On Wednesday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m., the Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith (HGI) Education Center hosted a talk from Zarqa Nawaz, the creator of the world’s first sitcom about a Muslim community, “Little Mosque on the Prairie”. The event, which was also co-sponsored by the Multicultural Center, was planned to be a night of laughter and drawing a positive light on Islam.
Students, faculty and members of the community filed into an already-crowded Hayden 100 that evening and signed their names on an attendance roster for the Education Center to keep track of how many people came to see the talk. While some students were offered extra credit by professors to hear what Nawaz had to say, many attended it out of their own curiosity.
Faculty in attendance included Lois Harr from Campus Ministry and Social Action, Kevin Ahern, the director of the peace studies program and William Clyde, the provost of Manhattan College. Since the event was made free to the public, Riverdale residents also sat in on the talk.
The talk was entitled “Laughing While Muslim” and, as advertised, was focused on Islam, comedy, gender, faith and diversity throughout the media.
Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, the director of the HGI Center and an associate professor in the religious studies department, took to the stage in front of the packed theater to welcome everyone.
She mentioned the fact that the event was scheduled so closely to Sept. 11 to honor all religions, a specific mission within the Center: the inclusion of Catholics, Muslims and Jews in all aspects and events.
Afridi mentioned the upcoming events for the Center which included a showing of the film “I Am Not Your Negro” on Oct. 18 and their next big talk on Nov. 7, with more information to come.
Without further ado, Nawaz took the stage and began telling the story of her life and how it came to be that, as she put it, “a brown woman in a hijab got her start in the entertainment industry.”
She began with the story of her father and his family as they experienced one of the largest human migration of its time—when Britain and India became overnight enemies as three religions went head-to-head. Her father fled his home to escape the dangers and found safety in school once arriving to his new home in Pakistan.
“In a time where everything you have could be gone in a heartbeat, nobody could take away your education,” said Nawaz of her father.
Born in Liverpool, Nawaz and her family were offered a chance to start anew in Toronto and jumped at the chance. She called it, “a citizenship with benefits.” There, her father would push her to succeed in medical school and embrace her life as an immigrant.
But Nawaz noted a small hiccup in his plans when she was not accepted into medical school after receiving her Bachelor of Science degree. Her next step took her to Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to pursue a journalism degree.
“The admissions officer said to me, ‘Zarqa, the reason we called you in for an interview was because everyone who applied has a Bachelor of Arts. Why did you apply with a BSC?’ And I came up with, ‘everyone applies with a BA. I wanted to be different and apply with a BSC.’ And he thought about it for a while then said, ‘what incredible forethought.’ I responded, ‘I know’,” said Nawaz, as the audience laughed along with her.
Even after receiving her degree in journalism, she still felt a “creative itch” inside of her. She decided to attend a film workshop and from there, her career took off.
Her first short film was a satire based on the Oklahoma Bombing of 1995, titled “BBQ Muslims”, where two Muslim men were automatically profiled as bombers after their own BBQ grill exploded (when it was actually the fault of an anti-BBQ grill group that set off the explosion). She hadn’t thought about the short film being a satire but many saw it as such.
She submitted it to the Toronto International Film Festival, not expecting anything to come of it. But the festival chose to show “BBQ Muslims” and she realized she was doing something right.
Her other short films (available on her website zarqanawaz.com) included “Death Threat”, “Random Check” and “Fred’s Burqa”.
She also made a documentary titled “Me & the Mosque” about women being hidden behind curtains or up on the balcony of mosques during services. It gave her a chance to examine what Muslim scholars thought about the misogyny that had permeated Mosques across the country.
Nawaz finally came up with the idea of a Muslim-centered show in 2007. “Little Mosque on the Prairie” focused on showing Islam in a positive, light-hearted tone.
“Up to a point, Muslims were only depicted on television as terrorists. 99.9 percent are living as regular people. There’s no need for this violent fringe. We need to learn to humanize and realize we’re all ordinary,” said Nawaz.
The show, which premiered on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), was met with record ratings. It caught the attention of American media for its brand new focus on Muslims in a sitcom setting. All around the world, people were watching “Little Mosque” and enjoying it for what it was—an everyday sitcom.
“These archetypes are in any place where you have organized human beings. It is possible to connect to Muslims like any other people in their own community […] It’s a problem to today [to discriminate others]. We have to talk to one another, get to know one another and trust other’s stories,” said Nawaz.
After her talk, a question and answer session was held.
When asked for advice from students to follow a path similar to hers, Nawaz responded, “move like sharks, which they only go forward. Keep discovering what you’re good at.”
She answered questions about Islamophobia and other Muslim creators in media.
“There’s this renaissance in the culture today. More Muslims are writing plays, books and shows. More are acting. It’s very similar to what the Jewish community has done in the past. Now we’re taking our turn,” said Nawaz.
Nawaz entertained the crowd with hilarious stories of her parent’s Pakistani traditions, ranging from arranged marriage to dating outside the faith. She spoke on her favorite books and sources on Muslims in the media.
Her last message for the crowd was powerful and necessary.
“Stories matter, you know, they all resonate. They teach us valuable lessons. We’re all equal and are able to learn as we come together. It’s empowering to have young people come and listen to me speak and I thank you all for this opportunity,” said Nawaz.
Afterwards, students and faculty and members of the community were able to speak to Nawaz as she signed copies of her memoir, “Laughing All the Way to the Mosque.” Many thanked her for coming to speak about her life and providing an entertaining and laugh-out-loud take on her experiences.