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External Interview: Dialogue starts with a hack- Graffiti artivism in the "Homeland" Series Case

Srdjan Tunic did an interview with me for SeeCult in the Balkans. This is an abbreviated, English translation. The original and full version of this interview was published by the Serbian-based SEEcult portal: http://www.seecult.org/vest/dijalog-pocinje-hakovanjem 

Homeland, a U.S.A. political thriller television series, based on the Israeli series Hatufim (Prisoners of War), is running from 2011 and until now both won several awards (Golden Globe, Primetime Emmy) and was a target to serious criticisms. 

The series mainly focus on the U.S. led military interventions and espionage (the main actor, Claire Danes plays the CIA agent Carrie Mathison) in the Near and Middle East, from Pakistan to Lebanon, echoing the current war on terrorism. A Washington Post article from 2014 says that ‘Homeland’ is the most bigoted show on television due to its misrepresentation of Arabs, Muslims and Islam - either being misleading about the culture, history and pronunciation of names, or, more problematically, serving as a propaganda tool by “mashing together every manifestation of political Islam, Arabs, Muslims and the whole Middle East into a Frankenstein-monster global terrorist threat that simply doesn’t exist”. 

When starting with the fifth season on Sunday 11th October 2015, a new controversy surfaced out, but this time in a form of an independent artivistic intervention from within the series. In the background of the set (representing a refugee camp in Lebanon, shot in Berlin) several graffiti messages in Arabic were visible stating Homeland is racist, Homeland is NOT a series, Homeland is watermelon (a joke) and This show does not represent the views of the artists, among others.

Three artists and activists - Stone, Heba Amin and Caram Kapp, hired to provide a more “realistic” setting by making pre-determined graffitis in Arabic, inscribed their own messages to criticize the series, while their intervention was at the time not noticed by the film crew itself. In this interview, one of the protagonists - Caram Kapp, a cultural researcher and graphic designer based in Berlin - will describe more the action itself, the context, their motivations and feedbacks received after the official broadcast.



ST: After this long introduction, I’ll let you explain how it came to be that you were invited to be a part of Homeland’s fifth series’ shooting in Berlin, as part of “Arabian street artists”. Also, it seems to me to have a cultural translation taking place very vividly - a U.S. series, with the imagined place of Beirut, filmed in Berlin.

CK: Like all good stories, this begins with a series of coincidences and many meetings in between the inception of the act and its actual unfolding. 

There are, as mentioned in the intro, three people involved in ended up being called the “Homeland Incident”- Don, Heba and myself. In June 2015, Don, an expert on Street Art in the Middle East, was contacted by the producers of the show, who were asking for “Arabian Street Artists”. Arabian is an orientalist term, dresses those thus addressed in sequined hoses, turbans and belly-dancing outfits. Curly-tipped flip-flops optional. Of course we had to adopt this ironic  name.

After contacting many people who refused, due to the show’s reputation, he got in touch with us. Very quickly, we got talking about ideas of subversion. A few evenings later, Don, Heba and I sat down together in front of Haus Bethanien. Our decision, the organic conclusion of  previous discussions: We would attempt to hack Homeland with graffiti. 

From the outset, it was clear to us that this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a clear and obvious point, not only about representation on the show itself, but about the discourse unfolding around the “War on Terror”, which, through fiction and repetition, is branding every Middle Easterner (and many others) as a potential, backwards, extremist threat to a “western” way of life. 

Our next step was a meeting with the head set designer. We were told the terms of our engagement: We were not to copy any original material for copyright reasons, we were to come up with our own, original material and finally, not to insult the prophet Mohammad. We were given very little background on the inhabitants of the camp. We took the job.

We  learned later that the production had not employed a single Arabic translator to clarify the graffiti for them. Or maybe they did, and this person smiled inwardly, and kept this it to themselves. Some extras, on set during filming, hid their knowledge behind a more obvious smile. 

You took an artivistic approach, criticized the series from within and left unnoticed. Tell me more about your motivations behind it and which messages you decided to put on the set and why?

From the start, it was clear to the three of us what kind of a show we were dealing with.  The series has maintained an undifferentiated, quasi-propagandistic, anti-Unamerican  narrative for the past years. 


This is visible in messages we left on the set- “(The) Homeland is a Watermelon” (Alwatan Battikh) a very Egyptian expression saying that something is nonsense. “1001 Calamities” (Alf Neela we Neela). Gasousou, (referencing an Egyptian Puppet- Abla Fahita- who was put on trial for sending hidden messages in advertising and her own TV show) which is a cute form for spy. “Falafel and Alcohol from the hands of Faiza”- Faiza is a Christian who named her stand thus to remind the people around her of the better times they once knew.

