When the German publisher Don Karl approached Heba Amin, an Egyptian visual artist and researcher, to paint Arabic graffiti on the set of Showtime’s series Homeland, her initial impulse was to decline, as others had before her.
She rejected what she viewed as the programme’s orientalism and its framing of diverse peoples from South and West Asia as monolithic evildoers.
But then she reconsidered. What if she could use the moment to spark a dialogue?
So, in collaboration with her colleagues, Karam, an Egyptian-German artist, and Don, she did just that.
They painted statements such as “Homeland is racist” on the set and then put out an artists’ statement. The story went viral and in the last month has been covered by more than 60 media outlets in numerous languages.
Stephanie Abraham sat down with Heba to discuss the thin line between entertainment and news, how whistle blowers have become the new enemy in mainstream narratives and the role of the artist in an increasingly policed world.
Al Jazeera: In your follow-up statement published by CNN, you stated that #homelandiswatermelon went viral because of “laughtivism”.
Heba Amin: I love this term laughtivism. A lot of research has been done that shows how humour is a very effective tactic in revolutions and, in particular, was very prominent in the Egyptian revolution. There were memes that went viral, for example, and humour encouraged more people to mobilise.
So with regards to our work on Homeland, in some ways we weren’t so strategic. We had wanted to play with the text as a subversive act, but it all happened quite organically. We went there and realised that nobody really cared about what we were writing so we started to improvise and very naturally our humour seeped in.
“Homeland is watermelon” is an awkward translation, but in Arabic people use the word “watermelon” to describe something that is a joke or a sham, so it captures the situation so perfectly. I love that that’s the phrase that went viral.
For us, the first time around it worked, in part because the show ended up making fun of itself. But it’s difficult to maintain; it’s hard to be humorous all the time. And it doesn’t always work. It can backfire. We’re trying to find tangible ways to keep it going.
Al Jazeera: In one of your early interviews you said that your intention was not to teach the creators of Homeland a lesson, but to spark a broader dialogue about the media’s representation of Arabs and Muslims, and its effects on real people.
Amin: Yes. To be honest with you, I … [don’t care] about Homeland. What I am concerned with is calling out the show within the broader framework of the media and entertainment that shapes perceptions of people of an entire region.
What’s also interesting is the way the media has addressed us and covered this story. They’ve called us three Muslim artists, which is not true. In fact, people jumped to conclusions without looking into details, and that lazy journalism left our identities all over the place.
Don became an Arab Muslim, I became a man. They also shaped it as a protest of the way Muslims are depicted, even though we never made that statement. We only addressed the way the region is depicted. So it’s really interesting to see the way the narrative about our story was already dictated.
There's nothing that says killing innocent people is normal anywhere. It should never be normalised.
I’m watching the media’s response to the Paris bombings and I’m horrified by the rhetoric that is being used to frame the story. It’s incredibly irresponsible and harmful and it’s going to affect so many innocent people in a grossly negative way. This is something I’ve become hyper aware of.
Al Jazeera: There has been a debate about people changing their Facebook profile pictures to the French flag but not the Lebanese or Kenyan ones. It seems like people are trying to address the fact that some lives matter more than others.
Amin: I think it demonstrates very clearly the ways in which the media influences perceptions worldwide. Even in the Middle East, people commented and changed their profile pictures to the French flag but didn’t make the same statements about the Lebanese bombing. So it even comes from within: Our self-perception is influenced by mass media.
People from the Middle East and the Islamic world feel the need to speak up against these kinds of terrorist acts because the media is constantly telling them that they’re not standing up against it, which is not true. And that’s infuriating.
In one of the comments from an article about our work – and I really try not to read the comments – somebody asked, “Why don’t you condemn ISIL instead of focusing on Homeland?” As if we can’t do both or have to choose one or the other. And I’ve seen a lot of this in response to the Paris bombings. This type of didactic polarisation is very frustrating as are the ways in which the narrative is so simplified. And the media is encouraging it.
