Book review & interview: Zarqa Nawaz - Laughing All The Way To The Mosque
A lot of books get sent to me. The vast majority of them are 'average'. My favourite kind of book however is the type that grips us from the first paragraph, that I can't put down until I've read it cover to cover: then I like to tell the world about it. The first book of 2015 to have this reaction is Zarqa Nawaz' Laughing All The Way To The Mosque. Written by a Canadian Muslim journalist turned comedy writer and mum of four, Laughing isn't actually a novel, it's Zarqa's own biography.
The book charts her life from being a child who discovers sausages and finds them to be rather tasty, to being a hairy teenager who teaches herself to wax her legs using a recipe for making halwa, through to running the summer holiday youth camp, before training to be a journalist, meeting her dream man, settling down to start a family and suddenly finding out she's the writer of one of the most popular Canadian comedy TV shows in history; Little Mosque On The Prairie. Role models don't become more likeable than this...
Although Canadian by residence, Zarqa is actually a Liverpudlian. She left Liverpool when she was five but despite currently living in the middle of 'nowhere', she has always maintained a European connection in some way or other. Currently her oldest daughter (whose birth is dedicated a whole chapter in the book) is at university in France, where she'll be popping to later this month to launch the book there; not surprisingly due to recent incidents in Paris involving the murder of several journalists by Muslim extremists, Zarqa is feeling nervous: 'I have been wondering do they still want the book but thankfully the Editor is still keen, I guess now could be a good time to show France and the rest of the world an alternative representation of Muslims.'
This is what Zarqa's book and TV series accomplish so well. But interestingly she never set out to do this, or to write a book, she explains: 'I was at a conference and there were two Muslims yelling at each other. They were talking about extremism or something and they were yelling; one was in the audience and he felt like he was being attacked by the one on the stage. I sat there and thought if only someone just wrote a book and explained things about Islamic that others are afraid to. So I set out to write a sort of intellectual book of essays on Islamic topics. I showed them to my Editor who rejected them all saying they were unpublishable! She then encouraged me to write what I am good it which is actually comedy and I am so pleased she made the right choice!'
Comedy is the thread that runs though every page of Zarqa's book and you certainly don't need to be a Muslim to find yourself chuckling at the universally awkward situations she finds herself in. Easy on the brain cells, honest, refreshing and original it's the kind of chick lit we all need in our lives...except of course it is real! Can someone's actual life really be this entertaining? Zarqa reveals: 'Some things from the past have stayed with me for a long time and other things were very recent so they were happening as I was writing them. My father in-law was dying as I was writing that chapter but other stories just came back to me. They weren't funny at the time - time and perspective helped. The memories that were the most vibrant, were things that I remember from my childhood - but there are some I remembered that other people including my mother didn't; like the story about my mother coming to school and getting the kids to play with me, she has no memory of that! Then there are some stories that are just funny like the jiin in the bathroom, I was terrified of the supernatural and that sort of thing!'
Though the book will become part of Zarqa's legacy to the world about 'contemporary Islam', her TV series will remain one of the most impressive achievements of any South Asian woman in terms of broadcasting. Little Mosque On The Prairie first aired in 2007 and was an instant hit after the first episode, becoming successful around the world. Zarqa recalls: 'Seeing that first episode on TV was dramatic for so many different reasons. The channel never expected a hit but suddenly media from all over the world were calling and interviewing me relentlessly then the Muslim community got upset and started freaking out while the right wing media non-Muslims were upset because they felt it was humanising Muslims and making us seem normal when they didn’t want that. It a very difficult and emotional time, just to process it all because no one in a million years would think a TV show about a broken down mosque with a broken down church in the middle of it would be so successful. We were churning out 20 episodes a reason and we ended up making over 90 episodes.'
The show is difficult to get hold of now unless you're in the US where you can see all the episodes online, but it's worth You Tubing it get an idea of what we in the UK missed out on. As for the book which was published in the UK earlier this month, it's worth tracking down as it's a rewarding read, for anyone who picks it up; even the most unexpected of readers are finding it satisfying. Zarqa admits: 'I’m quite surprised that the readers seem to be quite a wide ranging, anything from a practicing Muslim to people who care little about religion. I’m especially surprised that older white men love it. They were the first ones talking about it - in fact the best reviews are from white old men!'