Homeland’s portrayal of Lebanon is damagingly misleading

Homeland's latest depiction of Beirut is doing Lebanon's tourism industry no favours, writes Michael Karam.

Claire Danes portrays Carrie Mathison in a scene from Homeland. David Bloomer / Showtime via AP
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Fox 21 Television Studios, the makers of the geopolitical spy thriller Homeland, now in its fifth season, have decided that it's once again OK to insult Lebanon. "It's a war zone," screams a swivel-eyed Claire Danes, who plays Carrie Mathison, the bipolar, now former CIA agent, when her boss, Otto During, a billionaire philanthropist, says he wants to visit a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. And it just gets worse.

Homeland first put the boot in back in October 2012, when episode 2 in Season 2, entitled Beirut Is Back, portrayed Rue Hamra, Beirut's best-known shopping thoroughfare, as an alleyway inhabited by gun-toting bearded maniacs. For its part Beirut often looked like a sleepy fishing village, which is not surprising given that it was filmed in Haifa.

At the time, the Lebanese government threatened to sue, but that was it. And if the first two episodes of the current series are anything to go by, the producers are not going to let the truth get in the way of a good storyline this time either. All suspects, including Hizbollah – the name is whispered with apocalyptic emphasis – have been teed up as baddies indistinguishable from the proper nutters in Al Qaeda and ISIL. I won't go into the nuances of regional politics, but the producers clearly have no idea what is really happening in the Middle East today. Homeland is about good versus evil and to hell with the details.

Beirut is depicted as seedily plush, but dangerous. Strategically placed Arab men, dressed looking like extras from Lawrence of Arabia, stand around in hotel lobbies and drinks parties just to remind viewers this is the Middle East and ensure that the nice but dim Mr During is scared senseless. In one moment of extreme anxiety on the hotel balcony overlooking the capital, he asks Carrie how she can remain so calm.

Beirut was her first posting in 2004, she replies, describing that year as full of “truck bombs, political assassinations and abductions”. 2004? Really?

Does no one care about all this? We might as well just set fire to the pile of money that is the tourism ministry's paltry annual marketing budget, because we are trumped at every turn by an entertainment industry that has us pegged as a basket case ever since Chuck Norris laid waste to the place in Delta Force in the mid-'80s.

Am I overreacting? Hardly. Homeland is currently being shown across Europe to informed middle-class viewers, most of whom will presume the show is an accurate representation of the Middle East. (Homeland is, after all, very "on-message" with the refugee crisis, even if its depiction of the humanitarian disaster is shamefully off the mark.) These viewers presumably assume that in this uber-PC climate, no one is going to deliberately lampoon any country with racial stereotypes. Fact-checkers and location scouts are normally so fastidious about getting it right. Right?

Apparently not. For a quarter of a century we failed to totally shake off our very sticky image as a nation always dancing on the edge of the inferno and show that we are a progressive and modern nation with a supremely educated workforce and a liberal and inclusive lifestyle.

Yes, we’re corrupt, politically dysfunctional and have recently been unable to decide where to dump our rubbish. But we are also a vibrant, stylish and outward-looking people, a nation of traders and travellers, whose history has been defined over thousands of years, not just by the decade and a half of civil unrest in which Hollywood sees fit to dress us.

So instead of spending its time issuing fatuous bans on harmless films and books, the ministry of culture should make a genuine effort to encourage foreign film companies to shoot Lebanon in Lebanon instead of Germany or Israel. Not only would this once and for all show Lebanon and the Lebanese as they really are, it might offer genuine job opportunities to a new generation of talented Lebanese filmmakers and technicians.

Until we take proactive steps to halt everything that is negative and misrepresentative, the world will continue to portray us as brooding lunatics intent on blowing up the world, which we’re not. I promise.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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