Two cars of men carrying AK-47s pull into a tight alleyway, jump out and threaten hijab-cladded women. Another car arrives and out steps a shady Hezbollah leader, the cue for special agents of the Central Intelligence Agency to spring their ambush.
All this takes place on Beirut’s ‘Hamra Street’ in the latest episode of the multiple award-winning American TV series ‘Homeland.’ This episode of the show aired over the weekend in the West and portrayed the Lebanese capital as a hotbed of terrorists and random attacks on foreigners.
For those unacquainted with Beirut, the real Hamra Street is a bustling cosmopolitan artery where days spent shopping and chatting in cafes give way to a nightlife of drinking and cavorting in local bars. A hub of modern city life, it is Beirut’s much smaller version of London’s Tottenham Court Road or New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Unsurprisingly, the misrepresentation has sparked more than a little ire in the Lebanese government. Speaking exclusively to EXECUTIVE, Lebanese Tourism Minister Fady Abboud has promised to take legal action over the “lies” in the show.
“This kind of film damages the image of Lebanon — it is not fair to us and it’s not true, it is not portraying reality,” he said. “We want to take action, we want to write to the filmmakers and producers and demand an apology. And we are planning to raise a lawsuit against the director and the producer.”
Abboud stressed that he was studying potential legal routes the government could take, but added that he would be willing to take action personally if necessary.
The first series of Homeland, which aired last year, was both a critical and a ratings success, with high viewing figures followed by recognition at almost every major television awards event. The shows stars Claire Danes and Damien Lewis, who won the best actor and actress Emmys, respectively, while the show also took home the coveted Outstanding Drama Series award.
It focuses around a female CIA agent (Danes) who believes that a United States soldier who was captured in Iraq and returned home a war hero has been turned into an informant by Al Qaeda. During the episode in Beirut, Danes is seeking to kill a senior figure in Hezbollah allied with Al Qaeda (despite the fact that, in reality, there is likely more animosity between these two groups than there is between either of them and America).
Minister Abboud said the reach of the show made the misrepresentation even more problematic. “This series has a lot of viewers and if you are promoting Lebanon as a non-secure zone it will affect tourism. It will mean a lot of foreigners stay away if they are convinced by what they see,” he said. “Beirut is one of the most secure capitals in the world, more secure than London or New York.”
The show was not filmed in Lebanon at all, but was shot instead in the Israeli city of Haifa. For Abboud the fact that it was filmed in a state with which Lebanon is technically at war was an added insult. “We would like to welcome the crews here to film in this city — we were offended by the fact that they filmed the thing in Israel and said it was Beirut,” he said.
Misrepresentation’s long history
Lebanese have long complained about the misrepresentation of their country in the Western media. Jad Melki, director of the Media Studies Program at the American University of Beirut, said the portrayal was disappointing but not surprising.
“We have been dealing with this for over a century, the portrayal of Arabs in the US is that we are all Islamists living in the desert, evil and angry all the time,” he said. “If you look at US media, racist stereotypes of African Americans have all but disappeared but it is still acceptable to stereotype Arabs.”
Melki said that because the civil war made Lebanon, and particularly Beirut, synonymous with violence, trying to convince Westerners that the city is a prosperous, diverse place is much more difficult than playing on people’s preconceptions. Even the title of the episode, “Beirut is Back”, appears to be a reference to the city’s troubled years in the 1980s, when car bombings and kidnappings were rampant.
“The civil war version of Beirut is still portrayed,” said Melki. “There is a frame of mind and a stereotype of a certain group of people or place and it doesn’t make sense if we break away from that as the audience won’t understand. So we look for the version we know.”
British Ambassador Tom Fletcher, who has campaigned for Westerners to reassess their perception of the country, admitted to being a big fan of the show but said it was a misleading portrayal.
“Homeland is one of life's joys, but Lebanon tends to get a rough time from filmmakers — I'd encourage people to see the real Beirut,” he told EXECUTIVE.
Beyond legal action the Lebanese government’s options for responding to the show are relatively few. Abboud said his office was considering a counter-video in which footage from the show would be inter-spliced with daily images from Hamra Street.
“We also have a campaign to promote Lebanon on CNN which is starting next month,” he said. “It features all the tourism sectors in Lebanon, what Lebanon has and a real picture about Lebanon.”
Melki suggested that if the country were serious about countering Western perceptions then they should spend money on hosting a major American film in the country. In the most recent Mission Impossible film Tom Cruise scales the world’s tallest building — the Burj Khalifa in Dubai — in the kind of advertising deal which costs millions of dollars but can help change perceptions in the West.
“It would be expensive but effective,” said Melki. “Currently the Ministry of Tourism produces videos about Lebanon with lots of shots of the mountains – its not storytelling, its not entertaining. A movie does that, a TV show does that.”