A ‘Homeland’ We Pakistanis Don’t Recognize
By Fatima Shakeel
I’m at a little café in Islamabad, sipping a cappuccino. A young woman in a ponytail and jeans walks in and orders a dozen chocolate cupcakes; her two small children press their noses up to the glass of the dessert display case. We strike up a conversation, and she mentions that her family has just moved to Islamabad. “Great place to live, isn’t it?” she says.
I agree with her. I should know: I’m an Islamabad girl, born and raised, and there isn’t a city in the world I would rather call home. If anything, the city can be too quaint for some; residents of Pakistan’s larger metropolises sometimes poke fun at Islamabad for being too quiet or too small.
But you wouldn’t know any of that from the godforsaken hellscape depicted in the latest season of Showtime’s Emmy-winning drama Homeland. If the above scene from my real life had been “fictionalized” on the series, the view outside my window would have been a smog-ridden urban disaster. My cappuccino would have been a bitter black coffee from a dingy little shack. The friendly woman would have been a burka-clad hag shrieking at me in some awful, invented language to cover my sinful head. But of course, my uncovered head would just be a front, because I would turn out to be a villain, plotting the gruesome death-by-mob of some white guy.
For years, I’ve stayed on the fence about Homeland’s shameless bigotry, giving it the benefit of the doubt even when its depictions of Muslims have been less than nuanced. As the show begins its fourth season, however, I have been forced to re-evaluate my faith in both its intentions and its intelligence — starting with the horrendous teaser poster featuring a red-hooded Claire Danes as a lovely dash of color in a foreboding sea of black burkas.
As I watched the premiere episode, my anticipation over seeing my hometown as the setting of a critically acclaimed American television show quickly fizzled as I watched Carrie Mathison and her fellow CIA agents arrive in a wild, filthy, menacing land that looked nothing like the place I’ve lived in my entire life. The show’s clear lack of homework on Pakistan is astounding; the setting, the characters, and the language that Homeland tries to pass off as “local” are all foreign to me. It would be unreasonable to expect Homeland to get everything right, and I didn’t — after all, its “Islamabad” was actually filmed in Cape Town, South Africa.
But I still expected some semblance of effort from a show that positions itself as a serious drama grappling with U.S. foreign policy in the Muslim world. Since the show’s creators didn’t bother, allow me to offer some real-life context.
1. Islamabad is a beautiful, well-planned city — not a grimy netherworld.
In the season’s third episode, we see Carrie smoking in the open night air against a nondescript concrete cityscape. Ambassador Boyd (Laila Robins) comes out and scoffs, “Best view in Islamabad — which isn’t saying much.”
This isn’t just insulting from a character that Saul Berensen calls “one of the good ones” — it’s a mind-blowing distortion of fact. So hell-bent is Homeland on depicting Islamabad as a Third World “shit-hole” that it has somehow managed to make even Cape Town — one of the most beautiful cities in the world — look ugly, dirty, and characterless.
The real Islamabad sits at the foot of the densely forested Margalla Hills, which provide a scenic green backdrop that Islooites wake up to every day. Great, leafy boughs arch over the streets, blooming purple and crimson in the spring and bursting with autumnal hues in the fall. The neighborhoods boast manicured lawns and grassy parks with swing-sets and walking paths. Unlike the dusty “Agrabah”-style bazaars seen on Homeland, Islamabad has properly structured markets and modern shopping malls, as well as snazzy restaurants and quaint little ice-cream parlors, picturesque parks and hiking trails, and wide avenues lined with meticulously cultivated flower beds. It’s not the hopeless maze depicted in Homeland, either; the city is actually planned along a grid, divided into sectors with neatly arranged blocks and streets that you can easily find your way around. This is something the writers could have ascertained from a cursory glance at Google Earth.
As for the best view in Islamabad? Take your pick:
Imagine a show about New York City in which the “native New Yorkers” spoke English like the characters on Downton Abbey, spending wildly inaccurate amounts of money to go to nonexistent places. That’s what it feels like to watch Homeland if you speak Urdu.
Homeland consistently botches the most fundamental aspects of Urdu conversation, in ways that are both painful and hilarious to anyone who actually speaks it. If someone inquires about the whereabouts of their family members, and you have to tell them that they died in a drone strike, you don’t say “mujhe maaf kijiye,” as the strange, veiled woman in Homeland’s premiere does. Saying that does not mean “I’m sorry for your loss”; it means “forgive me,” implying that she personally murdered the inquirer’s family members.
The English accents are just as inauthentic. In real life, Pakistani English sounds nothing like the oft-caricatured Indian English accent. On Homeland, however, Pakistani characters speaking in English sound either like Apu from The Simpsons or like the carpet merchant singing the opening song of Disney’s Aladdin.
I find it hard to believe that the show’s producers couldn’t find a single native Urdu speaker or any Pakistani actors. At the very least, why not hire a language consultant? If Game of Thrones can hire a linguist to properly construct believable, fictional languages like Valyrian and Dothraki, why can’t Homeland hire somebody to check the basics of a real-world language?
3. Americans aren’t hated, and protests don’t instantly dissolve into bloodthirsty mobs.
The death of Sandy (Corey Stoll) at the hands of the mob was disturbing — and not just for the reasons Homeland intended. His attackers were less like a group of people than a zombie horde on The Walking Dead, breaking car windows and barbarically dragging him out while Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) shoots them in their faces with videogame indifference.
It’s troubling not just because it appears to dehumanize this frothing Pakistani mob, but because the violence and rage shown are largely uncharacteristic of Pakistani people, particularly in Islamabad. Perhaps Homeland should have drawn inspiration from the tens of thousands of anti-government protesters who have been peacefully gathered outside the parliament building in Islamabad for the past two months, listening to speeches and singing along to live music. This is a community that gathers together every year in a candlelight vigil for the assassinated politician who died taking a stand for a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. And no protest would take place at the gates of the U.S. Embassy; the building is such a fortress, nestled deep within Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave, that I don’t think I’ve ever seen it.
It’s also ridiculous how unsafe Homeland makes Islamabad seem for Americans (or anyone who looks Caucasian), from the suspicious stares of those fake Isloo natives to the unspoken rule that Carrie must cover her head to go out in public. In reality, American and European visitors can often be seen around the streets of Islamabad — adults and children alike, by the way, so Carrie could easily have brought her poor daughter with her.
In Homeland’s most recent episode, the U.S. ambassador notes that she “can’t complain about bad relations with Pakistan while at the same time doing nothing to make them better.” The irony, of course, is that Homeland seems to be going out of its way to portray Pakistan in as unflattering a light as possible and to exaggerate anti-American sentiment in the country.
This is unfortunate because, while American foreign policy is certainly not popular among Pakistanis, people in urban Pakistan tend to be very fond of America’s other major global export: its pop culture. Entire generations have grown up watching Friends or The Simpsons. My grandparents listened to Elvis. Despite its flaws, my mother has actually been a fan of Homeland. Given the influence American entertainment holds in Pakistan, it’s unfortunate that Homeland should use its resources to willfully distort and darken the way our nations perceive each other.
And that’s why it’s important to call the show out on its offensive inaccuracies. The last thing the world needs is high-production-value hate mongering.
This write-up originally appeared in The Week