Anonymous — Complex.com Dec 8, 2013
Anahita and I were sitting in a café in Tehran, Iran watching a Homeland marathon. As an Iranian-American, I’m used to watching this show back home in the States on Showtime. Anahita, a native of Tehran, is used to downloading torrents from the Internet. After we finished the tenth episode of the show’s current season, Anahita turned and looked at me. “What can I say? All it does is show Iranians in a bad way.” She then surveyed the café. Next to us there was a group of young Iranians sitting around a table laughing. “This image of Iran that Homeland shows and the real Iran—my Iran—are very different.”
Since I can remember, in my home country of the United States there has been no shortage of narratives depicting Iranians in a negative light. In the film 300 Iranians were the enemy. In the video game Battlefield 3 Iranians were the enemy. In President Bush’s speeches Iran was the enemy. In the film Argo Iranians were the enemy
I shouldn’t have been surprised when I learned that the newest antagonist in Homeland, Majid Javadi (portrayed by Iranian-American actor Shaun Toub) is also Iranian. As per usual with decades of stereotyping, Javadi is a predictable mosaic of fixed characteristics. Javadi is the violent Middle Eastern man; he kills his ex-wife with a broken bottle by smashing it into her head over twelve times. Javadi is also the anti-Semitic Muslim; he coordinates a bombing of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Given the precedent for bad Iranians in American film, television, and video games, I’m sure it’s easier for the writers of Homeland to perpetuate old stereotypes and slip into the anti-Iranian “Axis of Evil” rhetoric. What Homeland hasn’t done this season is what’s harder, what’s more stimulating, more engaging, and more exciting: challenging the status quo.
Back in the café Anahita and I cried foul. Acting C.I.A. director Saul Berenson had just explained that one of his principal reasons for hunting Javadi is to see “how close [Iran] is to a nuclear weapon.” “This is so repetitive,” Anahita said.
This season the writers of Homeland have been using this character to regurgitate the political propaganda that I’ve been hearing in sound bites for years. In another episode Saul asserts, “With al-Qaeda seriously degraded the biggest threat is Iran.” Upon hearing that line Anahita said, “It’s stupid to think that Homeland is simply entertainment. It has a huge effect.”
Just over a week ago, a historical breakthrough was reached in Geneva between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the P5+1 world powers, the U.S. included. After 34 years of failed diplomacy, a celebrated agreement was reached regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Although the first third of Homeland aired before the major events at Geneva, Anahita and I couldn’t help but feel like this television drama was perpetuating the political stagnancy of yesterday when we were keen to focus on the progress made in Geneva. But how many more people are only getting Homeland and not the news from Geneva?
For the past week in Tehran newspaper headlines read “big mutual agreement” in big letters. Magazines have splashed images of Iran’s Foreign Minister (FM) Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After decades of political stagnancy, digression, and military threats political leaders reached a historic deal. There was finally a revival of political relations between Iran and the West. Around the world many Iranians gave a long suppressed sigh of relief and hailed Foreign Minister Zarif as a hero. Right now we’re witnessing a blossoming diplomacy and, in the words of Iran’s President Rohani, a “reconciliation replacing anger, and friendship replacing enmity.” But not on Homeland.
The images and the messages projected by shows like it are significant because they reach and are digested by millions of viewers who have no relationship with Iran. While I may attribute images of my family, of Persian New Year, and of classical poet Rumi (also known as Molina) to Iran, the average American who has not visited the Islamic Republic of Iran understands this country through characters like Majid Javadi and CIA analyst Fara Sherazi.
Sherazi is supposed to tap into the complexities of the Iranian-American diaspora, just like Javadi is supposed to represent an Iranian (man). They both fall short. They share a similar cultural inadequacy. They lack a real Iranian identity. Javadi is a relic of negative stereotypes; Sherazi is a two-dimensional poster girl for ideal immigrant behavior. In one scene Sherazi’s father expresses his concern at her working for the CIA. “Why would you risk your family’s safety?” he asks. Fara, in defense of her decision in the wake the Langley attack, answers, “Because I’m American.” In that moment she equates the commendable decision to serve one’s country in the wake of an attack with “being American.” While she’s presented as the hero to Javadi’s villain, her character still illustrates a disconnect with the real Iran.
This Middle East and North Africa-focused political thriller is given more regular critical attention (and therefore promotion) than anything else that deals with that region and is readily available to Americans. It could be a source of insight into the region. Instead, it’s full of glaring inaccuracies and misrepresentations. Examples range from a fake newspaper clipping with unattached Arabic letters to characters like Majid Javadi and Fara Sherazi. Arabic is a running script. And these characters are two-dimensional. Someone ought to let them know.