By Louay Khraish
To watch the depiction of Beirut in the first couple episodes of Showtime’s award-winning drama series, omelandomeland and not have one’s intelligence insulted is an onerous feat. To maintain suspension of disbelief, one must forget that the New York Times ranks Beirut as one of the top places to visit in the world and that Lonely Planet lists it as one of the ten greatest comeback cities in the world. The Beirut of Homeland has nothing to do with what the Wall Street Journal describes as a city that has “innovative food, hip clubs and cutting-edge boutiques [as well as] a thriving avant-garde culture.” The creators, producers, and writers of Homeland seem unaware of Beirut’s current reality. While they have probably never visited the city, one would expect them to read newspapers like the New York Times and the Walls Street Journal or at least, have their research team do.
The second episode of Homeland is titled “Beirut is Back.” The title is a flagrant appropriation of titles of numerous articles written on Beirut. In 2004, Travel & Leisure published an article, titled “Beirut is Back,” proclaiming that the city has reclaimed its position on the tourism map. The Guardian followed suit in an article titled, “Beirut is Back… and It’s Beautiful,” describing how Beirut reemerged as “2010’s most glamorous tourist destination.” Also in 2010, A London Cosmopolitan article, “Beirut is Back on the Map,” was re-blogged by Lonely Planet as part of their “Blogs we like” series. In 2011, the Toronto Star published an article titled “Believe it — Beirut is Back,” and the following year, the New York Times published “Resurgent Beirut Offers Haven Amid Turmoil of Arab Spring.”
Additionally, Harvard professor of law Noah Feldman, who was named by Esquire as one of the “most influential people of the 21st century,” writes in the Wall Street Journal, “If the word Beirut makes you think of bombs, it is difficult to imagine how exciting, vibrant and wide-ranging the cultural life of the city is right now—or how much it stands out from other Arab capitals.”
These articles maintain that Beirut is back to its pre-war status as a major tourist attraction and a cultural center on the eastern Mediterranean. It seems that the creators of Homeland have disregarded the facts presented by prestigious, respected, and credible newspapers like NYT, WSJ, and The Guardian as well as travel magazines like Travel & Leisure and Lonely Planet while conducting their research on Beirut and the Lebanese. The team behind Homeland insists on taking the audience to a stereotyped Beirut that seems to only exist in the mind of the original creator of the program, Gideon Raff, who just happens to be Israeli.
In an interview with Ben Affleck on his new film, Argo, the filmmaker reveals that the film maintains “a spirit of truth” in its depiction of Tehran. Affleck relies on archival images and videos to achieve realism as it is revealed in the closing credits of the film. While Affleck is incapable of filming in Tehran, he chooses to film in Turkey to present the most realistic portrayal of the city to his audience, including a mountainous backdrop that resembles the ubiquitous Alborz Mountains, which dominate the skyline of the Iranian capital. While Homeland is of course allowed dramatic license to make a compelling storyline, the program, unlike Argo, does not even have a breath of truth when it comes to its depiction of Beirut or the Lebanese. The Homeland team does not even rely on Google images to aid them in their portrayal.
For example, Carrie Mathison (Claire Dane), the protagonist of the series, feels the need to don the hijab when she is in Beirut for her safety and for blending in the streets of an unrecognizable Beirut where every woman is veiled. In reality, only 25% of Lebanese women are veiled, a reality to which Homeland seems oblivious even though a simple Google search could have lead them to Professor Leila Nicolas Rahbani’s paper, “Women in Arab Media.” The paper references a United Nations ESCWA report that states, “75% of the Lebanese women are unveiled and have freedom of dress.” Carrie Mathison also feels it is necessary to wear a brown wig to cover her blond hair and brown, contact lenses to hide her blue eyes as if blond hair and blue eyes look too foreign in Beirut. Again, a simple Google image search of Lebanese women, as the photo below shows (click to enlarge), could have revealed to the Homeland team that colored eyes and even blond hair are not exclusive to American CIA agents and are as common in Lebanon as they are in Israel, the shooting location of the program.
By far, the most ridiculous depiction the series achieves is that of Hamra Street, which the Los Angeles Times calls a “bastion of liberalism [that] embraces multiple religions and political views….” Apparently the Homeland team does not read the Los Angeles Times either. As Peter Mitri has tweeted, perhaps Homeland should “spend two minutes to Google ‘Hamra’” instead of picking a random alley in Tel Aviv to stand in for one of Beirut’s most famous streets. The alley used does not even come close to what Hamra Street looks like as the comparison on the bottom shows (click to enlarge).
Couldn’t the location scout of Homeland find a better street in Israel? I conducted a simple Google search on Tel Aviv streets and in a couple of seconds found one that resembled Hamra more realistically as the photo of Ben Yehuda Street below demonstrates.
Why then didn’t Homeland shoot at a more realistic location? Is it simply a blatant denigration of Beirut’s image?
The creators of Homeland have no excuse for their systematic and bigoted portrayal of Beirut and the Lebanese. Scott J. Simon, wrote in his essay “Arabs in Hollywood: An Undeserved Image” that of all the ethnic groups portrayed in media, “Arab culture has been the most misunderstood and supplied with the worst stereotypes.” It seems Homeland is continuing in this appalling tradition, and coming from an Emmy-winning drama, it is disheartening and disappointing.
But perhaps, it is not surprising of an American series, which is adapted from an Israeli one. While not a believer in conspiracy theories, the series this season leaves me wondering whether Homeland has an agenda, other than entertainment, after all. The creators behind the program could learn a thing or two from Mr. Ben Affleck.