Acclaimed Little Mosque on the Prairie creator Zarqa Nawaz is returning to the small screen next summer with a new CBC comedy series.
She is the creator, showrunner and lead actor in ZARQA, a comedy about a divorced Muslim woman. The show follows Zarqa (the self-titled character played by Nawaz), who learns that her ex-husband is marrying a white yoga instructor half his age. To get back at him, Zarqa decides she will find a date for the wedding too.
For Nawaz, ZARQA is a chance to expand the types of Muslim stories available on TV in Canada.
“I was watching shows like Workin’ Moms and Divorce, and there are all these shows with women who are single and divorced, but they tend to be white,” she said.
“And I realized that we don’t have a lot of shows out there with Muslim women who are struggling with the same issues. Usually Muslim women portray refugees or the wife of a terrorist — a very narrow range of personalities.
“And I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore this avenue with a Muslim woman? Because this also happens to Muslims. Divorce is a universal issue and we should explore it on television.”
To secure her date for her ex’s wedding, Zarqa finds a man named Brian on a dating app.
“I meet him at the Willow — of course, we’re shooting this locally — and he, of course, is so thrilled to be dating,” she said. “He’s never met a Muslim woman before.”
And that’s when the trouble starts.
“I immediately see him, take a picture and send it out — ‘I found him and I’m coming with him to my ex’s wedding,'” she said.
“And that is my first big mistake, because I’ve told everyone before I really found out what Brian wants. And Brian wants a relationship, not to be revenge arm candy.”
In the days before the wedding, Zarqa and Brian go on dates — everything from dinner to birdwatching — as they learn more about each other and their respective cultures.
“It’s the comedy of that,” said Nawaz.
Nawaz’s personality, but not her life
In writing ZARQA, Nawaz channelled some of her own personality into the title character.
“She’s very impulsive and she doesn’t think before she does things,” she said. “She doesn’t look before she leaps. And that’s definitely part of my personality.”
Saskatchewan Weekend11:43New sitcom from Zarqa Nawaz starts production
But Nawaz wanted to be clear that while the show and the title character share her first name, this is a comedy, not a documentary.
“It is not [autobiographical],” she said. “I want to tell everyone that, so everyone can stop sending me emails saying ‘you’re such a brave woman, to have raised four children alone without your husband.’ He has not left me — we’re very happy, we’re still married. I just wanted to explore this idea.”
In fact, she said her family has been supportive throughout this whole process — even when she was following them around the house with the script binder, trying to get them to run lines with her.
“I think they’re thrilled and happy with it, because this is just so hilarious — I hadn’t worked in television for a while and then suddenly to be acting?” she said. “I think they think it’s just hysterical.”
Nawaz credits the strong team working on ZARQA for how well production has gone so far.
Show writers, along with Nawaz, include Sadiya Durrani (Little Mosque on the Prairie, Overlord and the Underwoods) and Claire Ross Dunn (Little Mosque on the Prairie, Degrassi). Liz Whitmere, Candy Fox and Iman Zawahry are directing.
“I’m overjoyed that I am able to be a part of a project led by a Muslim woman telling comedic stories of our everyday, often hilarious lives,” said Zawahry, who is directing the first two episodes.
And while Nawaz is looking forward to seeing ZARQA on TV, for her, the most exciting part of this project is “bringing production back to the province.”
“You know, Corner Gas and Little Mosque came out of this province,” she said. “Those were big shows, and they gave the country confidence that we could make sitcoms. So I’m really proud of the fact that it came out of our province.
“We have this incredible production community in Canada — but particularly in Saskatchewan — and then to reignite that whole process again with some of the same people who had been responsible for those shows, it’s so wonderful to bring that family back.”