Two of the twin benefits of the Streaming Age are finding shows you might not otherwise have seen, and finding shows geared at very niche audiences. Having grown up in the pre-Internet era and, in many ways, the pre-Cable era, I was always aware that there was more entertainment out there than was immediately available to me. Trips to other cities revealed totally different scheduling line-ups which often included different shows. A trip to see family in another state could reveal a treasure trove of new and unique TV shows. Trips to another country, even one as close as Canada, were even more eye-opening.
In much the same way (only vastly more convenient), the coming of the Age of Netflix (or Hulu, or whatever your preferred streaming service) has provided viewers like you and me the chance to discover shows that we might never have known existed. This is especially true for experimental shows aimed at bringing to life the trials and tribulations, joys and triumphs, of the mundane lives of those whom might not traditionally get such a televised exploration. Such as Muslims in rural Canada.
Can you name any Islamic characters on western TV? Okay, Abed from Community. And that guy from Lost. Also that one guy on Bones. Any others? If you’re particularly well-versed in television and TV lore, then you might be able to think up a handful of supporting characters, maybe a dozen cameos, and a few bit-parts might come to mind, but how many regular characters on television are Muslim? The answer is very few.
Looking back through the history of television, Islam is heavily underrepresented on television, even though Muslims currently make up roughly a fifth of the world (1.6 billion worldwide) and as much as 3% of the United States (6 million out of 250 million) and Canada (over a million out of nearly 35 million). Unless we count Jeannie (from I Dream Of Jeannie, since genies are Arabian demons), the earliest regular Muslim characters only appeared on TV after the turn of the millennium, with the three pseudo-listed above as the most prominent – and debatably ONLY – examples.
As such, a show with Muslim protagonists is a rarity to say the least. Multiple Muslim protagonists? A cast predominantly of Muslim characters? That would be a first in western television history.
The premise of Little Mosque on the Prairie is simple: a small Muslim community, which rents space from the Anglican Church in the small town of Mercy, looks to bring a new imam (Islamic preacher) to help improve the mosque itself and its community. A young big-city lawyer who is just now answering the call to faith decides to make the leap and comes to this small town to be their spiritual leader.
In short, a small place of worship in the middle of nowhere brings in a new, young faith leader. Antics ensue.
This may sound similar to the BBC series, Vicar of Dibley, and in some ways, it is. It likely also sounds like plenty of other sitcoms as well. Little Mosque on the Prairie is not groundbreaking in its storytelling, in its narrative, or really even its jokes. It is a by-the-numbers sitcom that is copy-and-pasted into a western Muslim setting. And that’s part of what makes it so entertaining.
The prototypical sitcom gags like men versus women, the nagging mother-in-law, friendly feuds over which neighbor’s advice to listen to, are intriguingly refreshed with this new modality. The nagging mother-in-law isn’t complaining about the wife’s cooking; she’s promoting the very old-world idea of her son taking a second wife. The men versus women is based around whether a literal wall should be set up between the genders in the mosque itself.
It’s in this by-the-numbers approach that Little Mosque (as the title would be shortened to in later seasons) becomes so fascinating. We’re so used to these gags and jokes that seeing them presented from the view of a minority – and an oft-persecuted minority – gives them an interesting new angle. If you’re used to sitcoms, watching something like Little Mosque may give you some new appreciation for the trite and tired scenarios you thought you knew. You may even find yourself on the other side of some of these scenarios.
A former lawyer from Toronto, Amaar is starting a new phase in his life. Played by the unreasonably handsome Zaibatsu Shaikh, he is controversially young (some characters make issue of his lack of a beard) and struggles to be accepted by the community or taken seriously in his role as their spiritual leader. He takes over the job as imam for the mosque of the small town of Mercy with some enthusiasm, but is quickly confronted with the challenges of running such a small mosque in such a small town.
Amaar, who is new to being an imam, is interesting because he gives not only an inside peek into what the life of a holy man in Islam is like, but also what it’s not like. Westerners unfamiliar with Islam may be shocked to see just how closely the Islamic preacher parallels his Christian counterpart, with concerns over bake sales and what to say in this week’s sermon a lot more prevalent than some might initially suspect.
