Photos: Mosque (canbedone/Getty Images); Jameela Green Ruins Everything; Zarqa Nawaz (Courtesy of CBC)
Jameela Green Ruins Everything
Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the CBC TV comedy "Little Mosque on the Prairie," has penned a dark, deeply personal and extremely funny first novel that humanizes Muslim lives / BY Dene Moore / March 11th, 2022
It’s a book about anti-Muslim racism, rendition, torture and the tragedy caused by generations of failed U.S. policy in the Middle East. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
That’s not an easy feat to achieve, but Zarqa Nawaz, creator of the Gemini Award-winning TV comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie, manages to do just that in her debut novel, Jameela Green Ruins Everything.
“I’ve used humour in all aspects of my work. From the beginning, I’ve always used satire,” Nawaz, 54, says in a phone interview from her home in Regina. “It’s what comes naturally to me, and it helps me process the world. And I find it’s a great way of connecting with people, because if you can get people to laugh with you – sometimes at you – then they’re kind of willing to let their guard down and have an honest discussion.”
Sharp Social Satire
The fantastical tale of Jameela Green begins as she releases a memoir, just like Nawaz did in 2014, when she published Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, about growing up Muslim in Western society.
Jameela, a 40-something mother and wife living in fictional Liverspot, North Dakota, desperately wants her book to make The New York Times bestseller list, so desperately that she seeks guidance at her local mosque for the first time in decades. She wants God’s help.
The new imam, recently arrived in America, explains there is no quid pro quo with God, but convinces her to accompany him as he does a good deed. It all goes terribly wrong when the kind-hearted imam takes in a lost soul entangled with the fictional Dominion of the Islamic Caliphate and Kingdom, or DICK. Suspected of links to the group, the imam disappears into the black hole of terrorist paranoia when he is taken to a secret U.S. military site in Syria.
His only hope is Jameela, a sarcastic cynic armed with lessons from RuPaul’s Drag Race, who is still emotionally broken from the murder of her brother 20 years earlier. The outlandish events that unfold in this social satire are ever-more absurd, although arguably not as absurd as some of the real-life events that inspired the novel.
Fans of outlandish tales like Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared or Romain Puértolas’ The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe will recognize the cheeky tone, although Nawaz’s subject matter and humour are darker. There are beheading jokes, and nobody goes unscathed – including the CIA, police, politicians, insurgents, non-Muslims and Muslims.
Nawaz began writing the novel in 2014 as ISIS, or the Islamic State, emerged as the extremist successor to al Qaeda. Anti-Muslim sentiment and racist rhetoric was at its peak in Canada and other Western nations. The author, a practicing Muslim who has lived in Regina for about 25 years, wanted to bring deeper analysis to the conversation. It was heady stuff for comedy, and several publishing houses gave it a pass before the novel was picked up in 2020 by HarperCollins in the United States, where the book came out May 10, and Simon & Schuster in Canada, where it came out March 8.
“I had a lot of editors say this book is too over the top, these things are too much, and I was like, ‘but why?’ All those things I wrote about actually happened to Muslims. They’re happening now,” she says. “We dehumanize people from the Middle East and the Arab world. And I wanted to bring back the humanity of those stories.”
For all the political and historical context of Cold War-era incursions in Afghanistan and American imperialist failures in Iraq that form its foundation, Jameela Green Ruins Everything is also a deeply personal book. Like her protagonist, Nawaz has had a lot of anxiety about success.
“I had really hoped that (Laughing All the Way to the Mosque) would go to The New York Times bestseller list, and it hadn’t,” she says about her memoir.
Her hopes of a second television show with CBC or another broadcaster had also stalled after the sixth and final season of Little Mosque on the Prairie wrapped in 2012.
“I was going through a fairly difficult time, emotionally and mentally and spiritually,” she explains. “I was kind of feeling like my career had stalled, and I wondered, you know, as a person of faith, how you process failure when you’re a very ambitious person, and you expected to be in a different place in your career.
“I was sort of grappling with the whole idea of how much success has to do with your identity and sense of self.”
She channelled those anxieties into Jameela to riotous effect, and the writing process was cathartic.
“I’m a daughter of immigrants,” she says about her parents, who came to Canada from England when she was very young. Her father, in particular, believed she would have to work harder and be better than everyone else because she was a Muslim woman.
“That creates a strong sense of drive and ambition inside of you where failure just cannot be an option,” she says. “Your sense of self and identity are too interwoven into success. I had to learn that you have to sort of let go of external success and concentrate on being grateful for the things that you have, your family and the people who love you and your community. Because if you get so caught up in the external, then you lose yourself internally.”
Just For More Laughs
Nawaz has a new original comedy series called Zarqa that will debut on CBC Gem on May 13, which she wrote and stars in. The web series, with an initial slate of six, 10-minute episodes, is her response to the tired Hollywood trope of brown men coveting white trophy wives. When the fictional Zarqa learns her ex-husband is marrying a white yoga instructor half her age, she impulsively says she will attend the wedding with her non-existent white, brain-surgeon boyfriend, Brian.
“If you had told me eight years ago that I’d have another television series in which I’d be the lead actor, it wouldn’t have even been conceivable for me at that time,” says the married mother of four adult children.
She is hoping the short web series is picked up as an ongoing TV series, but beyond that, the former journalist, broadcaster and film and television producer doesn’t know what’s next.
“I just kind of go where life leads me and whatever door opens,” she says. “And I think I’ve learned my lesson about despair and thinking my career is over.”