Allah in the family

New CBC sitcom debunks stereotypes

"Little Mosque on the Prairie," the latest sitcom from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., sees Canadian Muslims bumping up against white, Christian locals in rural Saskatchewan.

Zarqa Nawaz, creator and writer of the groundbreaking comedy that bows Jan. 9, insists she's an equal-opportunity satirist taking dead-aim at both Muslim and Canadian stereotypes in a post-Sept. 11 world.

"I expect both groups will be wondering if the other finds the show funny," says Nawaz, of Regina, Saskatchewan-based FUNdamentalist Films.

There's predictable jokes about Muslim beliefs clashing with Canadian traditions. In one scene, a father wearing a kufi, or a knitted cap worn by devout Muslims, protests that his Canadian-born daughter wearing a revealing tank top looks "like a Protestant."

"Don't you mean prostitute?" the daughter asks.

"No, I meant a Protestant," the father replies.

In another scene, a young man of Middle Eastern origins with a Canadian accent is heard in an airport check-in line telling his mother via cell phone that his father shouldn't think his choosing to stop being a Toronto lawyer to become an Imam in Saskatchewan amounts to career "suicide."

"This is Allah's plan for me," the young man says in passing, before an arresting cop appears suddenly and tells the surprised lawyer that he won't be making that appointment in Paradise.

Nawaz, a British-born Muslim and mother of four who settled on the Prairies with her family a decade ago, downplays the idea that the homegrown comedy may spark widespread controversy.

She insists her comedy springs from a relatively uneventful life in multicultural North America, unlike Europe, for example, where relations between Muslims and the wider Christian community are often a powder keg.

"North America should be the first place where a comedy like this would come about, where Muslims can be comfortable in their own skin and questions of Canadian identity can produce a sitcom," she says.

To ensure it doesn't cause unforeseen offense with "Little Mosque on the Prairie," pubcaster CBC has hired an independent Muslim-Canadian consultant to comb through the sitcom's creative elements and suggest possible alterations.

Kirstine Layfield, CBC executive director of network programming, says recent preview screenings with select Muslim audiences elicited encouraging results — laughter.

"Just doing the series is a risk in itself, but one the public broadcaster should take on if we're to help communicate authenticity of living in Canada," Layfield adds.

Mary Darling, one of three executive producers shopping the Canadian comedy stateside, says a U.S. airing may help break down barriers between faith communities.

"It won't do any harm, and maybe it can do some good," she says.