‘Homeland,’ Obama’s Show

The award winning TV show does little to alleviate the myths and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims, writes author.

"That American shows are now equal-opportunity offenders in their racism against internal and external others is hardly news, but that the first black American president is a fan of them should be," writes Massad [EPA]

The story of Arabs and Muslims and the Western and especially the American media has been told too many times before. The history of representations of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood films, in television programs, on network news, or in major and minor American print media has been studied, analysed, criticised, and defended in books, research papers, and media commentary for decades. This also applies to the more virulent Israeli Jewish racist representations of Arabs and Muslims, not only in the Israeli media, school curricula, and all cultural artifacts that Israeli Jewish society produces, but also by actual and ongoing Israeli Jewish policies towards Arabs inside and outside Israel.

Just as Israeli racist representations of Arabs are a reflection of an overall Israeli Jewish structural racism that pervades every aspect of Israeli Jewish society, American media racism is also just a branch of a larger American racism and racialism on which much of American culture, history, and national identity is based. Still, this need not sway the casual observer from analyzing the dynamism of white American nationalist fantasies about their internal and external racial others as represented in the news media or in televised fiction. 

If in the 1970s, American children were taught on the American children’s TV program “Sesame Street” that the word “danger” connotes “Arabs” by showing a drawing of an Arab with a headdress next to the word, a more recent and very popular American program titled “Homeland” hardly deviates from this formula, except to add that Arabs are so dangerous that even all-American White men can be corrupted by them and become equally dangerous to America. That Homeland (broadcast on the Showtime cable channel) is an American adaptation of an Israeli series titled Hatufim (Hostages) that airs on Israeli television station Channel 2 will surprise no one.

In September 2012, the show’s Israeli creator Gideon Raff, who also works on the American series, accepted the award for best writing for a drama series for Homeland at the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards along with the show’s American producers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa. Indeed Homeland itself won the award for the best drama series at the Emmy’s. 

The Show

The show is so popular that President Barack Obama himself is a big fan. Obama told People Magazine in December 2011 that Homeland was one of his favourite shows. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Obama “requested and received” four sets of Homeland Season 1 DVDs from Showtime (the Clintons, unsurprisingly, are also reportedly big fans). Indeed in March 2012, the show’s British star Damian Lewis was invited to the White House for a dinner honouring British Prime Minister David Cameron and had an intimate tête-a-tête with Obama about the show’s plans for its second season, which began to air in the US four weeks ago. A major advertising campaign for the show has been in full swing. New Yorkers can spot large billboards and posters on New York city buses, in addition to other advertising venues, a strategy that is paying off handsomely.

Homeland tells the story of Nick Brody, a white American marine (played by Damian Lewis), captured and held prisoner by the Taliban and Al-Qaida until American forces freed him after eight years of captivity. The CIA team monitoring Al-Qaida from Langley, Virginia, is represented by three top figures: the African-American David Estes, the Director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, the American Jew Saul Berenson who is unsurprisingly the CIA’s Middle-East Division Chief, and the white Christian American Carrie Mathison, the female star of the show, who is a CIA intelligence officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center.

The racialist structure of the show is reflective of American and Israeli fantasies of anti-Muslim American multiculturalism. The African American Estes is divorced and his former wife married an American Jew. She and their children converted to Judaism. He has also had a dalliance with his colleague Carrie that went awry. The Jewish Berenson is married to an Indian Hindu “brown” woman (perhaps cementing the Indian Hindu-Israeli Jewish rightwing alliance against Arabs and Muslims in the minds of the scriptwriters). On the first season of the show, cross racial romance seems to have also infected the character of a white rich American woman who fell in love with a “brown” mild-mannered Saudi professor at a US university and conscripted him in the service of Al-Qaida, which leads to his ultimate death and her imprisonment, though not before the Jewish Berenson tells her how much he identifies with her as two white people who fell in love with brown people. 

