Laughing All the Way to the Mosque: An Interview with Zarqa Nawaz

altMuslimah’s Firdaus Arastu recently sat down with Zarqa Nawaz to discuss her memoir, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque. An excerpt from the book follows the interview.

How would you summarize the book to an American audience?
I would say this is a funny, happy, uplifting story about growing up Muslim. Ultimately, that might be a genre unto itself. I don’t think these types of books about Muslim women exist: a coming of age story of a Muslim woman that doesn’t involve the Taliban, Somali pirates, or some other nefarious events.

My book was nominated for an award in Canada. There was only one judge in my category and she told that she was going to give me the award, but then she decided that my book was too happy. She wanted to know where the darkness was. I was flabbergasted.

Do you think this has something to do with why American publishers would not take your book?
I think publishers make the decision based on what they think will sell to the wider, non-Muslim audience, which is essentially their audience. I don’t think American publishers believe books like mine can capture the imagination of people. There has to be some terrible tragedy before people will read a coming-of-age book about Muslims. The vic-lit genre that exists for women’s literature, particularly for Muslim women, is so pervasive. The books the American public and American publishers are familiar with and want to see printed are ones where Muslim women are oppressed, or ones where Muslims victimize women.

My book doesn’t fit within the narrative of what is considered normal for Muslim women. What I hope people take away from my book is that Muslims have funny, happy coming-of-age stories that are just the same as everyone else and just as meaningful. These kinds of stories probably represent the majority of Muslims.

Is your work inspired by your faith or your identity as a Muslim?
It’s inspired by my faith. My work is an extension of my faith. I always say I have very few marketable skills; I can write stories and write stories with humor. I only have one way to serve God and that’s through comedy and story, so I want to perfect it and do the best that I can do. Everyone’s life has to be in service of God, in whatever way they can. Mine is through writing, whether it’s a book, an article, or television.

What was your thought process behind writing this book?
It was a long painful journey to write this book. It took me two years to write it. The first version of this book was written to clear up misconceptions about Islam. It was to be my intellectual response to all the craziness around the world.

My editor told me the book was not publishable because I was not very good at writing intellectual discourse. My editor wanted me to write what I wrote well, which is comedy and story. It was hard; I had to admit to myself that I wasn’t going to be able to write the heavy-hitting intellectual book that would get the world to pay attention. The intellectuals wish they could write comedy and the comedians wish they could write intellectual books.

You can see in each chapter we managed to salvage kernels from the original book about what Islam is to me. It’s coated in story in each chapter.

One of the major themes in your memoir is about gendered expectations and women’s rights.
It’s important for us to get out there and talk about these issues. We can’t just sit there quietly waiting for someone to be our heroes. I’m tired of women who don’t belong to our community, and who are not part of our everyday lives, saying that they are the women who are fighting for women’s rights. There are many of us who have been talking about women’s rights within the Islamic framework for decades.

Making my documentary, Me and the Mosque, which I discuss in the book, was important for me as a Muslim feminist woman. Like the documentary, one of the major ideas behind Little Mosque on the Prairie was about women’s rights in the mosques. People come up to me all the time and say they use my documentary to open up a discussion in their community about these issues. In 2015, ten years after I made my documentary, there was a petition going around at ISNA pushing for the removal of barriers and curtains. Mosques in the United States have a much more egalitarian attitude towards prayer spaces than anywhere else in the world.

If we want to combat misogyny and patriarchy in the Muslim cultures, we have to get rid of all of it. You can’t cherry-pick your misogyny.

Have you found that the issues you’ve grappled with in the past and written stories about have changed at all?
Yes, and much more so in the United States than in Canada. In Canada, we don’t suffer the same way you Americans do because Islamophobia is not as bad for us as it is for you in the United States. Just look at our prime minister.

Strangely enough, I think having a country that treats you better also holds you back in some ways because you become complacent thinking everything is fine. When the spotlight is on your community, people become activists and there’s more internal dialogue and introspection. September 11th has pushed American Muslims into working faster and harder for change. They can see the writing on the walls for their future and for their children’s future, so they need to be part of the dialogue.

Stories that would normally have disappeared are now gaining attention. We have to push constantly. The old guard isn’t going to change without their double standards being exposed and shamed. In addition to challenging Islamophobia, we have to create allies with other groups and join the wider social justice movement. I think that’s where Muslims can shine.

Would you describe your style of comedy as “irreverent” or “pushing the envelope”?
I don’t see my comedy as irreverent or as pushing the envelope. I just see it as me being me. I don’t push the envelope to bother anyone in particular, but it ends up happening indirectly.

