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The CBC-produced comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie is such a breath of fresh air we can only hope that some of it is blowing in the direction of some of the less tolerant parts of the world.
The creator of the program, Zarqa Nawaz, focuses on a small Muslim community in the (fictional) town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, and its struggle to maintain a mosque of its own, despite the misunderstanding of Islam among the townspeople and the Muslims' own struggle in finding a balance between liberal values and their traditional ways.
From the opening credits (which feature the same font as the Michael Landon family drama Little House on the Prairie - only with minarets added to the lettering) to the crackling script, Nawaz has taken a giant step towards showing the world at large that the majority of Muslims, particularly in countries like Canada, are hardly deserving of the racial profiling and suspicion they encounter, all the while trying to coax her co-religionists into laughing at themselves.
Nawaz, herself a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin who left Toronto for a small town in Saskatchewan, doesn't shy away from poking fun at her own traditions. As the series opens, the Mercy Muslims are listening to a speech from their about-to-be-replaced imam Baber (Manoj Sood) about the evils of Western living. "Wine-gums. Rye bread. Licor-ice. Western traps designed to seduce Moslems to drink alcohol!" he intones. "American Idol! Canadian Idol! I say all idols must be smashed!"
"His sermons are going to drive me to drink alcohol," complains Rayyan (Sitara Hewitt), whose dad Yasir (Carlo Rota of 24 and Queer as Folk) organized the mosque, a room in the local Anglican church that he told the local reverend he was using for his construction business.
When passerby Joe catches the worshipers bowing as part of their service, he's quick to try to call the police. "Is this the terror attack hot line?" he asks. Before long he's appearing on local red-neck radio personality Fred's Wake Up, People, and the townspeople are up in arms at the prospect of an Islamic terror cell in their midst.
Into this maelstrom walks Amaar Rashid (Zaib Shaikh, the only Muslim in the cast), an ex-lawyer from Toronto who found religion, trained in Egypt, and is answering Yasir's ad for a new imam. Trouble starts at the airport, where his conversation with his mother about how "If dad thinks that's suicide, so be it," gets him picked up by security. "Step away from the bag. You're not going to paradise today," the cop tells him.
"If it doesn't check out, you can deport me to Syria," Amaar tells the cops during his interrogation, handing them the ad he responded to. "Hey - you do not get to choose what country we deport you to," snaps the cop, completely missing Amaar's referral to a real-life Canadian case that is still ruffling diplomatic feathers.
Meanwhile, the approaching month of Ramadan has the Muslim community in a tizzy, debating over whether they should serve lamb or the cucumber sandwiches Sarah (leading Canadian actress Sheila McCarthy), Yasir's convert wife, has strong opinions about planning the fast-launching party. "It's just Ramadan," observes a frustrated Yasir, "Why are we making such a big meal out of it?"
Amaar realizes his life's work is really here, in Mercy, and decides to stay, ready to battle bigots like Fred who call him "Johnny Jihad." With the mayor giving the new mosque her blessing by partaking in Sarah's cucumber sandwiches and some lamb curry, Amaar's on the right track, even as he's wondering whether something might be stirring between him and Rayyan.
So there we have it - an almost perfect pilot of a very different yet highly entertaining situation comedy that should be must viewing for YES 3 viewers Tuesday nights at 22:00. We all might come away with some of our stereotyped images rubbed away, which would be a lesson even the folks on Landon's original Prairie could've appreciated.