In the latest episode of Homeland, ex-C.I.A. agent Carrie Matthison is taken through a fictional Syrian refugee camp by a Hezbollah militant. They walk past a wall spray-painted with graffiti. The graffiti reads, in Arabic, “Homeland is racist.”
That’s not all it says. Some other choice lines: “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is NOT a series,” and “#Blacklivesmatter.” The messaging — an act of rebellion against a show performed within the show, like Russian nesting dolls of defiance — slipped under the noses of all of Homeland’s producers and onto Americans’ television screens. The mission went far more smoothly, it seems, than any Carrie Matthison has ever executed.
The artists responsible for the graffiti, Heba Amin, Caram Kapp, and Stone, took credit for their work on Wednesday. They revealed the translation of their guerrilla graffiti, and the motivation behind it, in a statement on Amin’s website.
The trio, who together go by Arabian Street Artists, were contacted by a friend who, in turn, had heard from Homeland’s set production company that the Showtime series was looking for street artists to paint graffiti in Arabic in an effort to “lend graffiti authenticity to a film set of a Syrian refugee camp on the Lebanese/Syrian border.” What the artists saw was an opportunity to express “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.”
In and of itself, there’s usually nothing so wrong with shorthand — it is, obviously, imperfect, and when badly done relies on lazy cliches that make savvy viewers roll their eyes so much they can barely see what’s on the screen. (“Thank goodness that girl has smudged, dark eyeliner! I would never have known how rebellious she is without it!”) But TV is a visual medium and messages about who people are, what they stand for, why they’re in the room, and so on, need to be conveyed quickly and often without extraneous dialogue. See a woman in a hospital wearing scrubs and a lab coat? She’s a doctor, got it. We don’t learn where she went to medical school or if she’s currently being sued for malpractice. We just get the gist of it.
It was our moment to make our point by subverting the message using the show itself.
It is absolutely fair to point out that Homeland has not correctly represented the geography of the Middle East, Beirut and Islamabad in particular. (Though here we have almost-equal-opportunity inaccuracy, for Homeland has not correctly represented the geography of Washington, D.C., either.) The series, as so many shows do, relies on an assumption that most people don’t live in or haven’t been to the places it depicts and, therefore, a gloss of authenticity will suffice. Across the dial, there are instances in which this tactic really is fine and/or when this is annoying as hell but what can you do, people are going to pretend Toronto is New York because it’s cheaper to shoot in Canada.
But context is everything, and Homeland does not have the most glowing track record on its side. The show has come under fire for inflammatory depictions of the Middle East and the Muslim community since its debut. Lebanon’s Tourism Minister, Faddy Abboud, was so horrified by the way Beirut’s Hamra district was shown on-screen — as a Hezbollah stronghold where soldiers, armed with machine guns, prowl the streets — that he threatened to sue the show. Recent seasons have dug into the consequences of America’s do-whatever-it-takes m.o. in the war on terror, with Carrie grappling with the weight of the civilians who were killed by drones she sent their way. But the same nuance is rarely afforded Homeland’s bad guys, except in the case of Brody who, not incidentally, is white and American.
The circumstances that allowed for this act of artistic rebellion are interesting, because in some ways, they work against the artists’ thesis. (It’s not as if someone from the Homeland crew typed a few generic phrases into Google Translate and spray-painted the walls themselves.) The set production company issued instructions and trusted that the task would be executed as planned.
We can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.
But it is embarrassing for the show that no one actually checked what the graffiti said before filming. That the graffiti made it to air also reveals there was no one on set who could read Arabic; not ideal for a show with Homeland’s subject matter and setting. What we are seeing is the Hollywood equivalent of a white guy not bothering to confirm that the tattoo he’s about to ink on his bicep really is the Chinese symbol for “hope” and not, say, “broccoli.”
The benefit-of-the-doubt read is that, in the two days they had to complete set decoration before shooting commenced, there just wasn’t time. The Homeland-gets-it-wrong-again read is that someone looked it over and was like, “Cool, seems Arabic to me,” and moved on. These are not mutually exclusive. The artists’ take, from their statement:
The content of what was written on the walls, however, was of no concern. 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.
This “hacking” of Homeland is powerful, not because of the isolated incident that allowed it to occur but because it aligns with a narrative that has been threaded through critical reception to Homeland all along. It calls to mind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story,” the notion that American audiences only see one story of Arab culture, and it is amplified by the story Homeland continues to tell: The Middle East is an incomprehensible place, populated by “others” who are violent, dangerous, and have nothing in common with Americans. That the artists could successfully pull off the stunt suggests that Homeland is run by people who aren’t invested enough in portraying people of Middle Eastern descent, or anything related to the Middle East — language, clothing, religion, you name it — in a truthful way.
How did the Homeland team take it? Showrunner Alex Gansa told Deadline, “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air. However, as Homeland always strives to be subversive in its own right and a stimulus for conversation, we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”