With the long list of stereotypes Muslims face today, it’s little wonder this Canadian sitcom never finds itself lacking things to poke fun at. Sheena Baharudin enters a world of humour that simultaneously breaks down barriers, bridges gaps and induces laughter.
THE SCENE IS AWKWARDLY FAMILIAR: A young man from Toronto is checking in for his flight when he finds himself singled out and led into a room to be interrogated by airport officers. Someone has apparently made a complaint that he dropped words such as ‘bomb’ and ‘suicide’ while speaking on his mobile phone. Further complicating matters, the man’s name is Amaar Rashid, which clearly distinguishes him as Muslim. This is more than sufficient proof that he could be a suicide bomber.
But then what would predictably be an intensely dramatic scene smoothly turns into a hilarious one instead. ‘What’s the charge? Flying while Muslim?’ Amaar sarcastically asks the officer, who eyes him before dryly answering in the negative. The young man reattempts to lighten the tension in the room. ‘I was joking. Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour.’ It is only when the oblivious officer expresses that he does not know about this ‘fact’ that Amaar concludes with a tinge of frustration, ‘That was another joke.’
Introducing Little Mosque on the Prairie
We frequently find ourselves quietly accepting generalisations of what a Muslim is. There are exceptions to this, often characterised by stereotypical depictions or even demonisation of Muslims by the media. Muslim women in particular struggle to escape from the general label of being oppressed members just waiting to be liberated from an overtly patriarchal society. But despite the gravity of this situation, Little Mosque insists that what we need is not sobriety but a good sense of humour.
“WHAT’S THE CHARGE? FLYING WHILE MUSLIM?”
Little Mosque has proven itself capable of laughing at others and, most importantly, at itself. Arlene Duncan, the actress behind the character Fatima Dinssa, explains to Aquila Style that the main premise of the show lies in ‘presenting common serious situations in a humorous light’. Highlight scenes include young Layla choosing not to wear the hijab against her father’s wishes, Baber’s insistence on erecting a barrier in the mosque to separate worshippers by gender, Rayyan’s possible romance with a non-Muslim and Fatima’s decision to cater a gay wedding. ‘I think touching on these situations and presenting them in a lighthearted way has opened up a window into the Islamic culture and encouraged discussion and cultural understanding.’
Playing the role of Rayyan Hamoudi, Sitara Hewitt agrees that by addressing familiar issues like these, the show succeeds in shedding light on a community that has been misrepresented and misunderstood. ‘There are many avenues to bridging cultural gaps, and Little Mosque took the casual, funny approach, which quickly made mainstream pop culture icons out of its Muslim and non-Muslim characters.’ At first glance, the series’ title, which is a play on the classic 70s television drama series Little House on the Prairie, does mirror its namesake with its emphasis on themes such as family values, love and faith. However, the similarities end there. Rather unlike the longrunning saga of a 19th-century farming family, Little Mosque charts instead the arrival of a forward-thinking Canadian imam in the town of Mercy, Saskatchewan and his relationships with the myriad of colourful characters that make up the town’s small community.
Creator Zarqa Nawaz, who herself made the big move from Toronto’s urban jungle to the vast expanse of the Canadian prairies, said in an interview with the BBC, ‘I think it’s important to go after everyone in comedy, so that no one is happy — except the viewers.’ This simple philosophy has evidently worked in her favour. After generating a flurry of publicity around the world even before its first episode was broadcast in January 2007, the show’s debut drew a record 2.1 million viewers across Canada. It has since aired in more than 80 countries, including Algeria, France, Tunisia, Nigeria, Switzerland, Israel, Somalia, Turkey, Finland and even the West Bank and Gaza.
While Little Mosque has not yet aired in Southeast Asia, Marketing and Distribution Manager Tal Riff tells Aquila Style that she remains optimistic. ‘The show’s lighthearted humour, interfaith message and broad appeal have sparked significant interest from broadcasters around the world. We have had discussions over the years with both major broadcasters and VoD platforms to air the show in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. Although these discussions have not yet come to fruition, we’re hoping our growing fanbase there will help to drive the effort in finding Little Mosque a home in Southeast Asia soon.’