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Does ‘Homeland’ TV show reflect today’s political reality?

Husam Asi with Claire Danes

Inspite of having been slammed by some for its far-fetched premise, ridiculous plotting and inconceivable characters, Homeland has scored the highest rating on Showtime TV network, enamoured the critics and swept the Emmys and Golden Globes Awards in several categories since its inception. Millions of viewers around the world, including president Barak Obama, have been addicted to it. A third season has just been announced and will commence airing on September 29th.

Beware: a spoiler in the way if you haven’t seen season 2

Based on the Israeli series Hatofim, Homeland follows a bipolar CIA operative Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), who initially warns that a US Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), who has been recently released by Al Qaeda after 8 years in captivity, had been turned by his captor, Abu Nazir, against the US.

Indeed, Brody has converted to Islam, but his link to terrorism remains ambiguous. Soon, not only does Carrie end up believing his innocence, she even becomes his lover, as he ostensibly helps her to capture the nefarious terrorist, Abu Nazir, who outsmarts the CIA and blows up its headquarters, killing most of its top officers.

While many critics have hailed the show as a true reflection of reality, some have decried it as an exercise of Islamophobia that lacks factual credibility, pointing out that all the muslims depicted in the show, regardless of their origin, education or wealth are either terrorists or linked to terrorism.  One such character is an Oxford-educated, secular Palestinian journalist, Roya Hamdan, who has unfettered access to congressmen and the head of CIA, yet she works for Abu Nazir and helps him to execute terrorist attacks against the US. Apparently, her motive is to avenge the expulsion of her family from Palestine. Creating such character exposes the ignorance of the show’s makers in Middle-Eastern politics, because there has never been an attempt or a threat by Palestinians, not even by Hamas, to perpetrate attacks on American soil. Furthermore, Islamists don’t trust or work with Arab seculars, as it has been clearly demonstrated in the bloody infighting between Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, and the liberals and the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and Algeria.

The Al Qaeda operative, a Sunni extremist,  is also supported by the shiite group, Hizbullah, an impossible scenario considering the enmity between the two islamic sects. But all of them, including American Muslims, are seemingly united in their vengeful hate of America. The show’s makers also wanted the muslim convert, Sergeant Brody, to blow himself to smithereen and kill everybody around him, including the cabinet and the vice president, but Lewis flatly rejected the idea.

“I went oh, wait a second, we’ve been treading this very nuanced line about the fact that Brody’s belief in Islam, his new faith, was a nurturing force for good for him, and that we were trying hard not to just draw lazy parallels between Islam and violence, because I wasn’t interested in a show that did that,” he says. So the writers came up with a different personal motivation, no less implausible than the former,  for Brody to kill the vice president, which was a revenge for an Afghani kid, named Issa, who he had taken under his wing while in captivity and who later was killed by a US drone attack, ordered by the vice president.

Meeting Lewis, I was awed by the vastness of his erudition and the depth of his understanding of the Middle East and Islam. He has been to several

Husam Asi with Damian Lewis

countries there, where he imbibed the culture and formed friendships. Yet he still believes in the integrity and veracity of the show. “It wasn’t such a clear cut example of US Marine discovers Allah, and decides to go and blow other people up,” the British actor says.

Muslim converts are usually so proud of their religion that they endeavour to spread it around and even take an arabic name. Brody, however, conceals his new faith from his loved ones, colleagues and friends, as if he was a Jew in a Nazi land. Furthermore, he doesn’t conform to any Islamic rules,  drinking alcohol, committing adultery and never visiting a mosque, but we are reminded that he is muslim by his occasional prayers and his inclination to commit a terrorist act. “We made a decision that when he was with his Marine buddies, he would pick up a beer, and yes that was deliberate and it was a mask,” Lewis explains. “And we also found that Brody lapsed when he was in positions of extreme stress, and sometimes he had a beer to calm him down. And he keeps his faith secret from his family because he wanted to reintegrate in family life; there was a lot to cope with for his family.”

And when his peaceful wife catches him praying to Allah, she reacts as if he has committed the most hideous crime imaginable, tossing his Koran to the floor as if it was a piece of a poisonous trash. Were the filmmakers trying to tells us that either Islam is bad for you or Americans are ignorant, intolerant bigots?

Unlike Lewis, Danes didn’t bother studying the intricate politics of the Middle-East or  fathoming the complexities of the Islamic faith. Her only venture to the Middle-East has been to Israel during the filming the show’s second season. “My personal knowledge is not great at all about that,” she smiles. “The writers are very diligent about being as abreast of current politics as they can possibly be, so I really leave that to them. It’s my job to just interpret the fiction.”

But she did read a lot about bipolar disorder and the CIA. “The most valuable thing has been going onto YouTube and looking at testimonials of bipolar people,” she says. “There’s so many different phases of mania. And there is a point on the manic arc where they have superhero powers and then it devolves into a kind of chaos, and they stop functioning. That’s a place [superhero powers] that Carrie is always trying to arrive at and maintain so that she can do her most excellent work and save the world.”

Indeed, the sex-starved, mentally-wrecked Carrie, whose main diet is alcohol and pills, is the guardian of America’s security and the antidote to terrorists. “I think it’s challenging for people with bipolar condition to maintain conventional jobs,” Danes adds. “The amount of stress that she’s put under, my goodness. I think we’re stretching the boundaries of truth a fair amount.”

The CIA, on the other hand, is portrayed as a dysfunctional organisation plagued with personal rivalries, engaged in illegal assassinations and devoid of any moral codes. The most powerful spying agency in the world is so inept that an Islamist terrorist manages to infiltrate it with the most primitive means and then blow up its headquarters, killing most of its top officers. They probably need to pay  a psychiatric hospital a visit and  recruit more mad Carries in order to keep them and America safe.

Luckily, there is the good Jewish guy, Saul, the head of counter terrorism and Carrie’s mentor, who acts as the voice of reason, the compass of morality and the conscience of humanity. He also recites the Jewish prayers over the bodies of those who were slain by the “abhorrent” Muslims.

Many critics have described the show as a reflection of today’s reality, but Danes disagrees. “This is a heightened reality that we’re creating. It’s not directly parallel by any means to what would really happen in life. It’s make believe.”

Hence I am addicted to it. Because it’s a great fiction and any attempt to link it to reality will inevitably spoil the joy of watching it. It’s tautly written, underpinned by compelling, flawed characters and thrilling plotting, and benefits from riveting performances. It has created its own dramatic reality and worked within its frame and abided by its rules. It’s a reality where all Muslims are terrorists, the CIA is a corrupt and an incompetent organisation, Americans are ignorant Islamophobes, a devout muslim resorts to alcohol to calm his nerves, madness produces excellence and Jewishness is the only beacon of reason and morality.

The problem with the show is that the plotting has become repetitious and predictable. In the first episode of the third season, Carrie is kicked out one more time from the CIA. But I am sure the inept CIA will have to bring her back to keep us entertained by her madness and save our world from the wicked ‘Muslims.’

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