In Slate’s Homeland TV Club, June Thomas will IM each week with a different partner – policy experts, intelligence researchers, critics, and even Slate commenters. This week she chats with Asra Q. Nomani, the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.
At the beginning of Episode 1, six months have passed since we last saw Nicholas Brody, Carrie Mathison, Saul Berenson, and the gang. Brody’s out of uniform and in Congress; Carrie’s out of the CIA and working part-time as a teacher of EFL, and Saul is out of Langley and working as station chief in Beirut, where Muslims are raging because Israel bombed Iran.
June Thomas: Since I’m chatting with a Muslim woman journalist who was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, I have to ask: How did you feel about the character of Roya Hammad? I know we shouldn’t take Homeland as a realistic work, but I was troubled by the portrait of a successful, Western-approved journalist who is really a terrorist sympathizer. As unrealistic as the show sometimes is, it feels dangerous: Some people might think that journalists are working for the enemy.
Asra Q. Nomani: First, the good news: Roya challenges the stereotypes of the Muslim woman as silent and invisible. Plus, she’s hot with a British accent. But then, yes, the dangerous turn: She secretly sympathizes with the terrorists, a virtual Bond girl for the militants.
Thomas: Yes, and like a true Bond girl, she’s even setting a potential honey trap for David Estes—though I’ve always suspected he might also be a double agent.
Nomani: I’d like to know more about her. What got her to be a sympathizer?
Thomas: Well, if we believe what she told Brody, it’s history, specifically the Nakba. She said that her family and Abu Nazir’s were refugees from Palestine together, back in 1947. I know that sleeper agents are a recurring theme of Homeland, but it bothers me less, and feels less dangerous, when it’s a white man who’s feeling dual loyalties. When you’re reporting, do you ever feel that people are suspicious of you because of your name—and your religion, if they have any sense of that?
Nomani: I know what it’s like to be suspected because of your ethnicity. As you know, Daniel Pearl, my pal from the Wall Street Journal was kidnapped and murdered after he left a house I’d rented in Karachi, Pakistan. Because he was Jewish, the Pakistani press called him a spy for Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Because I was born in India, the Pakistani press said I was a spy for the Research Analysis Wing, India’s intelligence agency. I’d never even heard of them, and I was supposedly collecting a paycheck from them.
Thomas: It’s a tribute to Homeland’s quality that not-entirely-believable characters and plot points made me think about real people and situations. I did think of Daniel Pearl—and Roya brought to mind Christiane Amanpour, for which I feel very guilty.
Nomani: I was really stunned when I was at the Wall Street Journal. I raised my hand and said that I wanted to report from the Middle East, including Israel. This was the early 1990s. My editor said, “You’re Muslim. Could you be fair?” I was like, “Uh, yeah.” Being Jewish or Christian certainly hasn’t kept journalists from being reporters in the Middle East. I was really disappointed. This is the dilemma that I think the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are also battling: wondering if folks with roots in foreign nationalities can be “loyal” to America. I get the fear, but those assumptions don’t prepare us for understanding other cultures.
Thomas: Yes, and so many of the U.S. government’s language problems—especially its shortage of Arabic speakers—are made worse by the suspicion with which many “heritage speakers,” that is, Arab-Americans, are treated.
Nomani: Exactly. One of the elements of the first episode that intrigues me is a truth that I’ve come to believe more and more: When we carry wounds that aren’t healed, they make us unhealthy.
Thomas: Unresolved pain is another recurring Homeland theme: Carrie’s mental illness is a matter of chemistry, I guess, but Brody’s attachment to Abu Nazir came about when Nazir’s son, to whom Brody was close, was killed in a drone strike. And, generally, he’s dealing with a lot of unhealed damage from being held as a captive for eight years, most of it in terrible circumstances. And as you say, by making Roya’s connection with Abu Nazir be about their families’ shared losses in 1947, Homeland’s producers are making those geopolitical matters expressions of unresolved hurt.
