Zarqa Nawaz “Little Mosque on the Prairie” took Canadian tv by storm when the series debuted in 2007, and ran until 2012, with 6 seasons. The sitcom followed the lives of a Muslim Lebanese/Canadian family, the Hamoudi’s, and a small Muslim community living in a predominantly Christian community in the Prairie. The cast included immigrant characters who were widowed or divorced, an imam from Toronto and its local anti- Muslim personality to name a few.
It’s enjoyed international success showing in multiple countries, as well as a high local viewership for each of the 6 seasons, though it has yet to be aired in the US. It came at a time where there was the desperate need to showcase Muslim lives, in everyday settings, countering the ‘othering’ that Muslim communities usually face with media representation.
Being a massive fan of the show (who’d love just one more season, a Netflix revival maybe?) it was a pleasure to interview the show’s creative leader Zarqa Nawaz about her thoughts on the series and Muslim representation in the media.
The Tempest: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into TV?
Zarqa Nawaz: My mother was very happy to find a Plan B for me, which was marriage, so it became a question of finding myself a career before she found me a new career as housewife, and I’m not denigrating housewives because I have plenty of experience in that realm, but I felt I needed to find a profession at that point in my life.
Little Mosque on the Prairie led the way when it comes to Muslim family portrayal in TV. What were your harshest criticisms and how did you overcome it?
ZN: Surprisingly the Muslim community was unhappy about it; they were so used to being portrayed as terrorists and violent people that they weren’t prepared to see a television show that portrayed them as ordinary people. Many were hoping for Pollyanna version of Muslims that didn’t make any mistakes. They didn’t like that I also portrayed Muslims having fights about patriarchy and sexism in the mosque. They thought it would add to the narrative that Muslims were horrible people. Gradually Muslims realized that the show wasn’t demonizing them but helping the wider non-Muslim community see them as regular people, with regular problems. It showed the Muslim community in the context of being ordinary people and that helped people bond with Muslims.
There was a lot of criticism from right-wing non-Muslims because they were unhappy that there was a portrayal of regular Muslims and felt the show was whitewashing the community and unfairly representing them as ‘good’ people. It took about two seasons before non-Muslims came around to the show.
Which of the characters in Little Mosque on the Prairie (LMOTP) is your favorite and if you could play any, who would it be?
ZN: My favorite character on the show would probably be Amaar, the imam. Young women and youth expected him to side with their concerns and needs but it was also a mosque which catered to conservative men who had very right wing ideas about women and youth. Amaar had to make sure both groups weren’t alienated in their community so he was always trying to find a fine line between satisfying everyone and in usual sitcom fashion, didn’t satisfy anyone.
Another was Baber, who is my real life nemesis, the right wing patriarchal male but strangely enough became everyone’s favorite character on LMOTP because he had a daughter Layla who didn’t to wear hijab and he was a single dad trying to raise her on his own and the show gave him dimension and a humanity that someone like him never gets on regular television shows where he’s just seen as harsh and unbending and prone to violence.
What’s your proudest moment of the show?
ZN: My proudest moment on the show I didn’t have to compromise my vision. Little Mosque on the Prairie was an effective portrayal of the living reality of a mosque going Muslim community.
The CBC realized the reason the ratings were so high was that people loved the authenticity of the show; it ended up becoming universal to people from all different faiths to no faith at all.
In a harsh political climate, how do you see TV and books bridging the gap of understanding between minorities and politicians/wider society.
ZN: Every year, a single network will accept 150 pitches from writers, maybe 10 will make it to pilot and be shot and of those one or two actually get aired and usually those will fail so there’s a almost a 99% failure rate for new TV shows. If you look at those stats and think about how few Muslim writers are in Hollywood and how many you have people would have to pitch in order for a network to pick something up, the odds are not in our favor. We have very few Muslim writers who have the experience and the know-how to get to that level of pitching. I think our depiction in the media has had a huge impact in how communities are perceived. Up to now Muslims are only seen as the enemy and every television shows and movies we’ve seen has us depicted as the frightening ‘other’. It’s a monolith of how Muslims are seen and represented in the media.
I feel there’s a renaissance happening in the Muslim world where Muslims are going into fields where they are in charge of their own image, they’re making independent films, web series, podcasts, writing novelists and plays, becoming journalists.
Can you tell us about your inspiration behind your upcoming book?
ZN: I started writing my novel in the summer of 2014 when my last book to come out. ISIS had just entered news cycle and I was like a lot of people, confused and horrified by this group. I started writing about a Muslim woman who is having a difficult time and through her machinations ends up joining an ISIS.
My inspiration comes from a lot of different places, but most of time from the news. I’ve used random checks in airports, fatwas of death on writers, burqa bans, niqab hysteria, ISIS all to fuel my creativity and create works of art around.
What’s some advice for young women of color looking to pursue their screenwriting dreams?
ZN: There’s so much interest in Islam and Muslims that the media is really interested in hearing authentic voices in a way they weren’t interested in a decade ago. There is an opportunity to get your stories and your writing and your artistic expressions out there and so now’s the time to go into non-traditional professions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.