TLC (previously known as The Learning Channel) will debut a new series tomorrow evening, Sunday, Nov. 13, titled “All-American Muslim.” I was contacted and given the opportunity to preview the debut episode, “How to marry a Muslim” and interview the show’s developers. Right up front I can tell you that this series will offer a number of things which will enlighten and entertain some people while no doubt having heads exploding in other quarters. Personally, I found it fascinating.
The series focuses on a number of people in Dearborn, Michigan, all members of the Muslim-American community. It’s a rather eclectic collection of both married couples and singles, ranging from devout practitioners of their faith (women wearing head scarves, adherence to traditional Arab lifestyles) to very westernized young folks, including a woman who dresses far more like the Kardashians and has an interesting collection of tattoos.
Rather than being a bland travel video of happy Muslims immersing themselves in American culture, however, the show takes more than a few chances in showing some of the complications and pitfalls which arise when cultural worlds collide. One of the more startling examples is that of Shadia Amen as she prepares to marry her all American, Irish Catholic boyfriend Jeff. The impending nuptials have Jeff’s mother a bit out of sorts since he’s agreed to convert to the Muslim faith in order to be able to satisfy his bride and her family.
One portion of this I found unusual was the inside look at the conversion process. I spent some time once going to classes with a friend who was converting to Judaism. It’s a very long, detailed, involved process with a great deal to learn. The conversion process for Jeff to become a Muslim seemed to consist of showing up at his future father-in-law’s house and reciting precisely three lines. More to the point, despite his protestations about having done his homework, he seems to be given the speech for the ceremony written phonetically with no clear idea what he’s saying. The bride’s father assures him that, “You’re not denouncing anything. You’re adding more.”
He’s then given the note to read, with sub-titles helpfully added to the scene:
I bear witness,
That there is no God,
POOF! You’re a Muslim!
It struck me that some in the Catholic faith -given the Trinity and all – might consider that something of a denouncement. But maybe that’s just me.
I interviewed Alon Orstein, the Vice President of Production and Development at TLC, this week to ask him about this and other aspects of the show. On the subject of Jeff’s conversion, he told me that they weren’t seeking to cast this in any sort of controversial fashion, but simply “following the story” where it led. As to what Jeff knew about his conversion ceremony, I was told I’d need to ask Jeff. (I may see if I can get an interview in the future to do just that.)
I also asked Alon precisely what kind of show this is, because after watching the first episode I found myself struggling to identify it. Was it a documentary? A reality show more in the vein of Real Housewives? We wound up agreeing that the lines on these things have blurred in recent years, and he felt that All American Muslim is just an in-depth look at a slice of American society which many of us don’t normally get to see.
I also asked if this show would intentionally be touching on the obvious political implications of the story they tell, given the somewhat incendiary nature of the material. He told me that in coming episodes there are segments which certainly head in that direction, as well as going inside of some American mosques, but again, it wasn’t their purpose. They just went where the story led them.
Other interesting situations arise in the show, such as that of Fouad Zaban and his wife. Fouad is the coach of the local high school football team, composed almost entirely of Muslim boys. He has to schedule practice during Ramadan around the tradition of not eating or drinking anything from sunup to sundown during that period.
There are plenty more, but I’ll leave it to the audience to review the premiere for themselves and see how it’s handled. While some of it will likely be controversial, as I said, I found myself engaged and I’d say it’s worth a look. Following are two videos. The first is the show’s “upcoming episodes” preview which will air Sunday night. It includes some interesting hints about Jeff’s conversion to Islam and the reactions from both his friends and his new wife’s family who wonder if he’s converting “for the right reason.’ The second video gives a brief look at some of the subjects, and the web site has more information on the families who are featured.
About the families: