Before Zarqa Nawaz created the TV show Little Mosque on the Prairie, she was an award-winning journalist for various CBC radio and television shows. When she moved into filmmaking, her production company was called FUNdamentalist Films because she wanted to put “fun back into fundamentalism.” Nawaz is developing a new eponymous series about a Muslim woman whose ex-husband is about to marry a younger white woman. She spoke with Sheima Benembarek about doing stand-up comedy in Saskatchewan, the role of women in Islam and how she works to portray Muslims as three-dimensional.
Sheima Benembarek: You were trained as a journalist, and you’re a former broadcaster. Why did you decide to pivot to comedy?
Zarqa Nawaz: I think there’s something about journalism that did not satisfy this very creative need. You’re telling other people’s stories, and I just wanted to tell stories, period. I found journalism too limiting in that way, and I wanted to be able to expand out of that. Working outside of journalism allowed me to do that. As a storyteller, I just found more creative satisfaction in comedy.
SB: What does comedy give you that other genres do not?
ZN: I’m naturally attracted to comedy. I’m good at comedy. I process the world through comedy. So I didn’t actually choose it so much as it chose me. I’ve worked on it more and more and gotten better at it.
I’m fortunate that comedy is a way to communicate with people in a way that helps everyone let down their guard and see and hear things that they wouldn’t be willing to otherwise. We all want to be entertained. We love laughing and enjoying stories. It’s a way of communicating with people in a universal language that helps get across some very difficult ideas.
SB: How did the idea for Little Mosque on the Prairie come about?
ZN: I had made a documentary called Me and the Mosque, and the idea came from there. What would happen if an imam left Toronto for Saskatchewan, sort of like how I did, and had different experiences? What would happen if they were a snob and thought they were better than everyone else and that they could teach everyone, only to end up being schooled themselves in this different community? What could they offer versus what they were being offered and taught? Those issues came up for me when I made that transition.
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SB: What was your mission in creating it?
ZN: I wanted to talk about women and women’s roles in the mosque. That was always on my mind. It was the whole point of my documentary — women’s spaces and how we were navigating them in the community. Nobody was talking about it in a public space because people were always so afraid that it was going to be used against us. I made that documentary, and I wanted to explore those issues in a television series as well.
SB: What were the challenges of portraying Muslims on western television?
ZN: I think Muslims themselves weren’t ready for it. They were really confused and felt that I should have just made a show that showed everyone being perfect, not making any mistakes and being this model community. They didn’t realize that that’s propaganda and that no one would have watched it or believed it.
Taking the risk of showing the flaws in the community meant that people could relate to Muslims in a way they couldn’t before, when we were always portrayed in the news as terrorists and only seen as one-dimensional.
But when we were seen as three-dimensional or as everyone else is portrayed — being parents and having jobs — it helped non-Muslims relate to us in a whole new way. Something like Little Mosque had never been on television before.
SB: You recently started doing stand-up. What’s it like for a Muslim woman in that industry?
ZN: It’s very challenging. I wish that our venues weren’t always in bars with drunk, racist white men yelling at you. Those are really difficult venues. I wish they could be moved to arenas where you don’t have to deal with that type of situation. But it helped a lot to build skill and strength and courage to just do it. I valued that experience because it really taught me the purity of comedy, how you have to distill to just the bare bones in the shortest amount of time.
“Men control everything in faith. They try to make the patriarchy divine. Men aren’t divine; there’s nothing special about them. We give them the power, and we allow them to have it.”
SB: Did you feel like your stand-up audience expected a specific type of humour from you and then were surprised?
ZN: I think they were just surprised I was there. I was there talking, and I was funny, and I could hold my own. I would talk about my mom and how she was really afraid that if we learned about sex then we would end up having sex. So she would do her best to counter all the sex-ed classes we were having at school. I had so many white women come up to me and say, “Oh my God, my mom did the exact same thing. She was a really strict Catholic!”
SB: You’re working on a new project, a comedy series called Zarqa. Can you tell me more about it?
ZN: The idea is about the double standard in Hollywood and romantic tropes about how all Muslim men go after white women, like in The Big Sick and Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, where his prom date is “the white princess.” I wanted to examine that and say, “Well, what if we do the reverse? What if a Muslim woman decides to play the same game Muslim men play?”
We start production in June, and then it’ll be up to CBC Gem to release it, most likely in 2022.
SB: Based on your work with regard to Muslim women’s roles, what do you think of female imams?
ZN: Men control everything in faith, but there’s a hadith where the prophet allowed a woman to lead prayer in her household, which consisted of men. But this is debated endlessly, like were they real men or were they little boys? We twist it so much to try to sneak out of what the prophet was trying to do, which is to give women authority as well. We try to make the patriarchy divine. Men aren’t divine; there’s nothing special about them. We give them that power, and we allow them to have it. We absorb it so much that we can’t even handle having a woman lead prayer.
SB: Do you raise your children with a Muslim outlook?
ZN: They went to public school, and they went to the mosque. And I think that helps them in terms of maintaining their identity. They’re Canadians of Muslim faith. It helps them understand how their faith fits into the practical world. I think that in order to practise your faith you have to be part of the community and live it fully and completely and be part of the whole world, not just the Muslim world. You have to find out what social justice issues exist in your community and do what you can to solve them, regardless of whether they’re in the Muslim community or not. We live here, and there are many people who need our help.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It originally appeared in Broadview’s July/August 2021 issue with the title “Comedy chose her.”
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