Little Mosque on the Prairie could build bridges between cultures

Whether or not you find the series funny, the show strikes a chord with Canadians

The Little Mosque on the Prairie (La Petite Mosquée dans la prairie)

Ihsaan Gardee

As the Canadian-born son of a tall, blonde, blue-eyed Swede and a dark-skinned South African Indian Muslim, who spent the first five years of my life in Sweden, I remember the challenges I faced moving back to Canada.
While growing up, like my friends, I watched TV shows ranging from Saturday-morning cartoon marathons to the well-known Little House on the Prairie. One of my favourite episodes, The Craftsman, was about a lonely, old, Jewish expert woodcarver, Mr. Singerman, who becomes a mentor to young Albert Ingalls. Albert is then the subject of harassment and ridicule from the other children for being a "Jew lover" but goes on to develop a deep bond with the old man based on mutual admiration.
With a little play on the title, CBC television aired the first episode of Little Mosque On The Prairie last week, the pilot sitcom and brainchild of Canadian writer and filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz. This small but well-publicized production about the congregation of a rural mosque in the fictional prairie town of Mercy has already generated more buzz than any Canadian program has in ages - from the New York Times to CNN and the BBC. Even the Colbert Report has called.
In choosing to highlight, even lampoon, some commonly held misconceptions and stereotypes about and within the Muslim community, Little Mosque travels the familiar road many successful shows have taken. By looking at the immigrant experience - how people come into and adjust to a new life in a new land - Nawaz and her co-producers are banking on an age-old formula that there is humour to be found in the common experiences and often unintended tragic consequences that result from love and life.
After all, as Lester, played by Alan Alda, says, in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, "What is comedy but tragedy, plus time?"
Combining elements of other shows - the surreal and satirical shtick of Green Acres with the self-deprecating humour, relevance, writing and comedic timing of The Daily Show - Little Mosque uses comedy as a foil to illustrate our neighbourly commonalities without trying to sound like a civics lesson. Whatever its exact formulation, the challenges facing Little Mosque in the future are the same for all newcomers to this medium: Do the viewers find it funny? Do they find the characters credible? Is this a world I'd like to visit week after week?
Entertainment, especially comedy, is highly subjective. So what's funny to you and me might not be funny to our neighbours. Comedy works, however, only when people see a part of themselves reflected in it - if they don't get it, then they probably never will. As the first show demonstrates, part of living in a society with free expression means tolerating bigotry - no matter where it stems from.
Even if characters are exaggerated, flawed and not necessarily reflective of the diversity of Canadian Muslim identity, its power to reach and inform people who might otherwise never have met a Muslim or heard of Islam can only be a good thing. Whether it survives depends on its merits as a comedy, not the debates it might spark.
In terms of production values, it plays like most Canadian TV shows when they first air - the sets looks makeshift and the lighting, background music and the segues from one subplot to another are a little clunky. Chalk up these and the largely non-Muslim cast's stiffness with unfamiliar Muslim greetings and rituals to birth pains that, I hope, will improve with time and accent coaches. In terms of acting, the talented cast of TV veterans brings to the show subtleties and shades of nuance that help convey humour that might otherwise be lost.
So is the show funny? I think so. I see many of the characters and themes in the people I know and am familiar with. Will it offend some people? No doubt. Honesty is not always appreciated, usually gets bad reviews and is especially ill-received by people in the community who perceive themselves as victims.
Think of how Mordecai Richler was received when he started out. What makes Little Mosque different is the introduction and portrayal, for the first time, of Canadian Muslims as community able to laugh at itself. Would a documentary do the same thing? Perhaps, but it would not be as engaging or memorable and certainly not as funny.
More than anything we hope this experiment will not be perceived as a call to arms against Muslims or others (which conspiracy theorists, like the character Baber, have already tried to label it) but as an opportunity for all Canadians to talk about issues and events that are important to us and maybe, like Albert Ingalls, build bonds based on the things that tie us together.
Ihsaan Gardee is director of community relations for the Canadian Council on American Islamic Relations.

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