Her Comic Take
With her zany, satirical films, Canadian Zarqa Nawaz wants to be a
By Carol Eisenberg
July 30, 2003
Zarqa Nawaz aims to set the world straight about one thing: Just
because a woman wears a head scarf, doesn't mean she has no sense of
The 35-year-old Canadian filmmaker describes herself as a
conservative Muslim who covers her hair, prays five times daily and
is active in her local mosque. But she is also a quirky storyteller
whose madcap farces about North American Muslim life have created a
huge buzz in the Muslim community and on some college campuses in
Canada and the United States.
"I make 'terrodies,' or comedies about terrorist themes," Nawaz says
with the deadpan delivery of a practiced stand-up. "You have
dramadies. And these are terrodies, a new film genre which I feel I
And with her own shoestring company, FUNdamentalist Films - its
slogan is "putting the fun back in fundamentalism," - she says she's
working toward her breakthrough as a Muslim Woody Allen.
"The time is right," she says. "The marketplace has never been this
curious about Muslims."
Nawaz's first endeavors -film shorts "BBQ Muslims" (1996) and "Death
Threat" (1998) were well received for novice efforts, though she did
get a few complaints from foreign-born Muslims who didn't get the
Now she's seeking a producer for "Real Terrorists Don't Belly Dance,"
a full-length comedy she is convinced will be her crossover hit. The
screenplay is about a Muslim couple whose lives collide when the
groom, a struggling actor, takes a job playing an Arab terrorist so
he can afford an engagement ring. Things fall apart when his fiancee
is hired by a Muslim advocacy group trying to shame the film's
investors into dropping the project.
"I believe it's going to catch everyone by surprise the same way
that 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' did," she says.
Say what you will about her work, Nawaz has confidence, or what her
hero, Allen, might call chutzpah.
In many ways, she represents the other Islamic revolution: a movement
of second-generation North American Muslims, who were weaned on
Western popular culture as well as the Quran, and who are assured and
well educated. Many are now making waves in the worlds of art and
academia. Nawaz, for instance, has also been a commentator and online
diarist for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and a frequent
participant in interfaith dialogues, in addition to her film work.
"She's a trailblazer," said Sheema Khan, chairwoman of the Canadian
office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "You don't see
too many Muslim women filmmakers. But she's a second-generation
Muslim who is thoroughly familiar with the North American experience,
and who has maintained her Islamic identity and thrived in it. And
she is creating new narratives about Muslim experiences in North
America, using humor and social commentary."
Of course, other artists have mined ethnic heritage before her. Nia
Vardalos rode the juggernaut of "Greek Wedding" straight from her
native Winnipeg to Hollywood. And comedies set within particular
subcultures, like "Bend It Like Beckham" and "Monsoon Wedding," have
been sleeper hits in both the United States and Canada.
But Nawaz's work is edgier because it serves up social criticism
alongside satire at a time of undeniable curiosity - but also
paranoia - about all things Muslim.
"She splits open cultural issues and stereotypes, and throws them up
onto the screen, says Anita Doran, a former Soviet Jew and filmmaker
who worked with her in Canada's prestigious Women in the Director's
"Even though she's a traditional Muslim woman and her community is
very important to her, she's not afraid to tackle issues in a way
that make people laugh, but also make them think."
Whether Nawaz's work will find a wide audience, however, remains to
be seen. She is still largely unknown in the United States, and the
competition for money by independent filmmakers is intense.
"I think she has a good possibility of commercial success because
there's such an interest in Islamic issues," said Canadian filmmaker
Robin Schlaht, a member of the Canadian Film and Television Producers
Association. "My guess? She might not be famous in five years, but
she'll certainly be well respected."
Nawaz's first film, "BBQ Muslims" - inspired by her anger at the
finger-pointing at Muslims following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing -
was about a pair of Muslim brothers suspected of being Middle Eastern
terrorists after their backyard barbecue explodes. "This bombing has
all the markings of Muslim fundamentalists: a large hole in the
ground, charred grass and dead animals," says a radio news announcer
at the film's start.
Next came "Death Threat," inspired by the religious edicts against
writers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. That film is about an
aspiring Muslim novelist who fakes her own death threat in an effort
to generate interest in her first novel, a pulp romance, "The
Unquenched Wench of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan."
Both films skewer not only Western stereotypes of Muslims and
extremist interpretations of Islam, but also the conventions of
middle-class Canadian Muslim culture. And though filmed on minuscule
budgets - or in the case of "BBQ Muslims," a virtually nonexistent
one (it was a student project, shot in Nawaz's parents' home) - both
were crowd-pleasers when they premiered at the Toronto International
Film Festival in 1996 and 1998.