Lest we think that America’s racial order is not questioned, “Homeland” does register some of America’s limitations in the realm of racial tolerance. In the land of slavery and apartheid, it was not the African American Estes who is compelled to tell us of his traumas on account of white American racism against blacks, but rather the Jewish Berenson who remembers the anti-Jewish sentiment he experienced growing up in small town USA. After all, America has a black President now, while it only had one Jewish vice-presidential candidate historically. Indeed, Estes, unlike his two white colleagues, hardly has an inner life to explore at all. 

The gender representation is also remarkable for its commitment to 1970s white American feminism by featuring a leading strong white female character as the star of the show (which Hollywood began to champion since the film Alien in the late 1970s) and its equal commitment to sexist representations of white women as hysterics, or at least in Carrie’s case, for suffering from America’s most fashionable commercialised psychiatric ailment of the decade: bipolar disorder (an “ailment” that succeeded clinical depression as the most fashionable American psychiatric disorder in the preceding decade).

The Plot

The story of the show is about how the liberated white American marine has been “turned” by Al-Qaida and now works for them. We are of course offered a touching Stockholm syndrome explanation as to why Brody now hates his own government. Brody was captured along with his marine buddy, the African-American Tom Walker. Part of Brody’s torture was to beat Walker to death and to dig his grave. During his captivity Brody converts to Islam as a spiritual escape (though when he is shown praying his pronunciation of Arabic words –“al-rakhman al-rakhim” instead of “al-rahman al-rahim” seems to have an Israeli Ashkenazi, even a Benjamin Netanyahu, accent and not a typical American one—one can safely presume that Israeli Ashkenazi Jews are the accent tutors on the show).

At some point during his capture, the Al-Qaida leader, a man named Abu Nazir (sometimes pronounced by different characters as Abu Nasir though it is most likely Abu Nadhir), puts him in charge of educating his 10 year-old son who is strangely named “Aisa,” which is not an Arabic name at all and is most likely an Israeli corruption of the common Arabic name ‘Isa, meaning “Jesus”! Indeed, as Abu Nazir is the major Bin Ladenesque villain on the show, the producers should have spent an extra $100 to have an Arab consultant tell them that the name of “Abu Nazir” itself means “father of Nazir,” Nazir being his eldest son, so that they would refrain from making the elementary and laughable mistake of referring to “Abu” as his first name and “Nazir” as his last name! Lest you think Israeli anti-Palestinianism is absent from the show, the second season’s first episode reveals to us that Abu Nazir is indeed Palestinian! 

While Brody was becoming close to the young Aisa, a drone attack secretly ordered by Vice-President Walden (even the US President apparently did not know about it!) kills 83 children, including Aisa, who was on his way to school or more precisely “Madrassa.” Heartbroken, Brody digs out his body from under the rubble and helps prepare his burial with Abu Nazir. Walden goes on television and denies that any such attack took place. Having to confront his government’s war crimes and denials “turns” Brody into an Al-Qaida man. Upon his return home, Brody rejoins his all-American nuclear family –wife, daughter, and son. His wife is played by the Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin who looks suspiciously brown, but nonetheless is presented as white! Baccarin’s roles on previous TV shows have mostly been in science fiction, presumably due to her “alien” looks.

Here one wonders what Obama must be thinking while watching the show as he himself had ordered the murder of the 16-year-old US-born teenager Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki by a drone attack two weeks after having ordered the murder of his American father who had not been charged with any crime. 

American Fantasies of Race and Sex

The time of the show seems to be the ongoing present with some discrepancies from actual American life. On the one hand, the CIA team is outflanked by the American Vice-President who seems to be a Dick Cheney figure (though he is named Walden, which sounds suspiciously closer to Biden than Cheney!), while the US President is fully absent from the show, neither named nor shown. In some ways, the African-American Estes, seems to be the stand-in for Obama, at least as far as racial semiotics are concerned. Indeed, as we saw, Obama is not absent at all from the extra-screen hype about the show.

