Getting over an ex is a plot as old as Hollywood, but a new series wants to challenge the face behind it.
Walk in ZARQAa new show about a middle-aged Muslim divorcee who seeks to outdo her ex after finding out he’s marrying a white yoga teacher half her age.
The CBC Gem original series, airing Friday, is named after and stars published writer, producer and author Zarqa Nawaz.
In 2007, Nawaz created the acclaimed series Little Mosque in the Meadow. This time, Nawaz steps in front of the camera to introduce the audience to a character they’ve never seen before: a precocious, slightly chaotic Muslim woman going through a midlife crisis.
“All the Muslim women (on screen) are always like those calm, pious, good women who wear the hijab and are kind wives or daughters or mothers or are oppressed by terrible Muslim men or… stuck in a cave captured by the Taliban,” Nawaz said. Radio Canada News.
She says the media often feeds off of these tropes and stereotypes, leaving very little room for original storytelling. Nawaz and other Muslim creators say that to tell more authentic and complex stories about Muslims, they must have the space and access to explore universal themes.
In ZARQANawaz’s character sets the stage for impulsiveness, navigating her ex’s new relationship and overlooking the impact of her actions on the people around her.
As the story unfolds, the show touches on experiences that most can relate to: feeling undervalued, jealous, or the pressure to maintain a certain image in line. It happens to be a Muslim woman who takes the audience on a journey.
“She goes through this because Muslim women who wear the hijab also get jealous and have revenge fantasies, like all other women, and I wanted to explore that,” Nawaz said.
“And I think it’s important for people to see that, because it opens their eyes and says, ‘Hey, you know, she’s going through the same things I’m going through.'”
Nawaz says showing Zarqa’s flaws only adds to her appeal, and witnessing the “stupid” or “terrible things” she does allows audiences to understand by seeing her own mistakes.
A lack of representation
In 2021, actor Riz Ahmed led a report on the lack of Muslim representation in Hollywood. The study found that in 100 American films made between 2017 and 2019, only 1.1% of the characters were Muslim and even when there was representation, it was mostly men in those roles.
The report also pointed out that “Muslims, both on and off screen, have been forced into a narrative that normalizes them as violent and positions their faith as linked to extremism.”
This kind of portrayal is something Egyptian-Canadian filmmaker Asil Moussa is used to. That’s why she vividly remembers watching Little mosque on the prairie for the first time.
“I was like, ‘Is that like seeing yourself on TV? And that’s like totally normal,'” Moussa said. “I had never experienced this before.”
For a young Moussa who dreamed of seeing more Muslim films on screen, she knew that if she wanted more, she would have to write the stories herself.
“Film and TV really influence our collective culture,” Moussa said. “I think especially for the Muslim community that has been reviled for so long, we want to see our stories, stories of love and positive stories of family and life from our perspectives and our struggles – which are from anyway universal struggles for the human condition – represented.”
Honest and authentic stories
Moussa wants her work to create a feeling that she hasn’t been able to have – a sense of being a valued member of society and part of the culture and community she has found herself in. His first short film The map was featured on CBC Gem’s Confrontation of short films, a magazine show featuring short films from across Canada.
But in mainstream media, that portrayal is very slowly starting to happen. Shows like Transplantation, We Are Lady Parts and Rummy pave the way for Muslim-based storylines made by Muslim creators.
“It feels more honest, it feels more authentic, it feels rooted in truth, and it’s driven by people from those communities,” Moussa said of the change in representation in the industry.
Seeing the same ideas and tropes repeated on screen is what ultimately led Hirra Farooqi, along with Obaid Ullah, to co-found the International Muslim Film Festival.
“Muslims are not monolithic. Muslims are not all the same. There are so many different types of Muslims, so many different lifestyles,” said Farooqi, who is also the festival’s CEO.
Farooqi and Ullah have intentionally placed importance on sourcing films from around the world to include a wealth of stories and show the range of what it means to be a Muslim, as well as to help combat Islamophobia.
“I often approach the characters as if they were just one person and they just happen to be Muslims,” Farooqi said. “A Muslim woman who just wears a hijab and just lives her life is very important.”
For Nawaz, she hopes ZARQA is one of the stories that can reflect this type of storytelling.
“I think it’s important for people to see us as 100% human beings and have all these complexities of what it’s like to feel these emotions.”