosque members' anger about the show

They had a petition, and the petition said I should be removed as a member of good standing. And so I didn't want this to get out into the media because I knew what would happen. People would say, "Oh, see? Muslims can't handle comedy; they're always attacking one another." And I thought, OK, you know what? I'm just going to resign my membership — which was like $25 anyway — and go to Toronto. I was living there six months out of the year anyway for the show.

And, ironically, the mosque set of Little Mosque on the Prairie faced northeast, so I was able to pray there. And so that's where I sort of retreated, licked my wounds, and sort of, you know, tried to understand what was happening.

On how long it took for members of her mosque to change their mind about her

It took years — it took maybe two or three years — for the community to come around ... because what started happening was all these non-Muslims were watching the show and going, "You know what? You guys are so much like the people in my synagogue and my soccer association. We're all the same. Isn't it great?"

And they'd be slapping the Muslims on the back and the Muslims would be like, "No, it's not a good show." But it's making so many people happy. And then I think that's what they needed to see and hear was that it wasn't actually demonizing them — that in fact it was helping non-Muslims bond with them.

On going to Mecca after having her daughter

I'm a new mom; I've just had a baby; I'm exhausted. ... And my mom said ... "I'll look after her for two weeks while you go for the hajj." And to me that was so great. I wouldn't feel guilty, I could get a relaxed vacation — you know the sand, the sun. And that was my attitude. And then I get there and it turns out to be this grueling spiritual, physical, emotional journey. You know, it was like every part of it was so hard and so strenuous and you really sit down and you have to think about your life and why you're here and why does God want us to go through this?

On the role humor can play in helping people understand one another

I think: You make a joke about something, it somehow lets people let down their guard and absorb something that they wouldn't normally ... be willing to accept, and say, "OK, that was interesting. Maybe I've been wrong about my preconceived notions about this one group of people ... maybe they are similar to us."

And so someone said: When you make something so specific about a culture or community, it ends up becoming more universal. ... And that surprised me the most about making the show and writing this book, was when people [said], "That's my world, too."

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

Growing up Muslim in Canada had its challenges for Zarqa Nawaz, starting with school lunch. Her mother insisted on sending Nawaz off with home-cooked chicken that smelled of cumin when all she wanted was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like all the other kids. Nawaz has turned a lifetime of culture clashes into a career as a writer and filmmaker who uses humor to humanize a religion she loves but some fear. She is probably best known for the CBC sitcom "Little Mosque On The Prairie" about Muslims living in the Canadian province Saskatchewan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LITTLE MOSQUE ON THE PRAIRIE")

MANOJ SOOD: (As Baber Siddiqui) Layla, what are you watching? You know I don't like the program where the men and women sit so close together.

ALIZA VELLANI: (As Layla Siddiqui) That's the news, Dad, and it's not what I'm watching.

SOOD: (As Baber Siddiqui) So what are you watching?

NEARY: Zarqa Nawaz has written a memoir, "Laughing All The Way To The Mosque," and she joins us now to discuss it. Welcome to the program. Good to have you with us.

ZARQA NAWAZ: Hi, thank you so much.

NEARY: Now, you've been quoted as saying that you want to put the fun in fundamentalism, which I think most people would think of as an impossible task but you don't. And you write about everything. I mean, you are not shy about talking about anything, from school lunches I mentioned to circumcision to bathroom rituals. I mean, it's safe to say I think that pretty much everything is fodder for your humor. Is that right?

NAWAZ: I guess so, yeah. I mean, my son, who's 17, he was excited when the book came out. He goes, oh, you know, what part of it am I in? And then it turned out it was the circumcision part. You know, his friends in high school read it and they teased them mercilessly and I didn't - you don't anticipate those things when you write.

NEARY: Has he held that against you?

NAWAZ: Yes, yes, he has.

(LAUGHTER)

NAWAZ: He would like all of you to not read this book. He would - doesn't recommend it at all (laughter).

NEARY: Well, you know, it sounds like you've gotten a number of people sort of angry at you along the way. I mean, there's - at one point you write after the TV show came out that you looked up at one point and saw that your husband was surrounded by a lot of angry men at your mosque.

NAWAZ: You know, there had been no representation of Muslims in a sitcom before in the Western world. And so this was really shocking to a lot of conservative, religious people. Like, one man came up to my husband and said she had made a joke about the prophet Muhammad where I said, you know, he didn't buy a telescope from Costco, you know, because Costco didn't exist in the seventh century. And he started crying and he's like how could she make fun of the prophet? And I hadn't. I wasn't making fun of the prophet. I was just making fun of Muslims who insist on visually seeing the moon, you know, which signifies the beginning of Ramadan and is the traditional fight that we have.

NEARY: And you were concerned enough or it was enough of a controversy within your own mosque that you stopped going there for a while, right?

NAWAZ: Yeah. They had a petition and the petition said I should be removed as a member of good standing. And so I didn't want this to get out into the media 'cause I knew what would happen. People who say, oh, see, Muslims can't handle comedy. Muslims, you know, they always attack one another. And I thought, OK, you know what? I'm just going to resign my membership, which was, like, $25 anyway, and go to Toronto. I was living there six months of the year anyway for the show. And, you know, ironically the mosque set of "Little Mosque On The Prairie" faced northeast, so I was able to pray there. And so that's where I sort of retreated, licked my wounds and sort of, you know, trying to understand what was happening.

NEARY: You used the set on the TV show as your own little personal mosque.

NAWAZ: I did, yeah. It was perfect. It even faced the right direction. And so, you know, it took years. It took, like, maybe two or three years for the community to come around and realize because what started happening was everyone - all these non-Muslims were watching the show and going you know what? You guys are so much like the people in my synagogue and my soccer association. We're all the same. Isn't it great? And they'd be slapping the Muslim on the back and the Muslims would be like, no, it's not a good show (laughter).

But it's making so many people happy, and then I think that's what they needed to see and hear, was that it wasn't actually demonizing them. That in fact it was helping non-Muslims bond with them.

NEARY: You don't even shy away from sort of really sacred parts of Islam. One of the funniest chapters in your book is about your experience of the Hajj, which is the pilgrimage to Mecca, to the Hajj. You were kind of expecting a fun vacation...

NAWAZ: (Laughter).

NEARY: ...And tell us a little bit about that.

NAWAZ: Yeah. So I'm thinking, you know, I'm a new mom. I've just had a baby. I'm exhausted. I'm trying to wean her off. And my mom said, you know, give me Mesa (ph). I'll look after her for two weeks while you go for the Hajj. And to me that was so great. I wouldn't feel guilty. I could get a relaxed vacation, you know, sand, the sun and that was my attitude. You know, and then I get there and it turns out to be this grueling spiritual, physical, emotional journey. You know, it was like every part of it was so hard and so strenuous and you really sit down and you have to think about your life and why you're here and why would God - why does God want us to go through this?

NEARY: What I really wonder, though, is whether you really do think that humor is a way for people to really get to understand each other better.

NAWAZ: You know, you make a joke about something, it somehow lets people let down their guard and absorb something that they wouldn't normally - an idea that they wouldn't normally be willing to accept and say, OK, that was interesting. You know, maybe I've been wrong about my preconceived notions about this one group of people or, you know, maybe they are similar to us. And so someone said when you make something so specific about a cultural community, it ends up becoming more universal for everyone to be able to say that's what happens in my world. And that surprised me the most about making this show and writing this book was when people saying that's my world too.

NEARY: Zarqa Nawaz - her memoir is called "Laughing All The Way To The Mosque." Thanks so much for being with us, Zarqa.

NAWAZ: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.