Nomani: Yes! I totally believe that, in a genius way, Homeland is daring to have us look at these big global issues of “Muslim rage,” “terrorism,” and “national security” through the lens of personal wounds. They’re all hurting. Look at Brody. Half of the scenes show him as a poor deer caught in headlights. He has the death stare. He is the walking wounded from war. And he’s still feeling this hurt from Issa’s death. Carrie? Her illness is only made worse from deep hurts within her. And the quintessential “bad guy,” the man directing Brody into a suicide bomb attack? It’s the death of his son that inspires him to exact revenge.
Thomas: But sometimes they end up oversimplifying those big geopolitical issues. I thought of that when Abu Nazir was said to be planning retaliation for the Israeli strikes on Iran. Later in the episode, Carrie arrives at Rafik Hariri Airport in Beirut. Hariri, of course, was a Lebanese Sunni, almost certainly killed by Lebanese Shiites allied with Hezbollah. It’s a reminder that a Sunni like Abu Nazir would almost certainly have experienced schadenfreude (at the very least) if something bad happened to Iran.
Nomani: Yes! I didn’t get why Abu Nazir would care about strikes on Iran. Much of the attention on Homeland as an examination of mental illness is on Carrie’s bipolar diagnosis. But, truly, I think it’s a show with a lot of folks who are the walking wounded with PTSD.
Thomas: It was interesting, too, to see how it trickles down to their kids. The VP’s wife helping to get Dana into Sidwell Friends (or a fictional version thereof) made for another great exploration of faith, one of the show’s other, less satisfactorily explored, themes. Even Quaker meeting for worship ends up being something that brings out Dana’s pain. She and her mom and little brother were left alone, wondering if Brody would ever come home, more or less deciding that he wouldn’t, and then having to deal with his unexpected return. All that and the crazy events since have done a number on her.
Nomani: I’ve learned that there is an element of PTSD that’s called “tertiary trauma,” and I thought it was genius to show it through Brody’s daughter. She’s hypervigilant.
Thomas: And she’s conflicted about her father’s faith. She knows that if it comes out, it means that her mother’s (apparent) dream of higher office for Brody can’t be achieved. And I’m sure it’s also puzzling to her. I imagine that’s why she blurted it out.
Nomani: One of the psychological elements that the show captures is how it is that when you are hurt, one of the symptoms can be that you shut down to the humanity of others. That’s what happens with Brody as he’s about to detonate his suicide vest at the end of Season 1. He doesn’t think about his daughter back at home. And then she calls, and the tremble and fear in her voice resurrects the humanity in him … for the moment, at least.
Thomas: Asra, you’ve just turned a moment that I thought was totally hokey and unbelievable into one that makes perfect sense!
Nomani: I thought that moment so captured the struggle of all people to come out of their fears, their traumas, their hurts, and their anxieties, to actually reach another. It’s messed up that it’s a girl reaching her father, while she’s carrying her own burdens. Now she has to keep her father’s conversion to Islam a secret. Like she doesn’t have enough to carry. Brody finds his humanity in the living breath of his daughter. Abu Nazir lost his humanity in the dying breath of his son. What connects them? Hurt. Hurt that isn’t healed.
Thomas: But I can’t believe that any of them will get the help they need. Now that Brody’s in the veepstakes, he can’t go to a shrink; Carrie’s on lithium; and Saul’s going to work himself to death. And healing the Middle East? Even one of the presidential candidates has given up on that.
Nomani: My heart just broke as Carrie went under for electroshock therapy. What did they have to do first? Put her under anesthesia. Numb her. We may numb ourselves, but until we heal, the pain remains, our unhealthy condition remains. I guess they wouldn’t get great ratings if they wove therapy sessions into the series? But hey, it worked for The Sopranos!
Monday: What other writers and Slate commenters thought about Episode 1.