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Back to the mosque for Zarqa Nawaz

Creator of hit CBC series brings book tour to Indian Summer Festival
Zarqa Nawaz2_credit
Zarqa Nawaz is discussing her experiences creating the CBC sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie as part of the Indian Summer Festival, this Wednesday, July 9, at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. Submitted photo.

When Zarqa Nawaz pitched her idea for a television series to CBC execs back in the mid 2000s, she didn’t fully comprehend just how high the deck was stacked against her.

The pitch came at the height of post-9/11 Islamophobia, and it had Muslims as its main characters building a mosque in a prairie town.

Nawaz envisioned her show as a sitcom. The CBC hadn’t made a sitcom since The King of Kensington. 

Then there was the not-so-little fact that Nawaz – a journalist and documentary filmmaker – had zero experience in television. 

“I was too ignorant about television to even know how crazy the odds were that [my idea] could possibly be made,” says Nawaz. 

And yet, despite the apparent stumbling blocks, CBC green-lit Nawaz’s idea, and soon Little Mosque on the Prairie was airing in households across the country. 

Little Mosque logged 91 episodes over its six seasons, and transformed its creator into a hardened television pro. 

“Considering the show was about a minority community and a minority religion in the prairies, I felt we did well,” says Nawaz. 

On July 9, Nawaz will discuss her little series that could in a storytelling event presented as part of the Indian Summer Festival. 

The event coincides with Nawaz’s promotional tour for Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, a tongue-in-cheek memoir chronicling Nawaz’s experiences growing up with culture-shocked immigrant parents in the suburbs of Toronto. 

Nawaz studied science at the University of Toronto at the behest of her parents, despite the fact that she had no interest in becoming a doctor (although they wised up when she couldn’t get into medical school).

She found her storytelling voice in journalism, and its written and audio-visual outlets. It was during a screening of her first short film BBQ Muslims that she realized that her stories could be funny – and that the heavier the subject matter, the funnier she could and should be. 

“I feel that no matter what situation you give me, I will twist it and make it funny. It’s unconscious. I think about the absurd right away,” she says. “That was the great thing about working on the show. It was very good training to slow down the absurdity and bring more humanity to the plot and to the story.”

Not everyone was as receptive to Nawaz’s idea as the national broadcaster. From the moment Little Mosque on the Prairie went into pre-production, Muslims across the country were voicing their concerns, according to Nawaz. 

“They were a little upset because they didn’t quite understand who I was or whether or not I was going to make fun of the community,” she says. “It went after all the sacred cows, and it was hard for them.”

But Nawaz was able to present the version of her community that she felt wasn’t being seen enough on television screens at the time. 

“The only [Muslims] you’re ever exposed to [on television] are the ones who live in Afghanistan, wearing burkas and hiding in the caves, and that’s not who we are,” she says. 

It was a couple of seasons before she felt she’d truly won over her community. 

Nawaz thought she was providing a window into a unique community with Little Mosque on the Prairie, and she was surprised when non-Muslim Canadians told her that they recognized their own communities in her quirky representations of mosque life. 

“It didn’t occur to me that it was universal, because when you belong to the community, you think only your community is that weird,” says Nawaz.

Nawaz’s Indian Summer Festival event takes place on Wednesday at SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. She’ll share stories, answer questions, and sign copies of her book. Tickets at