Be ye not afraid, or hesitant: Apparently it's all right — encouraged, even — to laugh at funny Muslims on TV situation comedies. Nowhere in North America is that reassurance needed more than metro Detroit, particularly in and around Dearborn, home to the largest concentration of Arab-speaking people outside the Middle East. You see, a nano-trend is developing in prime time that's both encouraging and perplexing to many of us who can't find Mecca on a map.
It began last season in Canada, of all places, with the gentle, loopy comedy Little Mosque on the Prairie, airing at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on CBC, seen in this market over Windsor's Channel 9. The humorous struggles of a small Muslim community in the fictional prairie town of Mercy as they work to coexist with their skeptical neighbors (and with each other), Little Mosque became the surprise hit in CBC's lineup. Imitation being flattery, the fish-out-of-water theme was spun into a U.S. version called Aliens in America at 8:30 p.m. Mondays on The CW (Channel 50), featuring the disarmingly delightful Adhir Kalyan as a Pakistani exchange student named Raja whose arrival whips the village of Medora, Wis., into a frenzy.
By themselves, these series represent a giant step forward in media imagery. These are not your 24-type Muslims, vicious jihad extremists; these are everyday people living life with all its foibles and trying to gain acceptance in their greater communities. What a concept. Because the very notion is so new to TV, however, a nagging thought arose: What if this is tantamount to how African-Americans feel about Amos 'n' Andy? Fun is being poked at people's religious beliefs. Given the senstitivities of the times, how do Muslims feel about portrayals like these?
Thanks to the phenomenal cooperation of Kim Silarski, director of communications for the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Idiot Boxing invited a diverse group of Arab-Americans to the museum to view an episode of each show and discuss their reactions. Our panel:
- Sarah Bassal, a 2005 psychology graduate of the University of Tennessee and an educator at the museum. She worked briefly for CNN in Atlanta and recently began wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering;
- Her sister, Susan Bassal, a University of Texas law school grad who worked for CNN Washington and co-hosts a show for young Arab-Americans on satellite television called What's Happening. Like Sarah, Susan now wears the hijab full time. "I've had my tires slashed at Wal-Mart," she says.
- Ron Amen, a retired Wayne County Sheriff deputy who conducted the in-service cultural sensitivity training required of every officer. A Dearborn native and "third-generation Muslim American," he has been facilities manager for the museum since its opening.
- Mona Amen, Ron's wife, a Lebanese Muslim who works for the mayor of Dearborn Heights.
- Warren David, president and CEO of David Communications, a Dearborn PR and marketing firm specializing in the Arab Islamic market. A third-generation Arab American of Lebanese-Syrian descent, David launched the community Web site arabdetroit.com in May.
- Fay Saad, administrative assistant at the museum. Born in Lebanon, she was raised in east Dearborn, where she and her husband raised their four children.
- Said Deep, a former reporter at one of Detroit's daily newspapers who now works in public affairs and product development for Ford Motor Company and sits on the Dearborn City Planning Commission and other city agencies. A Lebanese-American, Deep maintains the Web site deepsaidwhat.com on Dearborn news and issues.
- Catherine Deep, Said's wife and the only non-Arab American in the group. A West Virginia native, "I did not know an Arab or Muslim person until I met my husband," she says. "So all of this, and all of Dearborn, is still very new to me."
We began by watching a significant episode of Little Mosque titled "Ban the Burka," as a mysterious woman arrives in Mercy dressed head-to-toe in a traditional burka garment, revealing only her eyes, and sends shock waves through the town. "I found the show actually kind of entertaining," Said remarked, slightly surprised.
We then viewed the pilot of Aliens in America, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Ron, who already was familiar with both shows, said of Little Mosque, "It's a very funny show. I think it's pretty well-written and I think it's a great idea for Muslims to be able to poke fun at themselves on TV. We've seen our Jewish cousins doing this for many years, and they've made a lot of money in the process! I think these kinds of programs can go a long way toward getting other Americans to see that we're mainstream, that we're all Americans.
"The one criticism I have, and it's a mild one, is that on both shows, all of the (Muslim) characters are Indo-Pakistanis," Amen noted. "I think if they really wanted to take a bold step forward, they would introduce an Arab, possibly even an Arab Shiite. Then they would really be trendsetters."
Added David, "The last time I was invited to a screening was the late '80s, and it was [the NBC terrorist TV-movie] Under Siege. I remember coming out and a reporter asked me what I thought of it. I said, 'I feel like I've been raped.' And they carried that comment like it was news. We've really come a long way when you can see programs like these that really humanize a culture, a society. I think it's the greatest thing. I hope there are more programs like them."Jim McFarlin is media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]