Al Jazeera: People are arguing that we expect this type of “terror” in the Middle East, so when it happens in Paris, there’s a sense that it’s coming from outside.
Amin: I’ve heard that argument a lot lately but I think it’s horrific. There’s nothing that says killing innocent people is normal anywhere. It should never be normalised.
There’s a reason it’s happening in our region. And everyone is complicit in it – everybody. It’s depicted as if it’s an internal conflict, as if we’re squabbling with each other, but that’s not the case. All of the countries that are being targeted are also involved in the conflict. These are things that we need to talk about.
Why was France targeted? Why are the US and the UK being threatened and what is their role in the story? These are not just random targets; the reasons these places are being targeted have to be part of the narrative.
It doesn’t mean that it justified anything by any means – and I shouldn’t even have to say that. But we need to have a more serious look at why these things are happening because we’re not looking deep enough.
Al Jazeera: How are we all complicit?
Amin: All of our governments are involved. So if there really is a genuine feeling of wanting to eradicate this, then we all need to do it together. ISIL has become a common enemy among all of us.
The fact that now Syrian refugees are being targeted as a threat to Europe in reaction to these bombings is really sad because they’re running from that same thing.
So we need to understand those complexities and find a new way forward and that starts with the media discussion.
All of our governments are involved. So if there really is a genuine feeling of wanting to eradicate this, then we all need to do it together. ISIL has become a common enemy among all of us.
Al Jazeera: For the first time this past Sunday, ABC’s show Quantico, which is about a bombing in New York City, aired this warning: “In light of recent world events, the following drama contains especially impactful subject matter. Viewer discretion is advised.” Is the line between entertainment and news becoming more blurred than ever?
Amin: Absolutely. In the last week I’ve been going through episodes of Homeland. This new season depicts journalists and the whistle blowers as the criminals and it’s because of them ISIL drops bombs in Paris. So the show portrays the very things that just happened. It’s very eerie, like the programme is one step ahead of real life.
Al Jazeera: What do you think the effect of scapegoating whistle blowers will be?
Amin: It’s clear now, post-Edward Snowden surveillance and with the bombings and activities of ISIL, that we’re going to go further into the direction of control and paranoia. Sadly, I fear the worst is yet to come.
I come from a country [Egypt] where paranoia exists and where people who speak up are often arrested. So we are restrained from every direction and that has severe impacts on our wellbeing and our psyche.
I think the whistle-blower community is working harder than ever to justify what they’re doing. They’re really fighting for freedom and it’s incredibly important work, so I’m trying to align myself with them.
Al Jazeera: What role does the artist play in these political times as globally we become more policed than ever?
Amin: On some level, the artist’s realm is one of the only places where you can speak your mind. Of course, only to a certain extent, since at this point we are all controlled. But I think art, especially now, has transformed into a tool. Artists are no longer just critiquing and observing the world around them, they are now actually providing very tangible information.
Take the Center for Political Beauty in Berlin, for example. They are critiquing the ways that the narrative of migrants is being depicted and adding a kind of shock value in order to put the story back in the media but through a different discourse.
A recent project involved identifying some of the anonymous bodies being housed in refrigerators in Greece that had been found along the Mediterranean coast. Then, with the families’ permission, they transported the bodies to Germany to bury them in front of the politicians, partly so that the politicians would have to notice, but also to provide a dignified burial.
As a result, there was a response of people digging anonymous graves all over Europe in the name of unidentified migrants. In addition to that, they’ve also created floating islands that contain all the materials that a migrant in distress who is drowning might need. So they are doing these very tangible things to help the situation while at the same time critiquing and bringing it back into the media narrative.
Another group I can think of is the Yes Men, who do a similar thing of interfering in political situations and pretending to be something they’re not as a way to critique – which is also kind of what we did. I don’t think we necessarily saw our act as an artistic one, but it fits within this trend of artists being proactive and trying to provide solutions.
Stephanie Abraham is a media critic and writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter: @abrahamsteph