For all the hype it’s getting including the six Emmy awards last Sunday and an estimated 1.7 million viewers, the Showtime TV series “Homeland” falls short when it comes to portraying Arabs by enforcing negative stereotypes about the culture.
The show, based on an Israeli series Hatufim, is about a U.S. Marine Sargent Nicholas Brody (played by Damian Lewis) who comes home conflicted after eight years in Iraq where he was held captive by al-Qaeda and is now suspected by CIA agent Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Daines) to be involved with the enemy. While Danes’ performance has deservedly earned her an Emmy, the show itself reveals troubling trends in the depiction of Arabs and Muslims.
Except for Brody, who secretly converted to Islam, Arabs and Muslims on the show are typecast as either naive fatalists or villains. In episode 9 titled “Crossfire”, we meet Mansour al-Zahrani (played by Ramsey Fargallah), a middle-aged Saudi diplomat serving in Washington, who as it turns out is involved with al-Qaeda. Zahrani is interrogated by Carrie who blackmails him with photos of homosexual acts. Assuming he is polygamous, Carrie threatens if Zahrani doesn’t cooperate, she will reveal the photos to his “wives” or deport his daughter Janine “back to Saudi Arabia where she can get fat and wear a burqa for the rest of her miserable life.”
In real life, things look different for Arab diplomats. Last Fall, the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Adel Jubeir, was a target of terrorism in an attempt foiled by the FBI. Neither Jubeir nor the diplomatic corp at the Saudi embassy is polygamous. Also, “growing fat” is more likely to happen in the U.S. and not in Saudi Arabia, which according to Forbes Obesity rankings is number 29 in the world, way after the U.S. (number 9). Nevertheless, none of this seems to have mattered in awarding the show writers, Alex Gansa, Howard Gordon and Gideon Raff, the “Outstanding Writing” Emmy.
More bizarre than the Saudi diplomat role is the depiction of Arabs in their own homeland. Later in the season we get to meet Brody’s kidnapper, al-Qaeda leader Abu Nazir (played by Navid Negahban) and his son Issa (played by Rohand Chand). Not much happens in Abu Nazir’s house in Iraq other than praying, reading the Quran, and the occasional drone attack that as we find out later is the event that solidifies Brody’s convictions.
There is plenty of anticipation for Homeland’s second season premiering this Sunday on Showtime. Much like the fascination audiences have with fantasy dramas like HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, Homeland promises to please with more “exotic” locales that attempt to replicate far away, distant Arab lands of intrigue. When the Television Critics Association asked why Executive Producer Howard Gordon chose to film scenes in Tel Aviv as a substitute for Beirut, he said [Tel Aviv] is “a remarkable proxy for Beirut because when you think about it, it’s only a couple hundred miles away.” Indeed, seeing Beirut from your backyard may be almost as good a proxy for authenticity as seeing Russia from your backyard is a proxy for foreign policy experience.
The writer is the Washington Correspondent for al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam