There is one episode of Showtime’s drama Homeland that even its critics might be tuning in to watch this fall.
On Tuesday, October 14, a group called the Arabian Street Artists revealed it had scored a victory for all the show’s detractors. The group had been hired to “lend graffiti authenticity” to the background set for an episode of the hit American political thriller taking place on the Syrian/Lebanese border. Unbeknownst to Homeland’s producers, stars, and staff, the artists had used the opportunity to strike back against the show’s Islamophobic and prejudiced plot lines.
The graffiti, which included the phrases “Homeland is racist” and “Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh,” made it into Season 5, Episode 2, which aired in the United States on October 11.
The Emmy-winning show, which was developed by Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, is based on the Israeli series Hatufim (“Prisoners of War”), which was created by former Israeli paratrooper Gideon Raff. The series revolves around Carrie Mathison, a CIA officer with bipolar disorder, played by Claire Danes. Carrie is a blonde, All-American savior in a homogenous land of burqas. In the October 11 episode, Carrie runs past Arabic graffiti that reads “Homeland is not a series,” en route, no doubt, to save the day once again.
In a public statement published on the personal blog of one of the artists, Heba Amin, the Arabian Street Artists wrote that they decided to take the job after recognizing it as an opportunity to voice the concerns of Homeland‘s many critics:
Homeland has maintained the dichotomy of the photogenic, mainly white, mostly American protector versus the evil and backwards Muslim threat. [The show is known for its] gross misrepresentations of the cities of Beirut, Islamabad- and the so-called Muslim world in general. We considered what a moment of intervention could relay about our own and many others’ political discontent with the series. It was our moment to make our point by subverting the message using the show itself.
The saga began earlier this year when Homeland’s set production company contacted Don Karl, aka “Stone,” a graffiti artist and author of the book Arabic Graffiti. Turned off by the idea of working with an openly racist and Islamophobic series, Stone began contacting other artists to see if there was any interest. In an email interview, he told Muftah:
They probably found me after searching “Arabic Graffiti” in the Internet. I have made many projects, exhibitions and some books on the Street Art and Graffiti in the Arab world. My first reaction was, no way can I take that job, since I knew all about Homeland and its problems. But then I contacted many artists, just in case anyone wants or needs that job. Whoever I asked, the answer was always “no way!”. Then Caram Kapp and I, who have worked together on some graffiti projects and on the book Walls of Freedom met up with Heba Amin. She said “why not put our own messages in”?
Stone’s book, Arabic Graffiti, explores Arabic script “in an urban context,” and features classical and contemporary calligraphy, Arabic typography, political graffiti and street art. The producers of Homeland had little interest, however, in these aesthetic aspects of the Arabic-language artform:
They wanted something looking authentic and not infringing any copyrights. They showed us examples and it was clear they had no clue what was written in them. For example, some were pro-Bashar Assad graffiti. They told us to come up with our own things and not be political or offensive to religion. So that’s what happened.
That producers of a series alternately dubbed “TV’s most Islamophobic show,” “the most bigoted show on television,” and even “obviously anti-Semetic,” would warn three progressive street artists not to be “offensive to religion” is perhaps the most delicious irony of 2015:
Funnily enough they told us that “writing ‘Mohammed is the greatest’ is okay, of course,” which in itself is so absurd because, of course, this would be very offensive. [For Muslims], not Mohammed, but God is called the greatest.
Critiques of Homeland‘s extreme ignorance on all matters Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern (they’re all the same, right?) are not new. Nearly three years ago, Laila Al-Arian listed a few of the show’s glaring errors in a scathing article for Salon. Al-Arian noted that while pointing out Homeland’s factual mistakes “may seem like nitpicking to some … part of the show’s appeal is that it is supposed to reflect the reality of the world we live in (the opening credits cut between references to 9/11, the Pan Am bombing and footage of Colin Powell testifying before the U.N.).”
In a prescient nod to conversations swirling around social media this week, Al-Arian also remarked that “[g]iven the show’s popularity and presumably generous budget, one would think there could at least be a line item for an Arab cultural consultant.” Echoing this point in her comments to CNN, Heba Amin said: “In previous seasons, they had many mistakes in regards to cultural references and in regards to language, so it seems that they don’t have a thorough research team.” It was charitable of Amin to assume the show has even one person doing this work.
Arabic is one of the five most common languages on the planet, with nearly 300 million native speakers worldwide (as of 2010). It is baffling that Homeland‘s producers could not find one person who knows enough Arabic to spot graffiti featuring the show’s own title painted on the wall.
In a statement released to Entertainment Weekly, Homeland co-creator Alex Gansa said, “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air,” which begs the question: Who on staff would have been doing the spotting? Media outlets are proclaiming that the artists were able to “sneak” subversive graffiti onto the show and “dupe” producers into airing their messages, but in truth, the Arabian Street Artists were about as subtle with their criticism as Homeland is with its Islamophobia. That their graffiti made it onto TV this week is not a testament to the artists’ stealthy manoeuvring, but to Homeland‘s own ignorance.
By failing to have one single person on set who could read the artists’ words, Homeland demonstrated the condescending, orientalist view that Arabic script is a symbol to be owned and operated by the English-speaking Western world. As the Arabian Street Artists wrote in their personal statement:
In their eyes, Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanizing an entire region to human-less figures in black burkas and moreover, this season, to refugees. The show has thus created a chain of causality with Arabs at its beginning and as its outcome- their own victims and executioners at the same time. As was briefly written on the walls of a make-believe Syrian refugee camp in a former Futterphosphatfabrik (animal feed plant) in the outskirts of Berlin, the situation is not to be trusted- الموضوع فيه أن.
Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that change, of any positive sort, will come to Homeland after this week’s massive embarrassment. At most, we are likely to see a freshly painted set and a stream of Islamophobic backlash against the Arabian Street Artists. While their work garnered praise across various social media platforms, some reporting on the Arabian Street Artists has been part and parcel of the all-Arabs-are-terrorists media frenzy that has gripped Western news outlets for decades. CNN’s interview with Amin, for example, opens with a booming announcement that “Homeland has been hijacked.” In so doing, CNN managed to close the loop that seamlessly links terrorism to Arabs to Arabic and back to terrorism. This reporting also mirrors Homeland‘s own understanding of Arabic, namely, that it is not just a human language, but also a threat.
The Arabian Street Artists used Arabic as all language should be used – to communicate. That their actions have been described as “subversive” says more about Western prejudices than anything else.