"Little Mosque on the Prairie" a TV hit
TORONTO (Reuters) - The creators of a new Canadian sitcom, "Little Mosque on the Prairie", are hoping the TV show will strike a chord beyond the country's borders as it portrays Muslims in a new light: funny.
The comedy, about a small Muslim community in the fictional Prairie town of Mercy, aired on Canadian television this week to mostly favorable reviews and spectacular ratings.
It concerns a community of devout Muslims and the inevitable misunderstandings that ensue when they interact with the locals in rural Saskatchewan.
"Laughter is a universal language," said Zarqa Nawaz, the hijab-wearing creator of the show whose previous films include "BBQ Muslims" and "Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance".
"It's important to get over this assumption that Muslims are not funny or they can't take a joke or that we don't have the same sort of relationships that anyone else would have."
The show generated a lot of attention even before its first episode. The buzz was likely due more to the idea of controversy rather than any real daring in the program. Rumours that the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. hired a consultant to ensure Muslim sensibilities were not offended -- untrue, according to Nawaz -- only fanned the speculation.
"Muslims were really worried because issues in the media surrounding Muslims tend to be so skewed towards violence," said Nawaz, whose production company, FUNdamentalist Films, promises to put the "fun back into fundamentalism".
"Little Mosque on the Prairie" is more a gentle romp than biting satire, and it pokes fun at Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
An overzealous imam, for instance, sees dangers to Muslims lurking everywhere. "The enemy is in your kitchen," he tells his bemused congregation. "Wine gums, rye bread, liquorice: Western traps designed to seduce Muslims to drink alcohol."
A young lawyer, who gives up a promising career in Toronto to become the new imam in Mercy, is pulled aside at the airport after he is overheard talking on a cell phone about career suicide and the new job that is "Allah's plan for me."
"You're not going to paradise today," says a security guard, dragging the man out of the line.
The program has met with a guarded response from some in the Muslim community, who are grateful to see a more typical image of Muslims on television, but also wary about the creation of other misconceptions.
"It's a beginning, we've never had any comedy shows per se about the Muslim community," said Wahida Valiente, national vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. "Maybe they need to shift their focus just from the mosque. Muslims aren't really that much involved every day of their life in the mosque."
Despite the material, "Little Mosque" is a quintessentially Canadian show -- gentle humour, quirky small-town characters, Toronto-bashing, new immigrants -- which could make it difficult for the producers to sell it abroad.
The creators say they have received calls from broadcasters in the United States, Europe and the Middle East interested in airing the show and, in some cases, buying the format rights.
The program drew 2.1 million viewers in its debut, surpassing average CBC show viewership of 500,000 to 1 million, according to Kirstine Layfield, the CBC's executive director of network programming.
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