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What does it mean to be an American? Since the founding of our country, that question has been the subject of countless novels, films, plays and poems. Reality television has also recently flirted with the intersection of cultural and national identity on shows like Mob Wives, Russian Dolls, Bordertown: Laredo, chronicling the lives of Americans whose traditions were shaped elsewhere.
As its title suggests, TLC’s engaging new series All-American Muslim concerns what some in the United States may view as a controversial topic: the growing number of Muslims in American cities and towns. Set in Dearborn, Michigan, a place with the largest concentration of Muslims outside of the Middle East, the show follows several members of the Lebanese community as they pray, eat, get married, play football, run businesses, and generally assimilate into life in the United States while continuing to practice Islam.
“Another Muslim might say I’m not Muslim enough,” declares Nina Bazzy, a platinum blonde with a penchant for form fitting clothing. “I don’t think I need to express my religion through the way I dress. So I’m not wearing a hajib and I’m a strong woman so people don’t really know how to take me.”
Bucking the notion of what it is to be a model Muslim female, Bazzy’s dream is to open a nightclub in Dearborn. And in true American style, the resistance she faces from more conservative members of the community only makes her more determined.
“I definitely get a little bit excited when people tell me I can’t do something, so it does make me a little bit more motivated to do it,” Bazzy boasts.
Another compelling story line in the premiere episode involves Shadia Amen, a second-generation “rebel of the family” who is engaged to Jeff McDermott, an Irish Catholic guy she met in the bar where she worked.
In order to marry Shadia, Jeff agrees to convert to Islam, a fact that gives his mother a few moments of pause.
“It’s that continuity of tradition that has been pretty much in our family, and this is a big break, a big break.” Mary McDermott, Jeff’s mom, tells her son.
As the wedding approaches, it’s fascinating to learn how few hoops there are to jump through for those looking to become Muslim. The ceremony, which is held at the middle class home of Shadia’s parents, consists of Jeff repeating two simple lines: I bear witness that there is no God but Allah. I bear witness that Mohammed is his messenger.
“It’s not like it is when I was baptized, confirmed,” Jeff quips afterward. “I am surprised how easy it is to convert to Islam.”
Though the bulk of the show is spent following its protagonists around Dearborn, interspersed group discussions on the varying degrees to which each cast member follows Islam prove equally entertaining and enlightening.
“I’m just like every other girl,” says Nawal Aoude, a pregnant newlywed who wears the traditional hijab head scarf. “I like to do my hair. I like to condition it. I like to do hot oil treatments. I like to highlight it. You know I do all of that stuff, too, you just don’t see it.”
To be sure, Executive Producers Nick Emmerson (Basketball Wives), Dan Peirson (World’s Strictest Parents), Jennifer O’Connell (The Real Housewives of New York City) have focused on a very moderate sector of Dearborn’s Lebanese community, who, for starters, don’t mind appearing together on a reality show. There’s no doubt that a different version Muslim reality exists within the town’s more traditional Palestinian or Yemeni sections, but the portrait delivered here is undeniably authentic and moving.
Unlike so many concocted reality shows, whose conflicts seem dreamed up by producers up to stir ratings, All-American Muslim needs no tricks or gimmicks. You come away from the show having broadened your understanding for a sector of, yes, American life that you may not have had much contact with before. By the standards of the genre, that’s about as good as it gets.
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