Muslims -- they're just like us! No, not exactly, but if "us" is apple pie, then I like to think of Muslims in the United States as apple galette: different crust on the outside, same gooey filling.
The same can be said about American subcultures, and in its recent tradition of inviting viewers into the lives of those we'd otherwise poke fun at -- polygamists in Sister Wives, dwarfs in Little People, Big World -- TLC is breaking ground again with its brand new All-American Muslim, an eight-part reality TV series that documents the trials, tribulations and triumphs of five Lebanese Muslim families living in the Arab capitol of the United States, Dearborn, Michigan, as they balance between the demands of their faith and the realities of surviving in today's demanding world. It's a story that resonates with most Americans, give or take a few dozen kabobs. These families are a microcosm of the diverse communities that represent the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. Muslims come from every racial and ethnic background and that must not be forgotten.
If hair-pulling cat fights are your thing, don't expect to find any of that here, and it's not because much of the female cast wears hijab. Unlike ratings hits such as Real Housewives, Jersey Shore, and Big Brother, all of which prey on human weaknesses and anti-social behavior, All-American Muslim finds its strength in community and connection, showing viewers that Muslims and non-Muslims are more alike than they are different. Every viewer will find something they can relate to and realize they share many of the same values -- love of family, community and country.
"People need to learn our stories," says cast member Nawal Aoude. "People need to learn who we are. The only time people see Muslims in the media, they are cast in a negative light."
Unlike other TLC shows, which typically feature only one family, All-American Muslim focuses on five different families, each cast member representing varying levels of religiousity and integration: expecting parents Nader and Nawal Aoude; the flamboyantly dressed Bazzy, who wants to open a nightclub, Mike Jaffar, a deputy chief sheriff who finds himself having to protect anti-Islamic protesters; high school coach Fouad Zaban, who puts football above everything else; country music loving Shadia Amen and her Irish-American husband Jeff.
"Being a Muslim isn't just one way," explains fellow cast member and event planner Nina Bazzy. "There are different ways to live life. We are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers. Watch the show. Love us." Simply put -- Muslims are not monolithic in religious practice. There are Muslims who are Sunni, Sufi, Shia and many other sects.
It's a cast that reads more like a Cosby Show-esque sitcom than Michigan Shore fluff. In the center of one of the conflicts is Shadia, a 31-year-old divorced mom who has multiple facial piercings, tattoos that cover 40 percent of her body, and ever-changing hair colors that range "anywhere from pink to blue-black to whatever tickles my fancy." Hillbilly at heart, Muslim in faith. "I've read the Quran three times," she declares in the show. "I know a lot about the religion. I was raised with it, going to Islamic Sunday schools growing up. Because I don't follow it to a T, that doesn't make me any less of a Muslim. Because in the end, it's God who's judging us." The series premiere begins with her wedding, where Jeff, who was raised Catholic, who must convert to Islam so that he can marry her. For him, it's just going with the flow (think John Corbin in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but for his mother and Shadia's parents, it's impetus for in-law tension.
"I would feel like a failure," Shadia's mother Lila tells her during a group discussion about faith. "It would depress me immensely if you wanted to convert."
Immediately off the bat, we see issues of tolerance and intermarriage come to light, as Jeff's mother copes with his conversion, not so much because he's going Muslim, but because him doing so brings out her own personal fears of change. "Society evolves," she tells him, "It doesn't stay the same. Sometimes we would like things to stay the same." Not only is her revelation a touching moment where we all on some level can relate to her anxieties towards the unknown, it's also a recall on faith that many of us can agree on: like society, religion evolves, which makes it entirely capable of holding importance for a person without defining his/her identity.
The trials these cast members face- scheduling football practice around the Ramadan fasting schedule, resorting to the defensive when given poor customer service at a restaurant, trying to conceive a child after the local sheikh equates sperm donation with adultery and tells the wife she would have an easier time getting pregnant if she wore the hijab more often- they sound uniquely Muslim, but at the core, they speak to anyone who has struggled to find the middle ground between practicing faith and integrating as a so-called "average American."
In the most recent episode, Fordson High School Coach Fouad Zaban is torn between his devotion to his football team, having never missed a practice in his career, and an invitation to attend a dinner at the White House to celebrate a Muslim holiday hosted by President Obama. Zaban ultimately decides to go to Washington, but spends his time with the Commander-in-Chief boasting about his team. His love for country is just a step above his dedication to his students, but barely and both are noble pursuits.
Integration forces a certain degree of self-awareness on anyone considered outside of the norm, and one of the greatest strengths of All-American Muslim is that it takes advantage of a cast member's inner understanding, not as the standard confessional we see so often in other reality TV series, but as discussion, an ongoing dialogue that starts on-camera and resonates off-screen. Offering the viewer the best of both worlds -- commentary and live action.
Think back to sitcoms such as The Cosby Show or The George Lopez Show, even I Love Lucy, and you see immediately that what made these shows so timely and yet everlasting is none of them ever set out to do anything extraordinary, just to present minorities as normal, non-threatening, believing in the same core values and adhering to the same codes as your average white person in America. The same can be said about All-American Muslim. While other reality TV programs focus on how they can use perverse fantasies to isolate their casts from audiences, All-American Muslim is in fact breaking new ground, not just because it's about Muslims, but because it's about connection in the everyday monotony of community and family interactions. "This isn't about politics," Shadia told the press last July. "It's about the joys of celebrations, weddings, the birth of a child, momentous moments in life that people can relate to."
Regardless of faith, All-American Muslim finds its originality in its lack of sensationalism. Reality, however mundane that may be, is always more authentic than the narcissistic decay that fuels, and rots, what we typically think of as unscripted TV.
Like an apple gallete, with no added sugar.