By Jesse McLean
Arts & Life Editor
Upon completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Toronto and being rejected from medical school, Zarqa Nawaz — the creator of CBC’s internationally recognized, recently-premiered sitcom, Little Mosque on the Prairie — needed a new direction. She found it at Ryerson.
“The only deadline for a professional school that hadn’t passed was journalism at Ryerson,” said the Liverpool born, Toronto-raised Nawaz. “I though it was an exciting career option, and I had no Plan B, so I applied and got in.”
Her spontaneity paid off. Free from the world of science, Nawaz explored herself as a writer. In her fourth-year broadcast class, under the guidance of Stuart McLean, she wrote and produced a radio documentary, The Changing Rituals of Death. Her comedic look at funerals gained attention outside the university, and the piece won first prize in the Radio Long Documentary category at the Ontario Telefest Awards, a competition that seeks the country’s freshest talent.
“Winning the award was an indication to me that this was the route I was taking. I could write, I could make people laugh, and I enjoyed it a lot more than science,” Nawaz said.
She freelanced for several Canadian television and radio outlets, and eventually landed the spot as associate producer of CBC radio’s Morningside. But she was displeased with her vocation. “I felt dissatisfied as a journalist,” she said. “I wanted to explore a more creative side of my writing.”
In 1995, Nawaz took a summer film workshop at the Ontario College of Art (now the Ontario College of Art and Design) and made the short film, BBQ Muslims. Shortly after, the mother of four moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, an experience that planted the roots to Little Mosque.
“In a bigger city, there’s more than one mosque. You can switch mosques if you’re unhappy with the one you’re in. But you don’t have that choice in a smaller city. There’s only one, and everyone has to get along,” said Nawaz, explaining the diversity of Muslims, including the left-wing, right-wing, secularists and feminists.
The show, which just finished filming its eight episodes in Etobicoke last week, is located in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, where the small Muslim community must worship in the basement of an Anglican church.
But Little Mosque, an allusion to Michael Landon’s American classic, has raised some eyebrows in light of the post Sept. 11 scenario: “My answer is always that this isn’t a political show. It’s a comedy about the relationships, quirks and foibles of people who just happen to be Muslim,” said Nawaz.
Yet the attention is welcome, said CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay; in fact, the international notice forwarded the show’s debut to January from fall 2007. “It’s been written up in everything from the Jerusalem Post to The New York Times, spots on CNN and write-ups in Reuters,” said Keay. The station is in need of a ratings-boost and Keay hopes Little Mosque will lead the way.
Referring to Ray Romano and Jerry Seinfeld, Nawaz explained that the show is recreating what she knows: life as a Canadian-Muslim. Rather than exploit a taboo, she wants to challenge misconceptions of Muslims in the media.
“We don’t get a very nuanced portrayal of Muslims. Mostly, it is women as oppressed Muslims and men as wife-abusers, villains and terrorists,” said Nawaz.
Her goal is to portray the faith authentically, but not to overlook the reality that the stereotypes may fit a select few.
“I feel the responsibility…to be as real as I can to the community, yet at the same time not white-wash the issues of racism, sexism and extremism.”
Nawaz hopes the show is well received, but expects to always offend some people. “You can’t make everyone happy, and you can’t obsess about political correctness. This is a comedy after all,” she said.
The encore presentation of the premiere of Little Mosque on the Prairie is tonight at 8 p.m. on CBC.