Homeland is an Emmy-winning smash hit, I get that. The pace of the writing is ever-dynamic (save for the middle of Season 3 of course). The he show has a ‘murderers’ row’ of writers according to critics. They include names with The X-Files, 24, Chicago Hope, Homicide: Life on the Street, and Cold Case under their belts. Here’s the problem: Homeland is also grossly inaccurate when depicting foreign cultures. The show is at a creative crossroads. At the end of Season 3, they closed a chapter that was crucial to the original premise. They had written themselves into a corner and couldn’t keep the momentum going. After critical derision and angry viewer tweets, the only plausible way out was to hit the reboot button. This lead to the extreme measure of killing off Brody and writing out his entire family. If only they had applied this philosophy of change to their fact-checking.
Now 24 came immediately after 9/11 and was about a counter-terrorist unit, so seeing a gazillion Arab actors playing variants of ‘Turban and kurta wearing bearded boorish terrorist’ and ‘Clean-shaven suit wearing sophisticate who is secretly also a terrorist’ was still mildly acceptable. At this point though, it’s a painfully cliched action series trope that’s perpetuating a horrible stereotype. There’s enough material to fill another Jack Shaheen book. It’s not that Homeland doesn’t get intricate details right, even the basic facts are wrong. On watching the show’s first few episodes, a friend and I shared laughs over Brody’s ‘prayer’. Seriously, what was that? They had clearly never observed a Muslim prayer before, they came up with a random series of kneels and bends while Brody muttered something in Arabic. And it all went downhill from there.
Laura Durkay got so much of it right in her piece for the Washington Post. A highly experienced team of writers and producers can’t bother to do their research well enough, that is if they do any research at all. From mispronounced names to false imagery of cities. The real Beirut is a vibrant metropolis that marries the traditional with the modern. The Beirut in Homeland is some war-ravaged shantytown where women have to veil themselves while walking on the streets. Granted that SOME Lebanese women do wear the veil as a PERSONAL CHOICE, some don’t. And in a country as religiously diverse as Lebanon, it doesn’t even matter. And where do you even begin with Iran, Syria, and Palestine? These places are so much more than Hezbollah and other terrorist groups. The ideologies of one radical group should not be the umbrella they think an entire nation takes shade under.
This season shifts focus towards Pakistan. To be fair, there’s SOME improvement. Despite political turmoil, the one thing Pakistan isn’t is stuck in the Dark Ages, and luckily, that’s visible. You do see a technologically and educationally forward nation with young intellectuals. But still, many things are out of place. Do The Powers That Be even know that Pakistan is NOT a Middle Eastern country? You see traces of Arabic cultures everywhere instead of South Asian ones, which should logically be more predominant. So no, there wouldn’t be hookah bars around the corners, and people would not have conversations over cups of black tea. South Asians overwhelmingly prefer ‘dudh pati’, which is a strong tea brewed in milk and sometimes laced with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger. You would not see a study group not drink that instead over an exchange of ideas.
When it comes to the language, it’s pretty clear they didn’t look beyond Google Translate. In the scene where Ayaan wakes up post-attack to a woman washing his wounds, the Urdu spoken is too formal and literal while the woman’s delivery is as if she’s reciting a 1800’s poem. It makes the scene too melodramatic where it needs to be tense, and a more realistic situation would use more casual language. When a bustling marketplace in Islamabad is shown (more backwoods than urban obviously), you hear gibberish in the atmosphere, passersby are mumbling words that are a strange mix of Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic.
Believe me, I’m all for the idea of actors playing characters that are not from where they are but are ethnically similar. For example, there are countless Canadian, British, and Australian actors playing Americans on-screen (with most doing a commendable job). Here too, you have mostly Indian actors portraying Pakistanis. However, some nuances just aren’t there. If you saw Life Of Pi, you know that Suraj Sharma is very talented, and has that quiet melancholy that pulls you in. But the accent with which he speaks English has that distinct South Indian tinge you would just not hear on an Islamabadi.
Call me nitpicky, but if they get these details right, it only succeeds in making their good show better. At the same time, they are in a position to rehabilitate an image rather than reinforce it, but they refuse to. Homeland co-creator Howard Gordon is choosing to stick to the Big Bad Middle East version. His new show Tyrant launched this past summer and focuses on, as the name implies, a dictator in a fictional Middle Eastern nation (because why not?) and his US-based extended family. It takes the stereotyping up a notch or two. The fact that the country isn’t real allows him to add any exaggerated detail he wants to. At least this time around he got called out for it with bad reviews.