The racist representation of Arabs is so exponential, even for American television (and this is clearly the manifest effect of the Israeli Jewish identity of the show) that one does not know where to begin. It seems all Arab men have multiple wives so much so that a Washington-based Saudi diplomat and Al-Qaida contact (Mansour al-Zahrani) who is married to three wives and has ten children is declared by the Jewish Berenson to be “gay” on account of his frequenting a gay bath house in DC “every Thursday” (Al-Zahrani is shown to be making out with a black man at the bath house in CIA-obtained video footage). Just like American whiteness, which is always completely pure that only one drop of black blood makes an American black, American heterosexuality is equally pure, so much so that a once-a-week homosexual experience renders a man married to three women (and presumably has heterosexual sex with them for the rest of the week) “gay”!  Clearly Arab society is so horrific that it forces gay men not only to marry one woman, but three! 

The Saudi diplomat who was threatened by Carrie of being outed to his government, parents, wives, and children, was unrelenting and dared Carrie to expose him, even on CNN. He refused to cooperate until Carrie threatened to pull his favourite daughter out of Yale University and deport her, making sure she would not be able to go to any American or European university and that she would be forced “to go back to Saudi Arabia and get fat and wear a burkah for the rest of her miserable life.” This Oedipal dynamic seems important for the scriptwriters as we will see. 

Representations of Arab women are also noteworthy. In the second season an Arab woman is presented as a CIA operative and is identified as the abused “second wife” of a Hezbollah leader. Aside from the colonial white feminist Carrie who recruited (and of course saved) the abused Hezbollah woman, we were introduced in the first season to the wife of a local DC imam who also collaborates with Carrie, but this time out of love for her husband who seems to be surprisingly unabusive. Another secular-looking and -acting, highly-educated, and British-accented woman, who is Brody’s secret DC contact with Al-Qa’ida, turns out to be a Palestinian named Roya Hammad. A major journalist, Hammad seems relentless in her pursuit of Al-Qaida’s goals. We are even told that her family and Abu Nazir’s “have been close since 1947. They were refugees from Palestine together!” 

Concern about what Arab and Muslim men do to “their” women is paramount on the show’s scriptwriters’ minds. When Brody’s wife finds out he had converted to Islam, she throws the English translation of the Quran on the floor (very astutely done by the show’s producers who seem to think that only the Arabic Qur’an should not be desecrated) and asks in horror how he could have converted to a religion whose adherents would “stone” his daughter “to death in a soccer stadium” if they found out she was having sex with her boyfriend. 

On the most recent episode of season two, the Jewish Berenson declares in the context of searching for Brody’s Al-Qaida contact among hundreds of people that: “We prioritize. First the dark skinned ones” should be watched. When a white colleague objects that this is “straight up racial profiling,” Berenson responds that it is “actual profiling. Most Al-Qaida operatives are going to be Middle Eastern or African.” This is being said while the main Al-Qaida CIA target on the show is a white marine. The African-American Estes and Obama stand-in expectedly offers no protests to the Jewish Berenson. He just says “OK!”

The plot of the first season is a classic revenge story where Abu Nazir and Brody seek to kill the Vice President and all those who assisted him in the drone attack. As the story unravels, Brody learns that his marine buddy the African-American Tom Walker whom he was forced to kill was in fact alive (it seems part of Brody’s torture was to make him believe he killed his friend when in fact he did not) and was part of the Abu Nazir operation to kill the Vice-President. Brody, who strapped himself with explosives in order to kill the Vice-President, is overcome with Oedipal emotions when his daughter calls him a split second before he blows everyone up, at which points he aborts the mission. Such is the working of Oedipus! 

