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Reveling in the ordinary: Muslims in TLC series seek to make fellow Americans comfortable
NEW YORK (AP) ' Families on reality television often seem anything but real ' think Kardashians, Simmons or any "real housewife."
Yet the featured characters in the new "All-American Muslim" revel in their ordinariness. In fact, it's the whole point of the series: to demystify a community foreign to many fellow Americans. It debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on TLC with the first of eight episodes.
"All-American Muslim" features five families from Dearborn, Mich., a city near Detroit with one of the highest concentrations of Arab descendants in the country. All of the main characters were born and raised in the U.S., and their daily dramas are the stuff of scrapbooks everywhere: getting married, having a baby, opening a new business.
"People need to learn our stories," said Nawal Aoude, a pediatric respiratory therapist. "People need to learn who we are. The only time people see Muslims in the media, they are cast in a negative light."
Aoude is pregnant in the first episode of the series, which was filmed over the summer. Her husband, Nader, is depicted showing the support and carefully hidden exasperation that fathers-to-be everywhere can appreciate.
Cast members said they agreed to be part of the series to show the diversity of the Muslim community and, in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world, illustrate that other Americans need not fear the Muslims in their midst.
"Being Muslim isn't just one way," said Nina Bazzy, a young mother who is trying to open a nightclub in Dearborn. "There are different ways to live life. We are your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers. Watch the show. Love us."
Not everyone is so willing. There's a Facebook page that calls for a boycott of TLC because of the series, which it calls "an attempt to make America accept Islam without showing the truth about what Islam is all about."
Mike Mosallam, a television producer from Dearborn, didn't have to cast a wide net when he sought participants from within his close-knit community. One cast member is his cousin, another is an old schoolmate. Still, the contrasts he highlights make for interesting, even educational television.
Nawal Aoude, for instance, wears the traditional hijab, or headscarf, and does not touch a man other than her husband. She's outspoken and funny, dispelling any image of submissiveness that the hijab may represent to outsiders.
She's also acutely aware that a hijab is more than a headscarf. Because she wears it, she represents all of Islam to many who see her, and feels it important to behave accordingly. She doesn't like people who don't wear the hijab well, or don't accompany it with modest, loosely-fitted clothing.
"It's not only a piece of cloth on your head," she said. "It's the way you speak, the environment you put yourself into, how you handle yourself."
Shadia Amen wore the hijab for several years but doesn't anymore. She has a tattoo. Her religion and culture is just as important to her as anybody on the show, though.
She's prominent in one of the first show's central dramas. She marries a childhood friend, Jeff McDermott, an Irish Catholic who converted to Islam for the wedding. His mother initially has a hard time with the conversion but accepts it. Cameras show a wedding ceremony that blends two cultures, with an Irish step dance followed by a belly dance.
The soft-spoken McDermott said he was "just along for the ride" with the series but his new wife sees beyond his casual answer.
"He didn't even want a videographer at the wedding," Shadia Amen said. "Then add five or six cameras."
McDermott said he's ready if there are any television viewers that don't accept his conversion or marriage.
"If you attack me, I'll excuse myself from it," he said. "It's not going to bother me. I did it because I love Shadia and out of respect for the family."
Even seemingly offhand camera shots drive home the central message of the series. One time, a camera catches a woman, dressed head to toe in traditional garb, roller-blading down the street. She may look different than most Americans, but she enjoys the same mundane activities.
As much as she enjoyed the experience, Nawal Aoude admits filming was a roller coaster, particularly because she was pregnant. She pulls out a cellphone to show pictures of her new son.
"At the end of the show I want people to turn off the television set and if they see a woman in the hijab to just smile," she said.