I could venture into the deep thesis of Orientalism, but let me not. A simpler explanation is because the editors at these foreign publications demand a certain style. The foreign correspondents reporting from “exotic” locations, where a “life is cheaper than the bullet that takes it”, have to conform to corporate demands. Many have internalised this style, while others let the desk editors do the Stylebook adjectivisation. Some foreign correspondents have spent enough time in Pakistan to know its nuanced life, while other “parachute journalists” use adjectives as crutches to bolster their “fact-challenged” reportage. […] The result is a colourful picture of Pakistan for the world to read. Here “moustachioed” and “turbaned” men rub shoulders with “powerbrokers in pin-striped suits”, who are always fighting a losing battle with brass-laden generals who always “swagger”. […] Yes, this is a war we fight on a daily basis. It is a war of adjectives that slash like a whip and cut like a scimitar. At the end, the poor Pakistani journalists can only look at the foreign correspondent and say with a resigned shrug: “Saala angraizy kee maar dey giya” (He vanquished me with the English language).




Lebanese government to sue American TV hit over Beirut portrayal

on October 17, 2012

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 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.

Reality anyone?

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.

Everything sticks

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.”

Homeland’s  “Hamra Street”
Reality’s Hamra Street

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It’s a lose-lose situation, really. If the Iranians are straight-forward, they’re made out to be rude, demanding and irrational; it they are polite and courteous, they’re made out to be mischievous and two-faced. This is not to say that Iranians should be in any way expected to change their cultural norms just to conform and fit into a Western perception of what is right and convenient. Who is to say, after all, that being direct, straight-forward and to “prize efficiency, frankness, and informality” is always the correct and right way to go about things? It is merely an Orientalist idea that everything Western is proper and correct and that everything from the “Other” irrational, primitive and wrong.

The Mischievous Act of Holding the Door Open – A Reply to Christopher de Bellaigue

In his piece in The Atlantic, de Bellaigue talks about how “mischievously” an Iranian official holds open the door for his European counter-parts, in an attempt to “wrong-foot” them. I mean, really, you sneaky, sneaky Iranian, what business do you have holding open the door for others? 

I was outraged. So I wrote a reply. The above excerpt is from it. So is the following —

This is yet another piece, along with the movie Argo and many, many essays and articles that are appearing trying to express how “different”, “shady, “ambiguous”, “hypocritical” and “mischievous” Iranians  supposedly are. All of this then turns into a backdrop against which Iranians as a whole are demonized and through which war-mongering rhetoric is only further fueled.

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Lately, I’ve been thinking about our retreat from the topic as sadly typical of the double-edged sword problem faced by many of us who write and teach about the Middle East and/or Islam: how can we produce honestly critical work about gender and sexuality without fueling racist stereotypes? One hopes that shedding light on an issue will dispel stereotypes, as they thrive on ambiguity and categorical judgments, but fears that audiences will hear only what they are listening for. This is an old problem, one that has graced myriad conversations at conferences and workshops, the kind of simultaneously ethical, contextual, and methodological problem that refuses to expire. It’s also a multi-faceted problem, where orientalist exoticism, Islamophobia, colonial feminism, and the limits of political alliance combine into a repulsive and sometimes paralyzing mix.


[F]or some reason, the entertainment industry appears to truly enjoy ridiculing “brown” people, Arabs and Indians, and has no qualms about casting people not of our heritage to portray us. Indeed, just last week Popchips snack company found itself embroiled in a controversy because an ad showed Ashton Kutcher playing an Indian character in brownface, similar to what Cohen is doing in “The Dictator.”

Dean Obeidallah for CNN.

This is why I dislike Sacha Cohen. Racist stereotyping isn’t funny. At. All.

If you are going to mock and ridicule us for profit, can you at least cast Arabs and Indians to play us? And while we’re at it, why not include us in the creative process as co-writers and directors?


Arabs and South Asians have long been ghettoized in Hollywood, playing almost exclusively cab drivers, deli workers, terrorists and the occasional “good” guy who works with law enforcement, and who is usually killed later in the movie by a bad “brown” guy.


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Orientalist depiction in Hollywood = Lots of cash. Great creativity!


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#Racism   #Media