Canadian TV's Unexpected Muslim Hit Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie is about a small Muslim community smack in the middle of the Canadian prairie. Show creator Zarqa Nawaz, and actor Zaib Shaikh, who plays a young imam fresh from the big city, talk to Farai Chideya about their surprise success and what it means to be Canadian, Muslim and at the top of the ratings.

Canadian TV's Unexpected Muslim Hit

Canadian TV's Unexpected Muslim Hit

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Canadian sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie is about a small Muslim community smack in the middle of the Canadian prairie. Show creator Zarqa Nawaz, and actor Zaib Shaikh, who plays a young imam fresh from the big city, talk to Farai Chideya about their surprise success and what it means to be Canadian, Muslim and at the top of the ratings.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Forget about Laura Ingalls and Nelly Olsen, in Canada's new hit TV sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie," you'll find folks like Yasir and Rayyan, and Imam Amaar Rashid, a young Toronto lawyer who leaves the big city to follow a different dream.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Little Mosque on the Prairie")

Mr. ZAIB SHAIKH (Actor): (as Amaar Rashid) Come on, stop it with the guilt.

Unidentified Man #1: No, don't put that on. Well, (unintelligible) thinks that she was right, so be it.

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) This is Allah's plan for me. I'm not throwing my life away. I'm moving to the prairies.

Unidentified Man #1: To run a mosque?

CHIDEYA: Zaib Shaikh plays Imam Rashid, who's hired to lead a small Muslim community smack in the middle of a small Canadian town called Mercy. I spoke earlier with Shaikh and with the show's creator, Zarqa Nawaz.

Ms. ZARQA NAWAZ (Creator, "Little Mosque in the Prairie"): I've always belonged to a mosque community, and the mosque has always been a really important part of my life. And when I thought about an idea for a show, I thought wouldn't be interesting if the imam for the mosque was born and raised in Canada as opposed to, say, foreign born and imported like a lot of our imams are? Because, you know, Canadian Muslims don't tend to become imams. It's one of those career choices which, you know, doesn't pay a lot of money, and immigrant families would rather have their sons become doctors and lawyers and engineers and computer scientists. So I thought what if someone gave up his law career and decided to run a mosque because he felt that's where his true calling was?

CHIDEYA: And Zaib, tell us about the character that you play - very interesting.

Mr. SHAIKH: Yeah. He is, as Zarqa said, a Toronto lawyer who's grown up in actually in a secular household. They're - I guess as the term would be -Muslim by name more than Muslim by practice. And yet he finds himself, you know, wanting to explore the spiritual side of it, decides to give up his law career, learns about the faith in a way that he, you know, trains as an imam, and then decides that he would like to go to a small community and try his gift out. Because he thinks how hard could it be? You know, I'll test drive this kind of new found practice in a small community, and then it'll probably go smoothly rather than in a big community, I think. And he finds himself in a lot of hot water as soon as he gets there.

Unidentified Man #2: What's the charge?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) Flying while Muslim?

Unidentified Man #2: No, that's not the charge.

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) I was joking. Muslims around the world are known for their sense of humor.

Unidentified Man #2: Why did you leave your father's law firm?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) While I was in Egypt doing my Islamic studies, I found my true calling.

Unidentified Man #2: Explosives?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) Yeah. Explosives. Look, I am going to the town of Mercy to work as an imam. You can call it a mosque if you like.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, Mr. Rashid. I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt. If this checks out, you are one tiny step closer to getting out of here.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. CARLO ROTA (Actor): (as Yasir Hamoudi) Hello. You've reached Yasir's Construction and Contracting. I found new location. We'll blow away the competition.

(Soundbite of phone beep)

CHIDEYA: Tell me more about how your character interacts with this community, because I think that one of the show's strengths is that you show a multi-ethnic community of Muslims. And then you have this new imam coming in, and he's like the big city guy in a small town and he's just like, look, where's my latte? So, Zaib, tell me more about your character on that level.

Mr. SHAIKH: Well, you know, I think what's interesting about the show is that it's a show about cultural divides and how the challenges of how you try to sort of cope with that, not only from a Muslim point of view and a non-Muslim point of view or even - you know, we got Lebanese Muslim and we got Pakistani Muslim - but also on the big city versus small community level.

There's also a cultural divide there, especially for Amaar. And I think that what's good about Amaar for the audience at least is that we see the rest of the characters through his eyes. You know, he's a bit cocky. He thinks he knows - he thinks he can figure it out, because after all, he is a big city lawyer, a corporate lawyer. How hard can it be to deal with, you know, a small congregation? He's dealt with people before.

