Shortly after the birth of her first daughter, Zarqa Nawaz embarked on a holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Millions of Muslims around the world have done the same. But Nawaz may be the only Muslim who tried to use this arduous spiritual journey as an opportunity to take a belated honeymoon with her husband. In Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, Narwaz’s raucous memoir, she describes her reaction upon finding out that marital relations are, in fact, forbidden during the pilgrimage: “WHAT? Why would God do that?”
No, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque is not your typical treatment of Islam. The book is a giddy romp through Nawaz’s experience as a Muslim living in Canada — first in the suburbs of Ontario, and then in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. Nawaz lovingly revels in all the idiosyncrasies of her faith and her community, finding humor in a religion that is not typically regarded as being ripe for comedy. Or as Nawaz put it during a conversation with Women in the World, her book may be the only memoir by a Muslim woman “who didn’t get shot by the Taliban or kidnapped by Somali pirates.”
“I’m almost bitter about that,” Nawaz added. “My husband’s like, ‘Really would you have wanted me to beat you?’ I go, ‘It would have helped.’”
It is perhaps needless to say that Nawaz tends to stomp where others tread lightly. She is a journalist and television writer, who garnered international acclaim after her sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie aired on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC). Little Mosque, a comedy about a Muslim community in Saskatchewan, launched in 2006, when the wounds of 9/11 were still raw. By inviting viewers to laugh at the antics of the Muslims in her show, Nawaz sought to humanize a group of people who had become the objects of international fear and suspicion. And the public responded. The premiere episode of Little Mosque drew over two million viewers—huge for a Canadian television series—and enjoyed a six-year run.
“What made Little Mosque so successful was that it was really so relatable,” Nawaz said, reflecting on the show. “Which really surprised me, because when you’re on the inside, you really, truly believe you belong to the biggest whack-job community in the world … And [then viewers who watched the series said], ‘Oh my god, the same thing happened in my church, or synagogue, or my soccer association.’”
“Someone [once] told me something that when you make something very culturally specific, the more specific it is, the more universal it becomes,” Nawaz continued. “That surprised me. I would never have believed it until I actually did it.”
With that lesson in mind, Nawaz set out to write Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, which delves into the personal experiences that inspired so much of her television series. Though the book is rooted in the specificity of Nawaz’s life as a Muslim woman, broad themes emerge: cultural confusion, overbearing parents, motherhood, and — of course — faith.
Nawaz never reduces Islam to a punchline, but her religious beliefs fuel many of her anecdotes — as do the community of Muslims who populate the book’s narrative. Nawaz writes of a local Halal butcher who sells both beef and alarm clocks. She goes into great length about her mother’s attempt to marry her off to a man with one eye. An entire chapter of the book is devoted to her need to install a toilet within reaching distance of her sink. “Muslims have guilt about unwashed private parts,” Nawaz writes. “We buff our twigs and berries and muffins as if they were the hood ornaments of an expensive European car.”
Though Nawaz realizes that quips about Muslim twigs and berries might inflame certain sensitivities, she insists that she never sets out to stoke the fire. “I don’t choose to do it,” she said of writing comedy. “That’s the only way I can do it.”
Nawaz’s comedic calling has not made for a particularly smooth career path. Much has been said about the meager representation of women in comedy; as a Muslim female comedy writer, Nawaz feels that the odds are doubly stacked against her. She said that selling her book to publishers was “an uphill battle” (Laughing All the Way to the Mosque was eventually bought by HarperCollins in Canada and Virago Press in the UK). One industry official told her that the memoir was “too happy.”
“Tina Fey never would have been told that her book was too happy, and therefore it was lightweight, because she’s white,” Nawaz said. “And white women, it’s a given that their lives are happy. But if you’re Muslim and brown, that’s not the narrative that people want to hear … The only narrative that works for Muslim women [is] ‘the oppressed Muslim woman gets beaten by her abusive, patriarchal, Muslim man.’ If it doesn’t follow that linear line, then people aren’t interested in your story.”
Though Nawaz does indeed dabble in the occasional toilet humor, it would be a mistake to dismiss Laughing All the Way to the Mosque as confectionary. The book makes it clear that while Nawaz loves her community, she is not afraid to challenge its interpretations of Islam. In one chapter, she describes her displeasure upon discovering that her mosque had decided to relegate women to a separate room during prayers. In another, she depicts the painful fallout of Little Mosque.
After the show aired, members of Nawaz’s community turned on her, enraged that her fictional Muslims pinched each other’s bottoms and cracked jokes about menstrual blood. At one point, they surrounded her husband after prayers and demanded that he ask for a divorce. “It was becoming clear that I lived in a conservative immigrant community who felt that poking fun of Muslims was tantamount to making fun of Islam,” Nawaz writes. “They couldn’t distinguish between the two.”
Nawaz was angered and hurt, but she kept silent about the incident for years. “I told no one, because I didn’t want the media to take advantage of it,” she explained. “When the show first came out, people kept saying, ‘Muslims have no sense of humor,’ because it was at the heels of the Danish cartoon controversy. And if they had known what the community had done, they would have said, ‘See, we were right.’”
Looking back, Nawaz believes that the community was afraid — afraid that it would be made to look ridiculous during a time when Muslims around the world were already under scrutiny. “That showed forced people to re-evaluate things, and get desensitized, and absorb a different aesthetic,” she said. “People who were really upset about the show, I think now there’s a profound sense of regret that they had been like that. I think those voices have been changed by the success of the show and the love of the show. So I think there’s a new feeling about what I produce.”
With that painful episode behind her, Nawaz is determined to push forward with her singular brand of irreverence. Her next project is a comedy novel about a young Muslim woman who accidentally joins an “ISIS-like group.” Wielding a comedic hammer over subjects that tend to be treated with the utmost sobriety helps Nawaz “navigate the world and figure it out.” It also allows her to take back the narrative of her religion — from extremists who do not represent her, and from media accounts that do not reflect the Islam she loves.
“I meet [Muslim] parents who are disappointed their kids went into medicine,” Nawaz said with a laugh. “A lot of parents are [thinking], ‘We want our kids to go into storytelling, and entertainment, and culture.’ Because the only way you can get people to understand your culture is to get cultural product out. And you have to do it on your own terms.”