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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 January 2007, 15:00 GMT
Muslim sitcom debuts in Canada
By Lee Carter
BBC News, Toronto

Little Mosque cast
Little Mosque on the Prairie has a colourful cast of characters

I'm with a group of surprised camels, a 300lb chicken shwarma and a bemused comedy writer in a wintry, wet Toronto square.

We're here for the launch of CBC's new sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie, which depicts a Muslim community trying to assimilate in a small prairie town.

It has little in common with the sugary, 1970s American pioneer family drama Little House On The Prairie, jokingly appropriated in the show's title. By contrast, Little Mosque addresses head-on post- 9/11 fears and prejudices.

It's generating lots of publicity in Canada, with or without the camels, largely for breaking new ground as the first Muslim comedy to air on mainstream North American television.

Big city imam

Braving Toronto's cold and drizzle, the show's writer and creator Zarqa Nawaz explains that the inspiration for the show came from her own experiences as a Muslim woman who made a life-changing move to the provincial prairie city of Regina to work in a mosque.

Writer Zarqa Nawaz with a portion of the 300lb shwarma
Writer Zarqa Nawaz says she aims her humour equally at all groups

"People of different Islamic ideologies had to live together and deal with one another," she says.

"I thought it would be interesting to do a series about what life is like in a mosque in a small community."

The plot follows a Canadian-born imam as he makes a similar move from a big city to the Saskatchewan town of Mercy (pop. 10,000), where he encounters a colourful array of characters, both in the town's Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

"It's very unusual, because usually the Imam is imported from overseas and there's often a cultural disconnect," says Ms Nawaz.

"I thought it would be interesting to have an imam with Canadian cultural sensibilities having to deal with the immigrant men for a change."

I think it's important to go after everyone in comedy so that no-one is happy - except the viewers
Zarqa Nawaz

The new modern-thinking Imam comes up against more conservative individuals in his community, including his predecessor, whose sermons had been largely preoccupied with corroding western influences such as TV shows like Desperate Housewives.

In the first episode, other stock characters are introduced, such as a local right-wing radio shock jock (whose first question to the imam is "Are you a terrorist?"), a local priest who rents the parish hall for the new mosque, and a rural bumpkin who is absolutely convinced of a terrorist plot on every corner.

Post-9/11 humour

Ms Nawaz says she's an equal opportunities satirist.

"One can't say I'm picking on one group and not the other. I think it's a warts-and-all look at the whole community. I pick on right-wing and left-wing Muslims, I pick on the secular...I think it's important to go after everyone in comedy, so that no-one is happy - except the viewers of course," she laughs.

The first episode has several examples of post-9/11 humour, including a scene where airport police whisk away the new imam for questioning after his mobile phone call is misinterpreted.

The jokes about racial profiling and terrorism, are defended by the Director of Network Programming for the CBC, Kirstine Layfield.

"It is daring in the sense that it's bringing it out again and discussing it in kind of an honest but funny way," she says.

"But humour comes from truth and this is exactly what certain groups of people are experiencing right now."

US interest

Critics have cautiously welcomed the new show, including John Doyle, a leading Canadian TV writer for The Globe and Mail newspaper. He says that despite some of the controversial subject matter it covers, Little Mosque is actually quite a gentle, rustic comedy.

"If anything it's a bit hokey." he says "I think it has a lot in common with shows like Ballykissangel, Hamish Macbeth or Doc Martin, those British TV comedies that are set in a rural community and celebrates its eccentricities while usually featuring an outsider who's a fish out of water."

It remains to be seen whether Canadians will embrace the show, or even find it funny.

But there's been no shortage of attention for the show, including plenty from south of the border. US TV news organisations have been intrigued enough by the show's subject matter to send crews up to a neighbouring country they largely ignore.

Extracts from Little Mosque On The Prairie

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