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'Little Mosque' creator shares humorous tales of growing up Muslim in Canada

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TORONTO - The creator of the hit homegrown sitcom "Little Mosque on the Prairie" wanted to tackle more serious subject matter with a book of intellectual essays — but Zarqa Nawaz's editor wasn't having it.

Instead, Nawaz — who also wrote for and served as a producer on the CBC series — was encouraged to turn a lens on herself.

The result is her humorous and heartfelt new memoir "Laughing All the Way to the Mosque" (HarperCollins) in which the Regina-based Nawaz writes about life growing up Muslim in Canada. The book features colourful and funny personal anecdotes spanning from her own childhood to becoming a married mother of four with career changes and other milestones in between.

"You can tell in the heart of each story there's an issue that I was dealing with, but it's in story form. So I wrote it in sitcom-type form — like an episode of a TV show — which is what I know," Nawaz said in a recent interview at the publisher's offices in Toronto.

Nawaz, 46, shares stories of her desire to fit in during childhood which was sometimes at odds with her traditional upbringing, like wanting her mother to pack her a sandwich for lunch instead of curry chicken, and to be able to wear a dress without pants underneath to school. Nawaz also recalls having to explain to her mother — who had been taught that leg-shaving was un-Islamic — why she wanted to remove her leg hair so she could wear shorts in gym class without embarrassment.

And in an unconventional act of rebellion in her teens, Nawaz writes of her decision to start wearing the hijab, which was "the new, modern way of being modest."

"I think it threw (my parents) off and put them in a dilemma because suddenly, I was declaring myself the better Muslim, the one who knew better than they did," she recalled. "They learned religion differently. It was just like you were born into it, you did things because everybody else was doing it. We were learning the text and rules and it was becoming rule-based for us. ...

"Suddenly religion became this nitpicky thing. And it caused a lot of conflict between kids and their parents at a certain point, I think, because that's not what religion was to them. And for us, it was a way of defining ourselves and being different from them."

Nawaz also is candid in sharing challenges and unpleasant moments which also surfaced. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., Nawaz recalls her late father-in-law talking about being visited by the RCMP after one of the neighbours spotted a packing cube on the driveway and "thought it was a little suspicious." She delves into how the issue of separating men and women in her mosque became contentious when a shower curtain was strung up for female worshippers to pray behind.

Nawaz writes as well about the creation of "Little Mosque" which ended its six-season run in 2012. It centred on a Toronto lawyer portrayed by Zaib Shaikh who leaves the city behind to pursue his true calling as an imam in the fictional town of Mercy, Sask., leading Muslim community members in a mosque housed in a church.

The debut drew 2.1 million viewers and the series went on to air in more than 60 countries. But Nawaz said when the show first came out the Muslim community had a really difficult time with it.

"Gradually, as the years went on and the show became established, the community calmed down and they realized nothing catastrophic really had happened and they started becoming fans of the show. But at the time, it was really painful and difficult," Nawaz admitted.

"It was so new. It was such a new concept. 'The Cosby Show' was for African-Americans ... a show (about) a family in a living room, so we didn't even make a leap to a Muslim family in a living room. We went straight to the mosque," she added, laughing. "We didn't even give them baby steps to lead them. We went: 'We're going to go straight to the mosque.' The first Muslims to do comedy about religion in a mosque and about faith and just go after all the sacred cows."

Nawaz said she'd welcome the chance to create another TV series, and said her agent suggested it would be interesting to have a show centred on a Muslim woman's coming-of-age story — not unlike Nawaz's own memoir.

"I'm not sure if I've sort of tapped (out) the Muslim sitcom experience in Canada. I think I might have saturated the marketplace with the show," Nawaz said, laughing.

She turns serious when she speaks of the need to see greater ethnic diversity on the airwaves, both in front of and behind the cameras. It's the same advice Nawaz dispenses to others seeking to follow in her trail-blazing path.

"I think the show was a great instigator for minority people to just try to go out and try to become writers and novelists — and I encourage them," said Nawaz.

"We need novelists and journalists and editorial writers and poets. We need everything. We need our stories out there."

Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.



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