What Homeland’s Beirut got wrong…and right
Posted on October 18, 2012
Homeland is an award-winning US television show set in the Middle East.
The drama series has been causing quite a rumpus in Lebanon over its depiction of Beirut. One particularly odd scene from season two sees a truck carrying Hezbollah members, armed to the teeth, down a street in broad daylight. They are in cahoots with al-Qaeda and eventually the CIA, which has been tracking the hoodlums for a while, springs out and arrests the whole lot of them. Or they don’t – I’ve not seen the second series.
Details, though, don’t matter. What does is the way that Homeland – a riotously popular and highly thought-of show – shows Lebanon as some sort of war-torn hell hole, a nightmarish pastiche of the cliche Beirut became thanks to its 15-year civil war.
At the risk of generalising, reactions to this have been split into two premises:
First: Many have rightly and indignantly pointed out that Homeland’s producer – who adapted the show from an Israeli series – has chosen to take only the very worst parts of Lebanon and present them to the world. Their argument that the Beirut shown in Homeland is an anachronism, that it is no longer the ‘Beirut’ of my parents’ generation. This does make a lot of sense.
People have pointed out all the analogies to Paris Beirut once garnered, as well as the slew of articles to have come out in recent years, claiming Beirut, variously, “back,” “beautiful,” or the “nightlife capital of the Middle East.”
They argued that Beirut was, in 2009, the New York Times‘ number 1 must visit destination in the world. (Speaking to someone at the paper at the time, Beirut was chosen by staff only because their real number 1 was actually their number 1 on a worldwide list of culinary destinations. Close to deadline, and in panic, Beirut was bumped up from about number 17).
The tourism minister is even planning to sue the show’s makers (even though this would never happen) for its derisive portrayal of his beautiful capital city.
Second: The rest have pointed out the fact that the show is, well, a show. It is not meant to make total sense – it is a version of reality, refined and made more entertaining, not reality itself. After all, since when do we as audiences take too much interest in verisimilitude? So Homeland depicts Beirut in a bad light by wrongly suggesting all men here are in militias and all women here wear hijab. This, we know, is wrong. But is this representation any more selective or unrealistic than, say, the Baltimore we see in The Wire? (Not all judges or governors are crooked in Maryland). What about the New Orleans of Treme? (Not all Louisiana cops are racist).
(I know, I know. The genius of those two shows is their realism – as a trope, the two’s characters are designed to evoke a genuine – if often unseen – snapshot of American society. Their language, costume, back story, idiosyncrasies are all realistic. Homeland is sensational, over-the-top, poorly researched and I cannot stress how inferior it is to any of The Wire, Treme, Breaking Bad or Mad Men. But we are only talking about various degrees of suspension of disbelief here).
I believe the real Beirut is not fully depicted in Homeland. There are also millions of normal, peaceful, hardworking, law-abiding people in it. There are bars, and clubs, yes. There are even a few parks, a sports stadium, a (closed) pine forest, a Hippodrome, several universities, shops, restaurants, art galleries, museums, boulevards, trees, cats, dogs and birds. But Beirut is not all roof-top bars and beach clubs. People rightly get het up when they see the reductive Homeland depiction of Beirut as a war zone. But the argument: “We have bars and nice things too, you know,” is equally incomplete.
We’ve all seen those articles saying Beirut is a party haven or theme park or some sort of hedonists’ playground (having been Dubai, I can say Beirut ranks a distant regional second in this regard, but still) and we get annoyed. How dare someone turn an entire city, with all its social and demographic complexities, into a maxim of Arab too-muchness? These pieces distil Beirut, boil it down so much that all that is left is whiskey and silicon. Homeland, for its part, does the same and ends up with Islamic veils and firearms.
But – and this is something that seems to have been largely missed – there are some really horrid parts of Beirut. There are areas of lawlessness, where kidnapping, shootings and violent crime range from regular to prevalent.
To those who scoffed at the idea of a militia driving though a crowded area of Beirut armed to the teeth with RPGs and M4s, I say: May 2008 and April 2012. I was on the street this year when two rival armed groups decided it would be a good idea to begin railing opposing buildings with volleys or grenade fire (it isn’t; RPGs are primarily anti-vehicle weapons, and a generally quite harmless against concrete).
Anyway, Beirut can get really, really hairy. Is such violence unusual? Yes. Is basing a show on such chaos narrow-minded? Absolutely. But is such a depiction complete fabrication? No. Beirut in 2012 really can, at times, look like Beirut in 1982.
There is a temptation to take greater umbrage with Homeland’s Beirut vision, given that western audiences know about as much about Lebanon as a lot of Lebanese do about, say, Wrexham. Someone watching this show with no prior knowledge might well think Beirut is a bomb-ridden hell hole. That’s tough, guys. That’s called freedom of expression.
Homeland is an adaptation of a Israeli series. They haven’t done their research. Don’t worry about it. You know better that Beirut is not like the Beirut in Homeland. Nor is it like the Xanadu-emulating Beirut you might read about in a waiting room glossy magazine. Beirut – for all its beguiling charm, excess, superficiality, danger, crime, gridlock, dirt, crime, faded beauty, picturesqueness and squalor – is Beirut.