Amaar himself is an interesting figure because we rarely get to see where he deviates from the hard line of the fundamentalist (though still mainstream) version of Islam practiced at the mosque. In an early-season episode concerning a gay couple wanting to get married at the church where the mosque rents space, we get the impression that Amaar is personally okay with the marriage, but he never states such a view and emphatically avoids the issue based on the grounds of Islam’s view of the matter (he doesn’t particularly denounce it either). In many ways, that seems to be Amaar’s most unique characteristic; that he doesn’t seem particularly liberal or unorthodox. He actively tries to promote a traditional, if open-minded, view of Islam. This goes against other depictions of ‘young men of the cloth’ who are usually shown as being radicals who challenge many notions of their faith. This imam is very comfortable with Islam as is, and isn’t trying to reinvent it.
The character of Amaar can be a little unremarkable at times, and it isn’t until later seasons that we start to see what his life prior to becoming an imam was like. We eventually meet his parents who disapprove of his life in religion and want him to return to his former profession as a lawyer. We also get to see his romantic life blossom with Rayyan Hamoudi in the later half of the show. By and large, Amaar is very charismatically played, but still sometimes seems to be more of a fixture of the mosque than a distinct person in and of himself, which can leave the character feeling a little flat.
While Little Mosque may be about an Islamic community, and may focus on the imam, the star of the show and informal heart of the Islamic community in Mercy is Yasir Hamoudi, played by the brilliant and oft-underrated Carlo Rota. A resourceful and opportunistic businessman, Yasir’s devotion to Islam is a little dubious and he often proves to be a populist He is hardly unethical; just merely always gaming to further his business (his membership to the Conservative Party of Canada, for example, is solely for networking).
We see tremendous evidence that Yasir is devoted to his wife and daughter, though he is decidedly spineless in the face of his mother. It seems interesting to note that his story arc regarding his mother is not unlike many sitcom stories, especially focusing on Jewish characters (Howard Walowitz from Big Bang Theory comes to mind). The universalness of loyalty being caught between wife and mother seems a wonderful place to find commonality.
Rota playing Hamoudi is the highlight of the first few seasons. A great dramatic actor, Rota really commits to this comedic role and gives it his all (the sequence with him forging a marriage document to placate his overbearing mother without standing up to her is simply hysterical). Regrettably Rota had to depart from the show after season three, being written off by returning to Lebanon to care for his ailing mother. While the show suffers without Hamoudi, it does provide some tremendous character growth for his wife, Sarah, and sets the stage for her to come into the spotlight.
The unsung hero of the show may be Yasir’s wife, Sarah Hamoudi (née Cunningham). In most sitcoms, the female co-star is either an ambitious professional or a wife/mother, but rarely both. This is where Little Mosque deviates most notably from the formula (not including the, you know, whole ‘Muslims in rural Canada’ thing). Sarah, played by Sheila McCarthy, is not only a devoted wife and Muslim convert but also a professional woman, working as the mayor’s aid. Admittedly, the mayor of a small town, but it’s a full-time professional job all the same.
Little traits about her come out through the course of the early episodes of the show that reveal she is as resourceful as she is intelligent. Parodying the devoted wife as a good baker, she brings home store-bought cookies, only to pass them off as her own. Little references like that, to the realities of life rather than the sitcom idealisms make up many of her jokes specifically. She’s very much June Cleaver at first glance; we just get to see what it would take to appear that way.
Throughout the show, she is shown as devoted to her husband Yasir and puts up with a lot of his shenanigans (see the episode where his mother tries to arrange a second wife), but she also demonstrates her own intellectual and personal prowess. When the mosque is struggling with whether to install dividers between the men and women’s section, she shuts down women’s rights protestors quickly and effectively but without ruffling any feathers.
Possibly most noticeable is that Sarah has a libido. And while Sheila McCarthy is lovely, she’s far from the usual bombshell you see in sitcoms admitting to having and enjoying sex. On top of that, while she is sexual, she isn’t hyper-sexual or a deviant; she’s simply a woman who enjoys sex with her husband. During a strike against the men over the aforementioned wall, Sarah is the one shown suffering more in the absence of physical intimacy during her protests against the wall. Most of the jokes about missing sex, likewise, are made by she and her boss (the mayor), not by any of the male characters, making for a very interesting gender-swap of the sitcom troupe.