I often find myself butting up against censorship, which is strange because Muslims are constantly accused of censorship and not having a sense of humor. However, when we do use humor, we’re told it’s too much. I fought hard for a joke in the chapter, “Behind the Shower Curtain,” where I ask a Saudi imam about beheadings, but ultimately, it was edited. I was very upset. We are told we have to accept the Prophet’s cartoons, but if I make a joke about beheadings, it’s considered too much, too offensive, and censored out. Comedy is censored for some people and not others.

You find yourself caught in the cross-hairs of multiple cultural notions of what is humorous.
Depending on a person’s culture or background and where they come from, they will react and interpret it differently. For Muslims, the censorship is about sex, and for non-Muslims it’s about violence or beheadings. Every cultural group has their line that you can’t cross.

So with White culture, White people feel they know what’s funny and they set the standards for taste. They don’t see their own double standards. I get caught in everyone’s web, so I see everyone’s double standards.

As a writer who employs humor in her stories about Muslims, what is the distinction between poking fun at Muslims and mocking Islam?
I’m poking fun at people’s reactions and misinterpretations and the double standards that occur through their behaviors. I make fun of the patriarchy and the misogyny, and the social justices.  I never make fun of the Prophets, God, or sacred texts.

Do you think Muslims have become less sensitive to comedy and satire?
We have. You can see there is a huge difference in reactions between the Danish cartoons in 2005 and Charlie Hebdo in 2015. It was an entirely different reaction this time. I saw that Muslims all over the world were saying, “It’s just a piece of paper. It means nothing. We’re not going to be provoked in the same way we were before.” Muslims understand it’s purposeful provocation to prove they have no sense of humor. You didn’t see huge riots and people dying in the streets, or boycotting of French goods. It was a much more muted response.

Is this is a sign of our progress as a community?
When Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ came out in 1988, the White Christian community by-and-large reacted with anger and violence to Scorsese’s film. In France, the theater was firebombed with Molotov cocktails. It’s similar to what happens in the Muslim world, but there’s no acknowledgement that such anger and violence happened in the Christian community. We just assume that one community is progressive while the other is static, and that’s so wrong.

Things that are new are a shock, and people need a chance to desensitize. Every community needs time to change, evolve, and grow. So does the Muslim community – and it is happening. Sometimes it’s the artists that have to be out front, and gradually people follow.

What do you plan to do next?
My next book will come out in a year. After that, I’m hoping to get back into television. I think the Muslim community is ready to handle something more complex, and I’m ready to make that kind of show. I can’t keep making Little Mosque. My prayer is that I can always keep moving forward with something.

Is it hard for Muslim writers and artists to break into the mainstream?
After Little Mosque came out, a lot of young people said they didn’t know it was possible to break into television. Strangely, it was Islamophobia that gave me a chance to break in. I don’t think anyone would have cared about me or my work otherwise. I made short comedies, but they didn’t get much attention. That was before the diversity movement of media. Now there’s a market for it.

I think Muslims are coming-of-age in the arts. We’re becoming more sophisticated in how we see, consume, and talk about art. Muslims are craving more honest depictions of themselves and their environment, regardless of genre, and we want to see more stories break into the mainstream. Like any minority community, we want to tell our own stories, from our own point-of-view, and not have them told to us by other people. We need more of that in every genre, and I do see more and more Muslims going into writing.

Who do you hope will read the book?
Everyone. I hope that people who enjoy comedy and good stories will read the book. I do get a good cross-section of people who read and watch my work, including Muslims and non-Muslims, people who care about faith, and people who don’t. That’s what I want. I don’t want to appeal to one or the other, I just want to appeal people in general.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Firdaus Arastu is an Assistant Editor at altMuslimah.


Excerpt:

Muslims don’t believe in ghosts or in zombie viruses that allow you to go on undead forever, eating the living for nourishment (with the exception of Hugh Hefner, whom we disapprove of ). Once you’re put into the ground, you’re never coming back to haunt anyone. If you didn’t have a chance to say goodbye properly, want to tell the police who murdered you, or need to pass on an urgent secret, it’s too late. A Muslim never has the chance to scrawl the words ‘A spoonful of grape jelly in the meat sauce was my secret to the lasagne’ on a steamed mirror after someone’s shower. If Patrick Swayze’s character had been Muslim, Ghost would have been over in five minutes.

