Perhaps the most telling line in the first episode of the CBC’s new situation comedy, Little Mosque on the Prairie, is “Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humour … That’s a joke.”
It’s spoken by a young man who looks Pakistani or Indian and, while waiting in line at the airport, has made the mistake of speaking these words into a cellphone: “bomb … suicide … Allah’s plan for me …”
As it turns out, Amaar Rasheed is not planning a terrorist attack, but trying to convince his mother that he is doing the right thing by chucking his law practice to become an imam, or prayer leader, for a congregation in a Saskatchewan town called Mercy. He is, of course, hauled off by the police and grilled before being allowed to go on his way.
[pullquote]The initial show concerned the small number of Muslims in the town and their attempt to find a permanent worship space – the latest being the basement of the local Anglican church. Subsequent episodes humorously cover conflicts among conservative and moderate Muslims in the group and with various white residents of Mercy.
It is an indication as to how politically charged the atmosphere around Islam has become after 9/11 that the show’s premiere on Jan. 9 drew 2.1 million viewers, a record for a CBC show. Stories appeared in the New York Times, Associated Press and on CNN about the premise even before the show aired.
What finally appeared on the screen was a gentle, occasionally cliched and often amusing look at a community sometimes stereotyped in North American society as alien and forbidding. The series creator, filmmaker Zarqa Nawaz who used to joke that she wanted to “put the fun back in fundamentalism,” said she wanted “to make the show as funny as possible without offending sensibilities.” Unfortunately, not wanting to offend sometimes makes for bland comedy.
Little Mosque’s greatest strengths are its cast, all of whom are very solid actors, and the way it humanizes its characters. Yasir, played by Carlo Rota, is a middle-aged contractor who has rented an office in the church basement, which doesn’t seem quite realistic since Anglican churches don’t often lease space to profit-making businesses. However, he hasn’t told the vicar, Rev. Duncan Magee (Derek McGrath), that he also wants to use the basement as a mosque. When he is chided by a friend for not being honest, he wonders how he should have phrased it: “We’re going to open a mosque in your parish hall. Will you tell Jesus, or shall I?”
But all is well, of course, as the Anglican priest is a reasonable man who needs the rent because he is “lucky to fill the first two rows” at Sunday services (more cliches) and he allows the congregation to stay.
Not all the white townsfolk are so tolerant and most of those characters, such as the reporter who pounces on Amaar upon his arrival, the redneck radio talk show host and a local man terrified at the sight of Muslims praying, descend into buffoonery.
But there is enough sharp observation and consistently interesting characters to make the show enjoyable. Yasir’s white wife, Sarah (Sheila McCarthy) is a convert to Islam who makes WASP-y cucumber sandwiches to break the Ramadan fast. Sharp-tongued Fatima (Arlene Duncan), a Muslim from Africa, runs the local diner. Baber (Manoj Sood), the former imam, accuses Yasir of being a “secular” Muslim who wants to hide the mosque so as “not to scare the white folks.”
Little Mosque certainly reflects Canada’s multicultural reality better than another Saskatchewan-located comedy, Corner Gas, but it remains to be seen whether it will use comedy to tackle some of the serious issues that not only scare the white folks but many Muslims, too.