Preaching Comedy: Little Mosque

By Livia Fama

Baber Siddiqui is Little Mosque on the Prairie’s most conservative Muslim who finds enemies in the strangest places.

Wine gums, rye bread, liquorice – Western traps designed to seduce Muslims to drink alcohol!” he rants, amusing everyone but himself.

“These sermons are going to drive me to drink alcohol,” deadpans Rayyan Hamoudi.

No wonder Mercy needed a new imam.

The fictional town of Mercy is the setting of CBC’s groundbreaking hit, Little Mosque on the Prairie. The scene takes place in the first episode, marking Baber’s last sermon as the mosque’s imam.

Little Mosque
Courtesy shot, Illustration by Laura Cicchirillo

The comment made by Rayyan, a progressive youngdoctor, aims to point out the laughable nature of Baber’s sermon while showing that irrational fears
of our neighbours work both ways.

The comedy follows the lives of Muslims and their non-Muslim counterparts in a small town as they coexist side by side in a post-9/11 world. Having just wrapped its second season, it has set a precedent for Canadian television – due in part to its 2007 premiere, which drew 2.1 million viewers – the most successful launch of a TV show in Canadian history. It has continued to receive international acclaim and awards and has even been picked up for broadcast in France and Switzerland.

In a released statement, series creator Zarqa Nawaz, a Muslim raised in Toronto now living in Regina, says the show deals with many of her own life experiences.

“The best rule in comedy is to write what you know. The more serious the issue, the more fun I try to have with it,” she says.

This unique mix of Islam and comedy helps to diffuse misunderstandings about Muslims while fostering an understanding between cultures.

“Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour,” quips the show’s new spiritual leader Amaar Rashid.

The show’s title also bears an interesting parallel between cultures. An obvious play on words from Little House on the Prairie – a show which explored life on the American frontier – Little Mosque explores the difficulties of two different cultures living in one community.

“Muslims are people just like anybody else,” says director Michael Kennedy. “They’re as wise and as silly and as admirable and fearsome as any group you could meet and our prejudice against them is laughable.” And Muslims are more than willing to laugh at themselves, he says.

“Generally the response from Muslims has been fantastic,” says Kennedy. “They are thrilled because before Little Mosque on the Prairie, the only time you saw an image of Muslims praying was in a news item about terrorism.”

Little Mosque
Courtesy shot, Illustration by Laura Cicchirillo

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry, an imam and president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, has encouraged his fellow Muslims to tune in. “It’s a first-time sitcom comedy where we can laugh at ourselves as Canadian Muslims and it brings to Canada’s living rooms the idea that Muslims are just like next door neighbours,” he says.

However, critics worry the show will further stereotypes by showing that Muslims are a people whose lives revolve around a mosque.

“I think it is a theme for the show and a sitcom must have a theme,” says Elmasry. “It does not solve social interaction and does not represent all segments in the Muslim community, so the criticism is not fair and does not reflect the importance of the show.”

Beyond the show’s umbrella theme of co-existing cultures living side by side, there is focus on societal themes such as tradition and modernity, feminism and sexism. The new imam, Amaar, brings Islam into the modern world through his progressiveness, most physically noted by his youth and clean-shaven appearance. Imams traditionally have beards as a gesture of respect for the prophet Muhammad.

On playing Baber, actor Manoj Sood says: “I knew that besides being an angry, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant, he was also a father. There was quite a lot of depth to his character . . . what it is like to be a father that can really show a nice sweet side to this otherwise angry kind of guy. I was very attracted to that contrast.”

One of Kennedy’s hopes for the show is that viewers will gain an understanding of the many levels and interpretations of Islam. Characters such as Baber and his orthodox views representing one end of the spectrum, and Yasir’s wife Sarah, who is a convert to Islam, representing the other. Whether it’s Baber’s irrational fear of white people or Sarah’s failed attempt to pray five times a day, the use of humour is used to deal with touchy issues.

“We just want to entertain people,” says Kennedy. “It’s a natural by-product of the humour that people learn to be more tolerant.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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