Getting back at an ex is a plot as old as Hollywood, but a new series wants to challenge the face behind it.
Enter ZARQA, a new show about a middle-aged Muslim divorcee who is looking to one-up her ex after finding out he is marrying a white yoga instructor half his age.
The CBC Gem original series, which streams on Friday, is named after and stars writer, producer and published author Zarqa Nawaz.
In 2007, Nawaz created the acclaimed series Little Mosque on the Prairie. This time, Nawaz is stepping in front of the camera to bring audiences a character they haven’t seen before: a precocious, slightly chaotic, Muslim woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.
“All Muslim women (on screen) are always like these quiet, pious, good women who wear hijab and are nice wives or daughters or mothers or being oppressed by terrible Muslim men or …stuck in a cave captured by the Taliban,” Nawaz told CBC News.
She says the media often feeds on these tropes and stereotypes, leaving very little room for original storytelling. Nawaz, and other Muslim creators, say that in order to tell more authentic and complex stories about Muslim people, they need to have the space and access to explore universal themes.
In ZARQA, Nawaz’s character blazes a trail of impulsivity, navigating her ex’s new relationship and neglecting the impact her actions have on the people around her.
As the story unfolds, the show touches on experiences most can relate to: Feeling undervalued, jealous or the pressure of keeping a certain image online. It just happens to be a Muslim woman taking the audience on the journey.
“She’s going through it because Muslim women who wear hijab also get jealous and have revenge fantasies, like every other woman, and I wanted to explore that,” Nawaz said.
“And I think it’s important for people to see that, because it opens up their eyes and say, ‘Hey, you know, she’s experiencing the same things that I’ve experienced.'”
Nawaz says showing Zarqa’s flaws only adds to her appeal, and by witnessing the “dumb” or “terrible things” she does, it allows the audience to relate by seeing their own mistakes.
A lack of representation
In 2021, actor Riz Ahmed led a report about the lack of Muslim representation in Hollywood. The study found in 100 U.S. films made between 2017 and 2019, only 1.1 per cent of the characters were Muslim and even when there was representation, it was mostly men in those roles.
The report also highlighted that “Muslims, both on screen and off, have been constrained to a narrative that normalizes them as violent and positions their faith as related to extremism.”
This type of representation 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 what it’s like to see yourself on TV? And it’s like completely normal,'” Moussa said. “I’d never experienced that before.”
For a young Moussa who dreamed of seeing more Muslim leads on screen, she knew 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 who’s been villainized 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 universal human condition struggles, anyway — represented.”
Honest and authentic stories
Moussa wants her work to create a feeling that she didn’t get to have — a feeling of being a valued member of society and being part of the culture and community she found herself in. Her debut short The Card was featured on CBC Gem’s Short Film Face Off, a magazine program showcasing short films from across Canada.
But in mainstream media, that representation is, very slowly, starting to happen. Shows like Transplant, We Are Lady Parts and Ramy are leading the way of Muslim-based storylines made by Muslim creators.
“It feels more honest, it feels more authentic, it feels rooted in truth, and it’s being led by people of those communities,” Moussa said about the shift in representation in the industry.
Seeing the same ideas and tropes repeated on screen is what finally led Hirra Farooqi, along with Obaid Ullah, to co-found the Muslim International Film Festival.
“Muslims are not monolithic. Muslims are not all the same. There’s so many different types of Muslims, so many different types of lifestyles,” said Farooqi, who is also CEO of the festival.
Farooqi and Ullah intentionally placed an importance on sourcing films from all over the world to include a multitude of stories and show the range of what it means to be Muslim, as well as to help combat Islamophobia.
“I do often approach characters like they are just a person and they just happen to be Muslim,” Farooqi said. “A Muslim woman who’s just wearing a hijab and just living 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 per cent human and have all these complexities of what it’s like to feel these emotions.”