'Homeland' Graffiti Saboteur: Hollywood's Depiction of Middle East Is Dangerous (Q&A)

Homeland Arabic Graffiti - H

"Homeland is racist" was one of several messages in Arabic that were sprayed on the side of a refugee camp that appeared in a recently aired episode.

Showtime execs awoke on Thursday morning last week to discover that their hit show Homeland had been the target of sabotage by a trio of street artists.

Asked to provide some Arabic graffiti to add further "authenticity" to the set of a Syrian refugee camp (actually shot in Berlin), the group decided to use the opportunity to attack a show they felt offered "highly biased" depictions of the Middle East and of Arabs, Pakistanis and Afghans. Messages included "Homeland is racist," "Homeland is a joke and it didn't make us laugh" and "Homeland is watermelon" (used in Arabic to indicate that something shouldn't be trusted) were sprayed on the walls, unbeknownst to the production team, several of which made it into the second episode of the current fifth season.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to one of the artists, Heba Amin, to find out how her act of subversion has been received around the world.

Did you anticipate the response you’ve had so far?

I don’t think you can ever anticipate this kind of response. We were trying to figure out who to contact so we could get maybe one big publication to address it, but before we even had a chance to do that it just caught on like wildfire. It’s not something we ever anticipated. It’s been everywhere. It was on the front page of the New York Times.

Have you been doing a few interviews then?

I’ve been interviewing non-stop for the last three days. I haven’t had time to eat or sleep.

Has the response been what you were hoping for? Has it been positive?

Yeah, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, which has been great. I’m not aware of any publication that has given a negative response.

And do you think it’s having the effect you were looking for?

I think so. In our interviews we’ve been trying to focus on that issue more than the act, so in that sense it’s been very successful and people have been talking about it.

Have you had any contact with Homeland’s producers since?

We haven’t been directly contacted by them, but they did put out a statement. It was a little bit of a cop-out. Basically, and I’m paraphrasing here and I think it was one of the co-exec producers, he said “of course we wish we had caught these images beforehand, but in keeping with the spirit of Homeland being subversive…”  he’s trying to steal that from us  “…we can’t help but applaud the act,” something along those lines. In fact, if anything it allows us to open up the discussion and say “ok, if you’re willing to talk about it we’ll talk about it.” On the other hand, there’s this idea of Homeland pretending to be subversive  “we’re also critical”  which is not the case. They may be on some aspects but on the particular issue that we’re talking about they’re absolutely not.

Do you think it’ll change anything, beyond the producers perhaps being more careful next time they employ graffiti artists?

I don’t know. I think Homeland doesn’t care. Except for the fact that this was a huge embarrassment. What’s nice to see is the enormous volumes of people who are contacting us and thanking us for opening up this idea. I think one of the reasons it resonated with so many people is because we weren’t talking about a specific political platform. There were a few Palestinians and Syrians writing to ask why we didn’t address their causes. But I think the reason it touched so many people is that we didn’t do that, we left it broad. It was more about this general image, that we’re trying to take our image back and we’re sick of this. And also we made it funny. This wasn’t so calculated. We arrived on set with a bit more of a conservative approach  “we’ll write these proverbs that can be read in multiple ways”  and then when we quickly discovered that nobody cared what we were writing, we were just like “oh, well can write about anything.” We just improvised. We started writing really stupid stuff and the reason we were writing stupid stuff was just to undermine this idea of the accuracy of the show and trying to take it out of the serious context in which it exists. We’re seeing the phrase “Homeland is Watermelon,” which is one of the more popular ones. It’s absurd. But in Arabic it makes complete sense.

Were you surprised at how easy it was to do?

It’s strange. On one hand we weren’t surprised because, based on previous Homeland episodes, clearly research is not their forte. Even if they’re aware of it, it doesn’t matter. But what we’re trying to raise is that of course it does matter. These are images that alter the perceptions of millions of people and that does matter. So in a way we weren’t so surprised. But I never anticipated that on something like Homeland they wouldn’t be careful. They didn’t know anything about our backgrounds. They didn’t even know we could actually write Arabic. They didn’t check into anything.

The messages weren’t particularly sweary or shouty. Was this on purpose?

Yeah, it wasn’t this aggressive political act. The purpose for us was really to undermine the show. One of the others ones that is highlighted often is #blacklivesmatter. The reason we used that was, first of all, the time at which we were spraying this it was a very big the topic in the media, but it was also to confuse the context. This is a very big issue in the U.S. and by putting it in a Syrian refugee camp where they wanted the authenticity of the Orient, we wanted to insert their problem in that space. Really it wasn’t meant to have a political undertone. We just wanted to undermine the show and through that undermine the other shows that use these tactics.

Which other shows do you think offer a false perception of the Middle East?

I think there are so many. Across Hollywood in general their depiction of the Middle East is very problematic and totally plays into their current politics, which is why we’re trying to address this issue. This is not just about fiction. One argument we keep getting is that it’s just made up, it’s fantasy. But it’s not. Even if it’s altered, it’s based on a reality. And because of that, it’s really shaping the perception of millions of people.