One of our aims was an intentional textual ambiguity. We wanted to attempt to give a voice to the mainly Syrian inhabitants of the camp,  but also to speak directly to the audience. The graffiti that references this most directly  is “Homeland is not a series/show” (Al-Watan Mish Mosalsal). It  references the way news media is narrating conflict in Syria, failing to mention the effects on the lives of normal Syrians, or the origins of the influx of refugees into neighbouring countries and beyond, nor the very economic, geo-political backgrounds that are upholding the momentum of this conflict. However, it also references the series itself and its inaccurate content. Equally, the widely shared “Homeland is Racist” (Alwatan O’nsori) tag can be read as a critique of the way sectarianism has been accentuated and instrumentalised in the Syrian conflict, but also as a direct comment on the show.


The broad strokes of our motivation are thus: Lack of differentiation, personal and geographical misrepresentation, racism towards Middle Easterners and South-East Asians. A sense of the possible and fun. We were hoping that once the joke was shared, people from various backgrounds would pause to laugh and reflect. I think we can claim some success in this.  

We can say that the show got exactly what it asked for: Authentic Arabic Graffiti.

Could we say that this kind of fiction - which series is representing - is successfully feeding current ideological and political polarisations?

Your question brings to mind another: How is a terrorist defined and who sets that definition? Why are acts of “Islamic” terrorism reported widely, while many acts of aggression by “Westerners”, against “Easterners” go mostly unheeded- or are labeled a defense of democratic values?


A further area it does disservice to is the Middle Eastern and South-East Asian locations it portrays, instrumentalising them, turning them exclusively into theatres of intrigue and terrorist plots against Europe and America. For instance, in one article that has appeared since the hack, Micheal Karam writes about the impact of popular entertainments on Lebanon’s tourist industry ( http://www.thenational.ae/business/the-life/homelands-portrayal-of-lebanon-is-damagingly-misleading). Having just returned from a brief research trip there, I can say that the country has its defects, as does every other country, but is far from being a war zone, or a stronghold of visible terrorist activity. It’s a relatively normal country, in which people are trying to make a living in conditions that have not improved much for the past 10 years. It might, in fact, be argued that Lebanon- at least certain parts of the country- are more Americanised than many other Middle Eastern countries. Beirut- to me at least- feels like this strange jumble of absolute, pompous luxury, a tiny middle class and abject poverty, somehow managing to co-exist in a tiny space, far from being exclusively a terrorist (or Hezbollah) stronghold. 

It would be naive to claim that Islamist extremists don’t exist and that they don’t commit horrible acts that terrify. Although they are omnipresent in media reports and dramatic reenactments thereof, we like to believe that they are a firm minority in Muslim-majority societies. Just as CIA agents are a minority in the American population, or that the BND is the career choice of a few, rather than the majority of German citizens. 

In state narratives, it is a classic tactic to create and maintain the image of an enemy threatening the national status quo. It allows them to blame their internal problems on this Other, while distracting from necessary local reforms or developments that would make a long-term difference in the way societies operate. It creates a momentary, distant sensation- a diversionary tactic.

I believe that fiction does influence personal narratives and preconceptions, but is merely one of the many ingredients in this toxic soup. What most media do not show is the very human, very similar middle ground of daily challenges and events that transcend borders and nations. It would not make for good drama, but to focus on these common points, and differing solutions to the challenges people face across the globe would be more helpful than a bleak “us vs. them” approach in a world that is growing more polemic by the day. 

Would you say that these questions and problems are also part of the refugee crisis that has been going on in Europe?

The refugee influx to Europe has its reasons, which are related to the Geopolitics of the region. Maybe one of the reasons many have rushed to help refugees who have- for better or worse- reached the promise of a safe European country, is a deferred sense of guilt for their government's actions. 

However, it is also an inescapable invitation to face the fact that we live in a global world, in which the relevance of physical borders should be diminishing. We can interact, almost instantly, in virtual spaces, have friends on the other side of the globe and are more informed about distant cultures than was possible hitherto without much research. The “Other”- be it in the form of a dark mirror, a noble savage or a white saviour- should be a thing of the past. The challenges that we are faced with- climate change, economic crisis, wars- are global ones. Our worldview should be equally global.

I would argue that our intervention, in addition to being a critique of representation on a silly TV show, is a call to meet on a human level, setting aside descent, race or creed for an understanding of the other human we are faced with, ready to adjust our opinions to the individuals we encounter, rather than what is said about the masses.

In light of recent global events, I believe this is more relevant than ever.

Is it possible to continue this intervention?
We have been called- prematurely- heroes. Whether that is true depends on the paths that this first Graffiti Media Hack leads us down. 
In the immortal words of Monty Python: And now for something completely different. In stereo.


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