No place like Homeland


Michael Karam on the recent resurgence of violence in Beirut – and why Hollywood makes it look like a problem that never went away

Clare Danes in Homeland‘s fictional Beirut

At lunchtime on October 19, I was sitting with my mother in a crowded pub on London’s Kings Road. We had fought to get a good table and my only irritation was that the huge flat screen TV, normally used for sporting events, was in my line of sight, showing the BBC news.

I was trying to ignore the Teletext subtitles as my mother scanned the menu. “They do a mean fish and chips,” she told me, handing over the wine list. Ah yes. The wine. It was raining outside. Something with body I thought. I half-heard my mother recommending the Rioja, but by now I was intently watching the screen I had tried to ignore. Bomb Blast rocks East Beirut. Eight dead. Images of bloodied people running away from a scene filled with dust and rubble. Policemen gesticulating excitedly. Firemen pulling at hoses.

“East Beirut” can mean anywhere from Tabaris or Sodeco on the old Green Line to the suburbs of Sin el Fil or Antelias. This time it meant Sassine Square, 200 metres from my home and 50m from the ABC shopping mall where my daughter goes after school on a Friday to hang out with her friends and buy jewellery and accessories from Claire’s.

You learn to make quick calculations. Where were my kids? Was my wife still at work? The sick feeling in the pit of the stomach that one knows so well after 20 years in the Middle East only went away after my family was accounted for. It was the first bomb attack in the capital in four years. It had come one week after I had argued in The National – the Abu Dhabi English-language paper – that the US entertainment industry still loves to portray Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, as the epicentre of hell.

And it’s not. Really it’s not. Istanbul has car bombs. London lived with bombings in the 1970s and early 80s. So why does Beirut always get it in the neck 20 years after the civil war, the original leitmotif for chaos and mayhem, ended?

When is Beirut not Beirut? When Fox 21 wants it, for the benefit of global television viewers watching Homeland, to look like the Gaza strip on a bad day. Episode two of the CIA thriller’s second season is entitled “Beirut is Back”, and is set in a city purporting to be the Lebanese capital, but was apparently filmed in Jaffa and other locations across Israel.

It was misrepresentation at its most outrageous and, apart from a few indignant posts on social media, no one initially appeared to care about this blatant attack on what little brand equity Lebanon has accrued. Later on, possibly around the time the car bomb that took out Brigadier General Wissam al-Hassan was being planted, the outcry became louder and Beirut’s minister of tourism – who has blown a small fortune in the past decade trying to sell Lebanon as the Middle East’s Juan les Pains and not Tehran-on-sea – threatened to sue the programme-makers. But no one was really listening.

In Delta Force ChuckNorris battled his way through a slum infested city that made Kabul look like Las Vegas

It is not the first time the capital has been unfairly treated by the American entertainment industry. The opening scenes of The Insider show Al Pacino opening the window onto a Beirut I have never seen – essentially a shanty town with a minaret – while in Delta Force ChuckNorris battled his way through a slum infested city that made Kabul look like Las Vegas. But at least until the Homeland debacle and the recent car bomb, we had been able to shoehorn Beirut into the global consciousness for all the right reasons. We had ditched the raving, bearded Kalashnikov-wielding madman image and convinced the world we live to party. CNN thought we were deeply cool, as did a legion of feature writers from the travel sections of the international press who came and cooed.

We swamped the world with our fashion sense and joie de vivre, our doe-eyed Lebanese beauties and steel and glass skyline. We tantalised with our food, restaurants and bars and trumpeted the plaudits our wines had garnered across the world.

With this kind of accumulated equity you would think that those savvy people at the Ministry of Tourism would zealously protect our image as the most glamorous city in the Levant and chase out of town anyone who sought to caricature Lebanon as Al-Qaeda central. As if anyone would dare!

Well Fox 21 did. “Beirut is Back” displayed none of the bling and the glamour that fairly or unfairly has come to define modern Lebanon. Hamra, a cosmopolitan high street, became a back alley under Hezbollah control. The cars were those ancient and ropey Mercedes from central casting, when the reality is that there are probably more Porsche Cayennes per capita in Beirut than there are in Stuttgart. Beirut airport looked like it was teleported to El Salvador, while the CIA’s Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, felt compelled to wear a hijab. Every cliché was rolled out to ensure that Lebanon was portrayed as a hostile, western-hating and conservative Arab country. Why? Because that was the vibe the show’s producers wanted.

Clearly we thought we were doing enough. When CNN’s Richard Quest barked his way through a report on how the Lebanese grooved on down like no nation on earth and how every rooftop in Beirut resembled the last days of Pompeii, it made not a jot of difference to an entertainment industry that still insists Beirut is more Kim Philby than Kim Kardashian. This is, I suppose, our lot in life.

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer. Excerpts from this article appeared in The National on October 11, 2012.