Hollywood adopts flag of convenience for Beirut portrayals

When is Beirut not Beirut? Well, it makes no difference to an entertainment industry that insists Beirut is still more Kim Philby than Kim Kardashian.

An episode during season two of the CIA thriller Homeland was titled "Beirut is back", but was shot in Israel. Courtesy Showtime via YouTube
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When is Beirut not Beirut? When Fox 21 studios wants it to look like the Gaza Strip on a bad day. I kid thee not.

In the week that the Beirut Film Festival tried to restore some lustre to Lebanon's tarnished image, global television viewers were treated to season two of the CIA thriller Homeland.

Episode two, "Beirut is back", was set in a city purporting to be, yes, you got it, Beirut, but was apparently filmed in locations across Israel.

It was misrepresentation at its most outrageous and, apart from a few indignant posts on the social media, no one really appears to care about this blatant attack on what little brand equity Lebanon has accrued.

Our ministry of tourism has blown a small fortune in the past decade trying to sell Lebanon as the Middle East's Juan les Pins and not Tehran-On-Sea.

It is not the first time the capital has been unfairly treated by the American entertainment industry.

The opening scenes of The Insider show Al Pacino opening the window on to no Beirut I have ever seen, while in Delta Force, Chuck Norris battled his way through a Lebanon that made Kabul look like Las Vegas.

Brands are guarded jealously. Just think of the Olympic rings, the use of the term Fifa World Cup and how the external communication departments of the world's luxury goods can get worked up into an almost psychotic lather over how their products are portrayed.

The same is true for countries. Who can say Malaysia without completing the annoyingly brilliant "Truly Asia" jingle or hum "Incredible India" as an elephant trundles into yet another glorious sunset?

New Zealand, a country that was known for sheep, rugby and little else, has in the last decade become one of the world's most sought-after destinations, much of it down to the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lebanon also has a brand of sorts - one that we have been steadily cultivating, despite the odd war and security hiccup. Somehow, we have been able to shoehorn Beirut into the global consciousness for all the right reasons. We had ditched the raving, bearded Kalashnikov-wielding madman image and convinced the world we live to party.

CNN thinks we are cool, as does a legion of feature writers from the travel sections of the international press who came and cooed.

We swamped the world with our fashion sense, our joie de vivre and images of doe-eyed Lebanese beauties, and we dazzled with our steel and glass skyline. We tantalised with our food and restaurants.

With this kind of accumulated equity you would think that those savvy people at the ministry of tourism would zealously protect our image as the most glamorous city in the Levant and chase out of town anyone who sought to caricature Lebanon as Al Qaeda central. As if anyone would dare.

Well, Fox dared. "Beirut is Back" had none of the bling and the glamour that fairly or unfairly has come to define modern Lebanon.

The cars were those ancient and ropy Mercedes from central casting, but the reality is that there are probably more Porsche Cayennes per capita in Beirut than there are in Stuttgart.

Beirut airport looked like it was teleported to El Salvador, while the CIA's Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, felt compelled to wear a hijab.

Yes, all the clichés were rolled out to ensure that Lebanon was portrayed as a hostile, western-hating and conservative Arab country. Why? Because that was the vibe the show's producers wanted.

Clearly we thought we were doing enough.

When CNN's Richard Quest barked his way through a report on how the Lebanese grooved on down like no nation on Earth and how every rooftop in Beirut resembled the last days of Pompeii, it made not a jot of difference to an entertainment industry that insists Beirut is still more Kim Philby than Kim Kardashian. This is, I suppose, our lot in life.

A Michael Karam is a Beirut based freelance writer