"Her films elicit visceral laughter," said Brenda Anderson, a
religious studies professor in Saskatchewan who uses Nawaz's films in
her classes. "Then, the students are embarrassed as they wonder, Am I
supposed to laugh? Am I being racist? Then they realize, oh yes, 'BBQ
Muslims.' It's supposed to be funny. And, oh look, Muslims can laugh
at themselves, too."
But while Nawaz's films are popular in some circles, they have also
provoked strong negative reactions.
Nawaz describes how an older man from South Asia stormed up to her
after a screening at a meeting of the Islamic Society of North
America in May.
"'In my eyes,'" he said to me, 'You're no better than Salman
Rushdie,'" Nawaz recalls.
He was livid that she had portrayed men dressed as pious Muslims
holding what appeared to be a large gun.
"I said to him, 'No, but don't you see? The gun turned into a coat
rack,' Nawaz recalls explaining. "'I was playing with that stereotype
and, literally, turning it upside down.'"
Eventually, she was able to calm the man down.
"But it was a real eye-opener to me," Nawaz says. "He didn't get the
humor at all. It was partly a language problem and partly a cultural
problem. I'm finding that I'm a real novelty in my own community.
There just aren't a lot of people in it who've gone out and made
Even her own parents, who are Pakistani-born, watch her films without
cracking a smile, she says.
"For my parents' generation, this type of humor is difficult to
understand because it's satire. And I'm finding that satire is very
Nawaz has traveled a long way from her immigrant parents' world.
Once, she had planned on becoming a doctor - "every immigrant
parent's dream for their child."
"I tried," she recalls. "I really did. I applied to medical school at
least twice. But no school would let me in. I was devastated."
Inspired by a close friend studying journalism, she applied and was
accepted into the journalism program at Ryerson University in
Toronto. "The writing came naturally," she recalls. "It was clearly
where my talents lay."
After working for a while as a writer and producer for the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp., in the summer of 1995 she enrolled in a three-
week workshop in filmmaking at the Ontario College of Art. She has
never looked back.
"Norman Jewison, a famous Canadian director, said that 'film is the
literature of this generation,'" she says. "That really resonated
with me. My dream is to make a film significant enough to change
someone, even in a small way."
While Nawaz's filmmaking style is satiric, her personal manner is
anything but biting. Speaking by phone from her parent's kitchen in
Toronto, where she is visiting with her four young children, she
radiates warmth and wit. And the stories keep tumbling out - about
her mosque, her marriage, and the time all four of her kids came down
with chicken pox just as she was leaving for a prestigious directors'
workshop. (Her husband, a psychiatrist, took care of them on his own.)
Asked where her humor comes from, she is momentarily nonplussed.
"I guess it's Canadian," she says hesitantly, noting her country's
rich tradition of satire. "I think it comes from watching Canadian
situation comedies and listening to CBC."
Her friends, however, suggest another view - that she developed it as
a survival skill to disarm others and to defend herself in a world
that was often hostile. They tell how she was often taunted with
cries of "Paki" when her family moved to Canada in the early 1970s,
when she was 5. At one point, her parents were so worried about her
safety they gave her karate classes.
"The jokes became like a big exhale - a way to laugh about the things
that could otherwise make you feel very isolated as the only Muslim
girl in your class," says her best friend, Rahat Kurd, now a writer
"We used to egg each other on, finding the humor in situations that
you could get into as a Muslim. Like trying to explain the five daily
prayers to someone at school. Or looking for a place to pray and the
kinds of comic situations you could get into. . . .All the material
from our daily lives became fodder for humor."
In that sense, Nawaz has simply transferred that lifelong habit onto
a much larger, more provocative canvas.
For instance, she is working now on a documentary about the role of
women in mosques. The project grew out of an agonizing dispute within
her own community about whether to have a segregated prayer area for
women. The final decision in her own mosque, which she opposed, was
to create such an area. Despite the contentiousness of the subject,
she swears this film, too, will be funny.
"People have said to me, 'Why are you exposing divisions in the
community at a time when we are under siege?'" Nawaz says. "But I
want to show people that we are not a monolith and that we don't need
to be rescued by the West. I want to show how Muslim women are
arguing from within Islamic discourse to get their rights back."
On a lighter note, she is also developing a television series
revolving around a young Arab-Canadian who takes on the role of an
imam in a Saskatchewan mosque - a sort of "Northern Exposure" about
larger-than-life Muslim characters. The stories revolve around his
efforts to navigate among the different perspectives of Pakistanis
and Arabs, first-generation and second- generation, and men and
women - in short, all the stuff of her own experience in Regina, a
city in Saskatchewan.
Ultimately, Nawaz said, she wants to establish herself as an artist
exploring universal themes, rather than as an advocate of a
"My goal is not to make Muslim films," she says. "It's to make really
amazing films. . . that have the power to transform."
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