TORONTO — Zarqa Nawaz is no stranger to satire, especially one that makes people feel uncomfortable.
Consider his first film “BBQ Muslims,” in 1995, a fictional short about two Canadian Muslims who discover their barbecue has exploded and are then suspected of being terrorists. Inspired by the Oklahoma City bombing, the real terrorists turn out to be a group of white environmental activists.
Several satires followed, tackling everything from racial profiling to oppression, and in 2007 Nawaz created the groundbreaking sitcom “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” which ran for six seasons on CBC.
A comedic look at a Muslim community living in Saskatchewan, it was the rare series to give a Muslim family living in the Western world the sitcom treatment.
“Jameela Green Ruins Everything”, her second book and first novel released on Tuesday, is her latest satire. This follows a Muslim American woman who finds herself in a plot to infiltrate a terrorist organization similar to the Islamic State militant group, ISIS. Nawaz’s version is nicknamed “DICK”, naturally.
“Muslims are struggling with our image in the media,” says the former journalist from her home in Regina.
“When ISIS came along, I thought, ‘We don’t need this now.’ But for a lot of non-Muslims, the thought was, ‘It’s part of Muslim culture, they all become radical jihadists trying to destroy the world, it’s in their blood.'”
Hoping to provide context to the question, Nawaz set about writing the novel, partially inspired by Tunisian-Canadian author Monia Mazigh’s fight to free her husband from a Syrian prison after 9/11. .
“Some of my editors suggested I take it down, and all I could think of was why? These things have happened to people, it’s not some crazy story out of this world,” Nawaz says.
She adds that she struggled to find a publisher, as her original publisher dubbed her “too much”.
Nawaz ended up writing it to spec, spending six years trying to perfect it, eventually finding a home with Simon & Schuster.
“I feel like this book couldn’t have been published at any other time in history,” she says.
“Particularly in Canada with the truck convoy and the rise of right-wing supremacy, we can see the danger of the narrative of seeing Muslims as the most dangerous.
“White radicals have hijacked the narrative of defaming Muslims and they are changing the way we view terrorism in this country.”
Nawaz writes about religion and faith in an easily digestible way, with each chapter preceded by its characters’ prayers to God that read like a silly stream of consciousness, a la Judy Blume “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret “. She says it offers insight into each character’s spiritual journey while humanizing them.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia are still very high,” she says, referring to the 2021 murder of a Muslim family in London, Ontario, and the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting.
“This hatred and violence against people of color is very strong. There is no time more critical than now to have stories that show us as human beings.
“Some people get mad at me when I say I want to humanize us because they say we’re already human.
“But the thing is, for some people, we’re not and the only way through is through mainstream media. Nobody else is going to tell our stories.”
That’s where ‘Little Mosque on the Prairie’ came in. A decade after the series ended, Nawaz’s name checks FX’s ‘Ramy’, CBC’s ‘Sort Of’ and the UK series ‘We Are Lady Parts” as a few comedies centered on Muslim characters.
“For Muslims, it’s always either the refugee experience, or the immigrant experience, or the battles of the first generation, when 99% of our stories aren’t about ordinary people doing ordinary things,” says -she.
“Those are the things I want to talk about. We’re starting to see more progress, and we have to if we’re going to start changing that needle when it comes to representation.”
Next up for Nawaz is her own web series, “Zarqa,” which is set to premiere May 13 on CBC Gem.
It follows a Muslim woman building a feel-good empire that functions like a reverse Goop, wrapping up brown culture and selling it to white women the same way they have appropriated its traditions. It’s all while getting caught up in a love triangle.
“I’m really drawn to female leads that are flawed, impulsive and ambitious, but take two steps forward, one step back,” says Nawaz.
“This woman will do whatever it takes to move her business forward. And I thought it would be really hilarious to see a Muslim woman in a love triangle because you don’t see that.
“Women wearing the hijab are seen as either passive victims of terrible men, or wives of terrorists, or abused, and I’m like, ‘Why can’t a Muslim woman in a hijab go out and seduce the Imam?'”
She says the comedic approach will always be her go-to because “the sadder and more difficult the subject, the funnier it is to me.
“My brain is trained to look at things through a comedic lens, and that’s also because it’s a coping mechanism. It helps you process and digest experiences.”
And, she adds, it’s the perfect way to share them with people who may not have grown up in the same culture.
“Someone who won’t necessarily see things from your point of view, they might laugh with you and it lowers their defenses and lets them get your point across so they can understand where you’re coming from. Comedy is just a great communication tool.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 7, 2022.
Sadaf Ahsan, The Canadian Press