Zarqa Nawaz (BSc 1990)
Author and comedy writer
Zarqa Nawaz went to journalism school and then realized that telling factual stories really wasn’t her thing. She wanted to have fun and so she began writing comedy, first for films and then with a lauded television series, Little Mosque on the Prairie, which aired on CBC until 2012. Nawaz has just finished a memoir, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, which is as hilarious as her television show. It is so funny I had to share bits of the book with friends and my husband. She shows us Muslims are just like everyone else, funny and often carefree. The conversation with Nawaz has been edited for length.
You offer an apology to your Muslim readers at the beginning of your book: “ . . . don’t think I’ve forgotten you. First, stop sulking. This book could have had confessions about drug problems, strange sexual fetishes and criminal activity — basically the stuff of white-people memoirs . . . There are no confessions of having sex while swinging from a chandelier . . . So you don’t have to be scared of this book.”
Why was it necessary to put this in your foreword?
When someone introduces me at the mosque, they note, “If you are going to be her friend you are going to wind up in a story she has written. She writes about everything we do, so be careful if you’re going to hang out with her.” Especially when Little Mosque on the Prairie was being made, I would use certain incidents that happened in the community in the show. So when they would talk to me, they would always preface everything, “I don’t want this to wind up somewhere. It’s a private thing.”
A lot of people say, “Why do you have to expose this stuff? A lot of white people already think we’re the dregs of humanity.”
Did you get a lot of grief from the Muslim community over Little Mosque on the Prairie?
At the beginning, from the more conservative elements, especially the immigrant element. For them the comedy wasn’t translating. I assumed everyone would find everything funny.
But growing up in Canada, we do have a different sensibility. It didn’t always cross over. At the beginning, people didn’t know who I was and what was happening and people thought I was making fun of Islam. There was that worry.
Islamophobia was at a high. The first show was set in the mosque and it was a comedy. To some people this was a shock. That wasn’t done at the time. Certain Muslims feel you shouldn’t make fun of everything. Certain Muslims believe everything should be serious. I wasn’t trying to make fun of Islam, I was making fun of Muslims. And that upset them. Comedy and satire are still fairly new in the Muslim world, so it was a difficult concept for them to absorb.
You moved to Saskatchewan from Toronto. How many Muslim families were there?
Actually, quite a few. There was a net population loss and the government of Saskatchewan changed the law to invite more immigrants.
Suddenly, overnight, entire villages around the world emptied out to move to Saskatchewan. It changed the face of the province. It reminds me very much of what it looked like in Toronto during the 1970s.
You write about the lunches your mother used to send with you to school, and how you really longed for tuna fish on white instead of curried chicken legs. Was it difficult in elementary school to be accepted by the other, mostly Christian, kids?
I think I was really shy as a child. We had just moved from England. We were immigrants and there was always something different about the way I dressed. I was trying to figure out why can’t I look like everyone else. My mother believed you shouldn’t be allowed to show your legs. I wore pants under my dresses. It was believed you were half-dressed if you don’t have pants. I looked a bit dorky and I was painfully shy and I had great difficulty making friends.
I wanted to look like everyone else. Kids are kids and they look at you. You don’t fit in.
I have this memory of my mom asking the kids at school to play with me, and they did. Probably in about Grade 3 or Grade 4 I started having best friends and closer relationships.
But with our writing and our comedy, we are coming into our own.
You use incidents from your own life to frame the stories of Little Mosque on the Prairie. I am thinking particularly of the use of hockey boards on the show to separate the men from the women. That did happen in your mosque, though it was a shower curtain that was employed. How much of Little Mosque is drawn from your own experiences as a religious woman growing up in a multicultural community?
When we started the show I was the only Muslim writer, so we had to borrow heavily from my life. There were seven to nine other writers, and I would tell stories from my life so we could spin them.
That happened until the show got going and took on a life of its own. But at the beginning that is what we had to do.
Where did you develop your amazing sense of humour?
It is just a question of how my brain works. Ultimately, that was why I had to leave journalism. It was probably because I was getting myself into trouble.
I was working for Morningside as a producer for Peter Gzowski but I could feel something inside of me, a sense of creativity that I couldn’t express as a journalist.
I made my first film and it turned out to be a comedy. I didn’t even realize I was good at comedy. But people were laughing. It was at that moment that I realized I could do satire.
People who grew up with me always said I seemed a little kooky or oddball. It was probably there and I didn’t recognize it and I made four films. By the time I started the TV show I got to work with great writers who were also stand-up comedians.
You are doing 20 episodes a season — you have to perfect the comedy and the jokes. It was incredible, the training I got over those years. The hardest thing about writing this book is that it was lonely. I thought no one is going to find this funny. They’ll think I am a fraud. It helps being a bit neurotic and worried.
I’ll drive by the mosque and I’ll call the imam if they haven’t cut the lawn. I’ll worry that people will say we are terrorists because the lawn hasn’t been cut. I am bit of a neurotic, constantly worrying and fretting. You wake up with fear some mornings.
I fear it is just a matter of time before the mobs come. I worry that people believe we are going to take over the world and impose sharia. I live with that constant worry and tension. The only way I can calm down is with humour. It is probably a coping strategy to get through the day.
So what’s next? You have created an award-winning television comedy and written your memoirs. Do you have other career ambitions?
I think I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at a novel. I could tell a longer story and use my humour and sense of comedy.
I was talking to my literary agent the other day and said I’d really like to try my hand at a comedic novel. They were intrigued because there aren’t a lot of comedic books about Islam. Something akin to Confessions of a Shopaholic.
You are the mother of four children. How have you children reacted to your work?
Your own children are the least impressed with you. My eldest daughter, 20, read the book and said, “Yeah, it’s not as bad as I thought it would be.” My 15-year-old boy is the one I wrote about when describing the circumcision, and he is at that age when he is embarrassed about everything. He said, “I can’t believe you wrote about me.” The youngest is the proudest. I asked him what part he was at and he said, “I’m at the part where you and Dad are having sex during Hajj.’
He’s the one who tells his friends he’ll sign the books when they come out.
We’ve just sold the UK rights, so it will come out in January in the UK under a different title, unfortunately. And then it will be sold around the world. They are debating a new title seriously as we speak. They wanted to borrow from the movie Some Like It Hot. And they wanted to call it “Some Like ItHalal.” When they were shopping it around it didn’t do well with that title.
I am just tremendously relieved people find it funny. It still surprises me that people are laughing and they can relate to it.
Originally published in The Toronto Star, July 2014.