Quick Take: All-American Muslim, “How to Marry a Muslim”
Can TLC's new reality show change Muslim relations in the U.S.? We think so.
Review: All-American Muslim, “How to Marry a Muslim”
(S0101) Back in the early days of reality television, the genre was about the purity of capturing people in their lives via the quasi-documentary format with the intent to illuminate and inform viewers about real people living their lives. I think we can agree that pure mandate has been bastardized a whole lot since then. As the genre has evolved (sadly), reality TV subjects are more about side show behavior or weird oddities mostly due to the subject’s antics devolving into more immature, base or just gross exhibitionism (I’m looking at you, Jersey Shore and Kardashians of the world). But when reality TV is at its best, the genre often casts a light on people and lifestyles that may seem completely foreign but prove to be the opposite once you crack the surface.
For the most part, cable net TLC has tried to remain true to the spirit and intentions of the genre, even if they have a borderline fixation with ample-sized families and people of short stature. But I really have to commend them for their newest reality series, All-American Muslim, arguably one of the most important reality series to come around in some time.
The premise – that the largest Muslim community outside of the Middle East is in Dearborn Michigan – is fascinating from the get-go. The series follows five Muslim American families in Dearborn: The Amens, The Zabans, The Jaafars, The Bazzy-Aliahmads, and the Aoudes. While they are all Muslim, they practice their religion in very disparate ways not unlike any family following their faith of choice in the U.S.A. The cameras follow the families in their homes and during their daily routines, as well as creating small living room situations that assemble various different family members to discuss specific aspects of their culture and faith.
While Americans throughout the country have plenty to say about Muslims in general, spreading plenty of fallacies due to ignorance or fear, it’s really compelling to hear a modern Muslim woman, like businesswoman Nina, talk about her choice not to wear the hijab, a traditional headscarf, with a more conservative mother of four like Zaynab, who admits to coloring her hair under the scarf to please herself. We also get to hear how cop Mike Jaafar has to deal with anti-Muslim racism leveled at their community everyday while protecting all of the town’s citizens. And there’s Coach Fouad Zaban who trains his Muslim high school football team while they’re jeered at and mocked by rival teams and sometimes even parents that should know better.
For the majority of the first episode, the focus is on free spirit Shadia, a single mother who doesn’t wear the hijab and is days away from marrying her Irish Catholic fiancé, Jeff. While she isn’t conservative like her parents, she does want to honor her family heritage and traditions so she asks Jeff to convert. He agrees and the episode candidly explores the pain Jeff’s parents experience as their son leaves their faith behind for a culture and religion that is foreign to them. Yet even while his mother grieves that fact, she is remarkably admirable in welcoming her new daughter-in-law and ultimately his conversion with grace.
It’s also a funny and beautiful thing to watch as Muslims and Catholics share space in a wedding hall to celebrate a union representing different worlds while being open to embracing each other’s traditions (step-dancing versus belly-dancing, veils versus hijabs, no booze at the bar, etc…) with smiles and blushing embarrassment at times. Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that every guest present was pleased with the cultural exchange but there were a lot of smiles and that’s a wonderful model of what can happen when there is tolerance and open-mindedness. That’s TV worth witnessing.
It’s not often that a TV show humanizes a misunderstood culture and maybe that’s over-exaggerating the power of just one episode of All-American Muslim, but there’s no doubt that in only one hour I learned more about Muslim culture and the varieties of ways they live and worship than in anything I can compare in recent memory. I felt like the curtain had been peeled back on Muslim life and it was absorbing to see and know more about it without a political agenda or rhetoric shaping the information. What makes the show so powerful is that we learn so much through the words and deeds of real American families and that alone is enough to solidify the show’s value. Now there are many relatable faces representing Muslim life via this show, not just pictures and video of far away acts of terrorism or obscure protest that our culture has come to associate with the religion and its followers. Kudos to TLC for giving these brave families a forum to tell their stories and in doing so maybe changing their neighbors perceptions and prejudices for the good.