According to Islam, you get one shot at this life, and once your soul departs, it’s a one-way ticket straight into the light, no reminders about dry-cleaning for the living. Muslims believe only white people coming out of comas see the white light. I don’t know what Muslims see after they come out of comas – probably bickering relatives. So horror movies have no effect on me at all. No nightmares or lingering worries. Unless they involve possession. Then I must watch with sick fascination until the end. But watching those movies comes at a price.

‘I could have a picnic in a graveyard,’ I said. ‘That’s how
brave I am.’

‘So prove it to me by going to the outhouse,’ replied Sami drily. ‘I’d really like to leave soon.’

I stared him down. ‘I could get possessed by a jinn,’ I hissed.

‘And I could get eaten by a dingo,’ Sami said.

‘What’s a jinn?’ asked Zayn.

Sami looked at me.

‘I’ll take this,’ I replied. ‘OK, so you know how Muslims believe that humans are made from clay, and angels are made from light?’

‘Yep,’ said Zayn.

‘We also believe in a third creation. They’re called jinn and they’re made from smokeless fire.’

‘Are jinn ghosts?’ asked Zayn.

‘No, but they’re invisible to the human eye, like God and Wi-Fi.’

‘This is not the way kids should be taught about religion,’ said Sami with apprehension.

‘Relax,’ I replied. ‘Think of it as a real-world lesson.’

‘Except that it’s not very real,’ he grumbled.

‘But what’s a jinn?’ asked Zayn.

‘They’re kind of like people – they have free will, marry, have kids, follow different religions – but they’re invisible and live in areas that aren’t inhabited by humans. Outhouses in a forest are a magnet for jinn.’

I knew that sounded crazy but that’s what I believed.

‘So that’s why Mama can’t pee outside,’ said Maysa.

‘Apparently,’ said Sami. ‘But she’s made jinn into monsters in her mind.’ Sami believed that jinn were more like bad subconscious inclinations, like a devil on one of your shoulders, opposing the angel on the other. But I believed that sometimes the world of jinn and humans intersected. What to me was an outhouse could be a three-bedroom ranch for a jinn. And then it would take me for an intruder, get mad and possess me in retaliation, and I’d become just like Emily Rose.

‘Can jinn watch her while she pees?’ asked Zayn.

‘No one watches you while you pee,’ said Sami.

‘I watch Rashad sometimes,’ said Zayn.

‘Abbu!’ yelled Rashad.

‘No one watches you as long as you lock the door.’ Sami looked at Zayn. ‘Stop watching your brother.’

‘How much longer before we get home?’ I asked.

‘Really, you’re going to wait that long?’

‘Don’t you remember the stories growing up? They can change into the shape of a human except for one part, like a hairy paw, which stays in their true animal form.’

‘Mama’s pretty hairy,’ said Zayn.

‘Yeah, she is,’ said Inaya, looking at me with curiosity. ‘Can you become invisible?’

‘My friend Anila told me that jinn can make themselves look human when it’s convenient for them,’ said Maysa. ‘And that some of them are Muslim.’

‘Sometimes Mama just disappears when it’s story time,’ said Rashad. ‘Like she became invisible.’

The kids looked at me suspiciously.

‘I’m not a jinn,’ I yelled, looking at Sami for support.
‘You started this,’ he said unsympathetically.

‘Jinn eat poo and live in forests, which I do not do,’ I said to Sami.

‘Yuck,’ said Maysa.

‘Or do they eat bones? What did you learn, poo or bones?’ Sami didn’t have the decency to answer me. He started the engine. But I didn’t let it deter me.

‘What were the rules again? Don’t sit on them or pour hot water on them. But what I don’t get is, if you can’t see them, how are you supposed to not step on them and make them mad enough to possess you?’ I said. ‘It’s a huge dilemma.’

‘I’m sure for you it is,’ he said.

‘Make fun of me all you want, but some people believe that they can mate with humans. Maybe I’m the outhouse jinn’s type.’

‘No one is anyone’s type on the toilet,’ responded Sami.

‘What if they wanted to eat my poo, mate with me and then possess me?’

Sami refused to answer. I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t taking me seriously. I opened the door and got out cautiously. I returned moments later.

‘That was quick,’ said Sami.

‘I was just returning the key,’ I said glumly. ‘Let’s just go home as fast as possible.’

Sami put the minivan into drive and we merged on to the highway, leaving my outhouse of doom behind. I felt every bump and jolt for the next two hours.

This extract was taken from Laughing All The Way To The Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz, out now. Zarqa is the creator of the television series, Little Mosque on the Prairie.

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