But he doesn't realize that a small community is very closed-knit, and that they've got their own, you know, long history of politics and social sort of mores and values that he's kind of infringing on.

CHIDEYA: Zarqa, when you thought about this show, that was one thing. But bringing it to fruition must have been another. So I want to ask you two questions in one. First of all, how hard was it to get the green light to do this? And second, do you think you could do a show like this in the United States?

Ms. NAWAZ: Well, it was surprisingly easy in Canada to get it greenlit, because we have a network called the CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, whose mandate is to represent, you know, the regionality and the diversity of the country. And so this was a perfect show for them.

And it was based on the prairie, so we're representative of the Midwest of the country, so it's - all of the elements came together. And so CBC loved it, and they supported it immensely and, you know, put a lot of energy and finances into getting it done. So, you know, kudos to them for believing in this project, and it's become a very successful project to them.

As for the U.S., yeah, absolutely. I think this will be a great show for Americans. In fact, you know, we hear from Americans all the time who watch it on YouTube who are dying for it to come to the U.S., because they feel that, you know, they need to feel some community as normal, regular people going about their lives.

And they are telling us that we've never seen a show where Muslims are portrayed as normal people who are, you know, who are fun to be with, who are funny and have a sense of humor. And so, you know, I think the show will do really well in the U.S.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Little Mosque on the Prairie")

Unidentified Man #4: What is your relationship with this mosque?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) Hang on, let me see.

Unidentified Man #4: I just need to ask you a couple of questions. What is your comment on the scandal?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) What scandal?

Unidentified Man #4: What do you have to say about the terrorist allegations?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) Look, the cops have no evidence against me.

Unidentified Man #4: Cops? Who are you?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) I'm Amaar Rashid. I'm the new imam. It's like a priest or rabbi, only browner.

Unidentified Man #4: So are you denying that you're a terrorist?

Ms. SHEILA MCCARTHY (Actor): (as Sarah Hamoudi) What? You hired a terrorist?

Mr. ROTA: (as Yasir Hamoudi) I did not hire a terrorist.

Ms. SITARA HEWITT (Actor): (as Rayyan Hamoudi) A very good-looking one, mind you.

Ms. MCCARTHY: (as Sarah Hamoudi) Good-looking terrorist. Isn't that an oxymoron?

Mr. SHAIKH: (as Amaar Rashid) Who are you people? Where is the Yasir?

Mr. ROTA: (as Yasir Hamoudi) A salaam aleikum. I am Yasir Hamoudi. And this is my wife, Sarah, this is my daughter Rayyan…

Ms. MCCARTHY: (as Sarah Hamoudi) Hi, I'm Sara…

Ms. HEWITT (Actor): (as Rayyan Hamoudi): Rayyan…

Mr. ROTA: (as Yasir Hamoudi) Welcome, welcome to our little mosque on the prairie.

CHIDEYA: Zaib, how do you relate to the show's sense of humor as an actor? And was this something that came naturally to you to play kind of a mix of the straight man and the funny guy, or is that tough to do?

Mr. SHAIKH: Well, I've never thought of myself as a comic actor, or I never thought I'd be in a sitcom. But I guess I got Amaar's sensibilities. I myself am Muslim and was born in Toronto, and, you know, I'm fully Canadian, as it were, or North American, for our context. And I think that's who Amaar is. You know, he's lived a totally North American lifestyle, but now, he's got a spiritual tugging, as it were, and he wants to follow that through.

And it's been great working with the cast and the writing team and the director because, you know, we're all working hard on trying to make the scenes as believable as possible. But then also, obviously, it's heightened because it is a comedy.

CHIDEYA: Zarqa, final question. You are right now in the U.S., in Los Angeles, to show off your show. Are there any plans to bring it to the United States? Are you trying to do that?

Ms. NAWAZ: Yeah, that's a question, actually, for the executive producers. They are meeting with various people in L.A., talking about this very thing. So hopefully, you'll be able to see it on an American network soon.

CHIDEYA: All right. On that note, congratulations on your show, and Zarqa and Zaib, thanks for coming on.

Ms. NAWAZ: Thanks for having us.

Mr. SHAIKH: My pleasure. Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of the CBC hit series "Little Mosque on the Prairie," and Zaib Shaikh plays Amaar, who is the imam.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: That's our show for today, and thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, folks from New Orleans still have to fight to find a place to call home.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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