Monday, April 15, 2024

‘I’m bracing myself for pushback’ says mosque drama creator and star Osamah Sami

Osamah Sami has really taken the old adage about writing what you know to heart. The actor and writer who broke through in 2017 with Ali’s Wedding, a romantic comedy drawn from his own life, has again mined his biography for House of Gods, an ambitious six-part drama series for the ABC.

“In some ways it’s deeply personal,” Sami says of the series in which he plays Isa, the ethically challenged son of a reform-minded cleric who is elected leader of a mosque in the western suburbs of Sydney.

“My father was head cleric of a mosque in Melbourne, and the community we’re representing in the show is a community I grew up surrounded by, the Iraqi community.”

But at the same time, he says, it’s not his story; it’s a rooted-in-reality fiction fed by the experiences and stories of all the people who came together in the writers’ room – including co-creator Shahin Shafaei and writers Blake Ayshford and Sarah Bassiuoni – to help create this world. “We had a lot of fun hearing other people’s stories, hearing how shared an experience the diaspora community has,” Sami says. “We just put them all together and we got House of Gods.”

Factional politics, personal ambition, the battle between conservative and modernising forces, and gender are grist to the mill of the drama series set in a mosque in western Sydney.

Factional politics, personal ambition, the battle between conservative and modernising forces, and gender are grist to the mill of the drama series set in a mosque in western Sydney.Credit: ABC TV

Isa is the adopted son of Sheikh Mohammad (Palestinian actor Kamel El Basha), a soft-spoken philosopher and dreamer who wants to create a new religious school where dance and music are part of the curriculum, and to elevate women to leadership roles within the mosque and community.

Not everyone is on board with his plans, of course, and his election to the role of head cleric is by no means assured –until Isa pays a bribe to a well-connected gangster in Iraq to make sure it happens.

Isa is motivated by a combination of gratitude and greed; he runs a truck-washing business, wants to expand, and knows that an enhanced role for his father and his family in the community will reap financial as well as spiritual rewards. But he hasn’t reckoned on the astute mind of his sister Batul (Maia Abas), who has ambitions – and cloudy motivations – of her own.

It all adds up to a complex depiction of faith and family, community and corruption, and, above all, politics, that offers a rare and compelling glimpse inside a slice of Australia that for many non-Muslim viewers remains utterly foreign.

Matchbox Pictures producer Sheila Jayadev first worked with Sami on Ali’s Wedding and well remembers his initial pitch for House of Gods, which she has helped bring to life, five or six years ago.

Batul (Maia Abbas), left, is one of the newly elected Sheikh Mohammad’s daughters, and has serious ambitions of her own. Jamila (Priscilla Doueihy), centre, is the daughter of his rival, Sheikh Shaaker.

Batul (Maia Abbas), left, is one of the newly elected Sheikh Mohammad’s daughters, and has serious ambitions of her own. Jamila (Priscilla Doueihy), centre, is the daughter of his rival, Sheikh Shaaker.Credit: ABC TV

“He said, ‘I really want to do a drama series that would be like The Sopranos set in a mosque’,” she says. “That was really captivating. Of course it’s evolved over time, so it’s no longer quite The Sopranos. Now we say it’s Succession set in a mosque.”

Anything set in a mosque is noteworthy in the television drama landscape – and not just in Australia. Series Mania, the French festival that showcases the best of scripted television from around the world, was impressed enough by House of Gods to program it in its International Competition, where it will be up against seven other shows, including a biopic about Leonard Cohen (So Long, Marianne), a dramatisation of the showdown between Garry Kasparov and IBM’s chess-playing computer Big Blue (Rematch), and the latest blockbuster adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel (Apples Never Fall, a US-Australia co-production starring Sam Neill and Annette Benning).

“I really hope it is a watershed moment,” says Jayadev of the series. “I can’t think of another show that has put an underrepresented community on screen with an almost entirely Arab cast. Hats off to the ABC for giving us that creative freedom.”

Given the scarcity of representation of Arab Muslims, the show’s creators might have been forgiven for feeling some responsibility for House of Gods to serve as a corrective to the usual characterisations of gangsters, terrorists and extremists. If so, they’ve largely resisted it. Not that those are the tropes at play here, but anyone looking for a squeaky-clean representation of the community will be disappointed.

“I’m sort of bracing myself for a little bit of pushback, because some of the things we delve into are either controversial or taboo, or not talked about,” says Sami. “But hopefully, we’ve been sensitive enough to the sanctity of [the life of the mosque], but also truthful in terms of storytelling, to walk that tightrope.”

Creating a drama drawn from lived experience is indeed a tightrope. “As a storyteller, you’ve got to tell the truth,” he says. “I watch some shows and I’m like, ‘Are they trying to tell me how the world is, or how they think it should be?’”

Osamah Sami has again drawn heavily on his own life to offer an intriguing glimpse a world many non-Muslim Australians rarely see.

Osamah Sami has again drawn heavily on his own life to offer an intriguing glimpse a world many non-Muslim Australians rarely see.

Given the choice, it has to lean towards how it is. “Yes, I want all the Muslims to be well behaved and awesome and happy, I want the family to be happy, but that’s not how brothers and sisters and families work, that’s not how communities work,” Sami says. “There are frictions and battles for power within. I wanted to show that yes, we’re awesome, but we’re also f—-ed up. And I think the Muslim audience will come on the ride because they’ll recognise that’s more important than just showing us as good people.”

At the same time, this is not a documentary. It’s a drama, a form that has its own imperatives, which are not always so closely aligned with slavish obedience to notions of how things really are.

“It’s the entertainment business as well, and you want a show that is captivating, thrilling and has characters who stay with you,” he says. “And that doesn’t just come by parroting and reciting real world stories.”

Jayadev has serious ambitions for House of Gods. “If there’s one thing I also want from this it’s a second season, and a third season,” she says. “That is the breadth of the story potential, and I’m hoping audiences will be like, ‘give me more, I need to see more of these characters’.″⁣

One of the things she’s most proud of is the strong female characters in the show. “We haven’t seen that before,” she says, giving credit to writer Sarah Bassiuoni in particular for bringing that element into play. “She’s created powerful characters who do not conform to the trope of being repressed or trying to run away from their family and their duty. These are proud Muslim women, who have dreams and desires but also feel very proud of their faith. And I think that’s what the community wants to see.”

And, she hopes, it’s not just the Muslim community who will respond to it.

“It’s not just an Arab story, it’s an Australian story, it’s an international story,” she says. “These characters are not just defined by their culture or their faith, they are deeply compelling, intricate, complex characters in their own right.”

House of Gods is on ABC TV and iview from February 25 at 8.30pm.

Contact the author at kquinn@theage.com.au, follow him on Facebook at karlquinnjournalist and on Twitter @karlkwin, and read more of his work here.

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