Sarah Hamoudi shares the female lead with her daughter, Rayyan Hamoudi. A civically active and social-conscious daughter, Rayyan (played by Sitara Hewitt) does very little to challenge the sitcom stereotype. She’s a lovely young professional who seems to excel at her job (as a general care physician) but still has plenty of time on her hands to take on whatever challenge du jour, as well as quickly but subtly fall for the handsome young imam. There’s very little that’s groundbreaking about Rayyan, but in some ways, that’s a good thing. By having the sitcom staple of the young and ambitious professional woman who seemingly has everything, it sort of helps the uninitiated audience enjoy the ‘windowdressing’ that is her being an Islamic woman, and a liberal one at that.
There are small elements of Islam that non-Muslims often don’t understand. One is the wearing of the hijab (headscarf), which Rayyan does seemingly voluntarily. And yet, she is also fiercely liberal, which makes for an interesting dichotomy. It also gives us some insight inside the private lives of Muslims. Going back to the hijab, Rayyan doesn’t wear the hijab at home but does everywhere else, whereas her mother wears the hijab only to the mosque. These differences are on full display in the show, highlighting one of its strengths as well as one of its appeals.
In the early seasons of the show, Reverend Magee (played by Derek McGrath) is the head of the Anglican Church where the mosque rents space. He is a bit of a departure from the usual depiction of clergy by being at once very devout and dedicated to his faith, but also extremely open-minded and liberal. In one instance, he not only agrees to perform a gay marriage (causing an outcry amongst his own parishioners as well as those of the mosque) but is disappointed when the couple ultimately opts to get married in a larger city.
What is delightful about Reverend Magee is his relationship with Amaar. The two have a great deal in common and usually talk to discuss whatever issues are being sussed out in this week’s episode. However, unlike most sitcoms, the decidedly senior reverend (in both age and experience) does not have a paternal relationship with the imam. At times, he seems more like an older brother. He just as often is the one coming to the imam for advice as he is the one giving counsel. It’s really very charming to see the similarities in their professions and their respective faiths, and to watch them dealing with the nuances. They quote scripture from one another’s holy books and readily accept one another’s counsel. In many ways, I would say the exchanges between Magee and Amaar are the highlight of the early seasons of the show.
In Season Four, Magee is replaced with the younger and more acerbic Reverend Thorne (played by Brandon Firla). This man of faith is more antagonistic to Amaar, but again in a more fraternal way. His antics to embarrass Amaar and to steal from his congregation come across as less slights against the Islamic faith and more out of sibling jealousy and even envy. A far more flawed character, Firla is entertaining but the antagonism gets old.
Every show needs the harmless old crank who does nothing but complain about the world. In Little Mosque, that’s Baber Siddiqui. He is the generic fundamentalist who played the role of imam prior to the show’s opening. He’s as annoying and close-minded as he is charmingly old-fashioned. His relationship with his teenage daughter defines him as much as his devout (and vocal) faith.
Fatima Dinssa is often as fundamentalist as Baber, but in very different ways. Hailing from Nigeria (rather than the Middle East), she is a vocal proponent of local remedies (which causes friction between her and Rayyan). She runs a deli and bakery that is one of the cornerstones in town, conveniently catering most events. She’s full of homespun wisdom that is often blatantly wrong and yet somehow proves to be true. If Baber is the fundamentalist and the conservative, she is the old busybody who knows better. Not because of knowledge or even necessarily experience but because of old folk wisdom passed down to her.
The show has a litany of other supporting characters who are as familiar to sitcom fans as they are charming. The obnoxious talk radio host who does nothing but bash the ‘muslim threat’ even while eating at Fatima’s restaurant. The mayor who couldn’t care less about anything but getting re-elected. A whole host of sitcom staples plays its way across the show’s cast, helping to create a rich tapestry of this small town in rural Canada.
Little Mosque is not without its flaws. It struggles at times to be anything other than just a rote sitcom and it can feel a little forced how everything almost always seems to come back to the mosque and to the Islamic faith. But while it sounds like, and even initially feels like, some kind of Saturday Night Live skit, this simple formula proves to be a real and tangible show, with fun characters and a unique twist.
Robert V Aldrich is a writer based out of Asheville North Carolina, and St Andrews Scotland, specializing in novels and serials for otaku, gamers, comic book geeks, and others who overthink entertainment as much as he does. His most recent novel, Rhest for the Wicked, is available now and more of his writings can be found at TeachTheSky.com.