In the tradition of racist American horror films, where the black man must be killed first, Tom Walker, whom we saw beaten to death in the first episodes of the show by Brody, has another confrontation with Brody after the operation is aborted. Brody shoots him in the head this time killing him for good. This is perhaps the most amazing development on the show, namely, the racist fantasy that a white American man gets to kill the same black man, not once but twice! The plot changes at the end of the season wherein Brody’s mission was now to infiltrate the American government and try to influence lawmakers as an elected Congressman. This is the same fantasy that real-life US politicians and candidates push when they claim that Muslims are engaged in a “creeping” or “stealth” “jihad” to takeover the US from within and impose sharia law on it. The nonexistent “threat” is deemed so great that two dozen US states have “anti-Sharia” bills enacted or passing through their legislatures.

Preparing Americans for an Attack on Iran

The second season opens with Goebbels-like propaganda. While Vice-President Walden asks Brody to become his Vice-Presidential running mate in the upcoming elections, we are told in the opening scene by a TV newscaster that Israel had already bombed five of Iran’s nuclear facilities with US support. The Iranian claim of 3000 casualties as a result of the raid is called a “gross exaggeration.” When the Palestinian Al-Qaida contact, Roya Hammad, tells Brody of the 3000 dead civilians in Iran, he even tells her “everybody knows those numbers are bullshit.” Homeland’s” preparation of the American public for the ramifications of a US-supported attack on Iran is not just fictional. According to TV Guide, when Damien Lewis was at the White House, he “did sort of joke with [Obama] that the creators of the show had asked him to give us a heads up on any foreign policy moves so that we could just stay current with Season 2. And he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I’ll be sure to do that.’” While this might have been a joke, the propaganda role “Homeland” wishes to play on behalf of a potential US–supported Israeli bombing of Iran is not. 

Indeed the plot of the new season is quite incredible. In light of the fictional Israeli bombing, it seems the virulently anti-Shiite and anti-Iran Al-Qaida is now plotting with the Shiite Lebanese group Hizbullah to attack America in revenge for the Israeli bombing of Iran. It is in this context that Carrie goes to Beirut in brown disguise to meet Berenson and her abused Hizbullah female contact (the Beirut scenes were reportedly shot in Israel). Lest too many objections be raised against the show as too racist by having Carrie go to Beirut in brownface, only Carrie’s blond hair is dyed brown and her blue eyes are covered up with brown contact lenses but her white skin, thankfully, remains intact. Beirut’s nouveaux-riches who spent billions of dollars (of the Lebanese people’s money) making the city look like a fun and modern western city are surely outraged that their city is depicted like some poor remote Afghani village. Indeed the multi-billion dollar Rafiq Hariri Airport looks more like a bus stop in war-ravaged rural Iraq than a modern airport. More recently, Lebanese tourism minister Fadi Abboud told the Associated Press that he is so upset about the portrayal of Beirut on the show that he is considering a lawsuit. 

Still, it seems Hezbollah operatives, who are represented as in control of the airport (!), are so well trained in anti-Semitism, that they recognise Berenson as “Jewish” based solely on his last name and ask him to confirm their finding: “Jewish, yes?” A victimized look appears on his face momentarily and is quickly replaced by strength and determination as he asserts in response: “American!” 

Homeland’s plot is hardly original. Its story is borrowed from the world of fiction and reality. While the plot resembles that of the 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, and the anxiety about the enemy within, the drone attacks that kill hundreds of innocent children (and hundreds more innocent adult civilians) have been a real Obama specialty for years, extending from Pakistan to Afghanistan and Yemen. In that, perhaps Obama does see the show as something he can identify with personally. Since autobiography is what informs Obama’s taste in television shows, as a half-black president who always reminded the (white) public that he was raised by his white mother and her family, one can safely bet that his favorite television shows growing up must have been “Different Strokes” and “Webster.” That American shows are now equal-opportunity offenders in their racism against internal and external others is hardly news, but that the first black American president is a fan of them should be.

Joseph Massad teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York.