In the most recent episode of Homeland, Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) traveled to a Syrian refugee camp to provide security for her boss, a German industrialist and philanthropist. The camp, a set, had been painstakingly created in an old factory outside of Berlin, with rubble, brick work, and Arabic graffiti—graffiti that, it turned out, read “Homeland is racist,” “There is not Homeland,” and “Homeland is not a series,” among other phrases. Someone had infiltrated the spy show. That someone is Heba Amin, an Egyptian artist and critic of the show, who was presented with the opportunity to do some “artivisim” and didn’t turn it down. She spoke with Slate about how she pulled off this stunt and why she did it.
You’ve written about your decision to write anti-Homeland graffiti on the Homeland set, but tell me about how you managed to do this.
A friend of mine is a graffiti publisher in Berlin, and he works a lot in the Middle East and publishes a lot about Middle Eastern graffiti. So he was naturally the person that they contacted about finding graffiti artists to take this job. He had contacted a few people before me, and nobody wanted to do it, because they had an idea that their politics were not in line with the show’s politics. When he got to me, my initial reaction was also to decline for the same reason.
And then I had this thought: What if, given the past inaccuracies that have existed on this show, they wouldn’t notice if we wrote something else? And he responded that we actually had the same idea. So it wasn’t a unique idea, and that kind of says a lot about the preceding episodes. But we were the ones that were willing to do it. So we decided, let’s take this meeting and see if it’s even possible and see where it goes. It turned out to be quite an easy process.
So you arrived on set and what happened?
Not to discredit the set people; they were frantic. They had so much to do, in really harsh conditions. This set was in a former factory on the outskirts of Berlin, where they had to bring in a lot of rubble and do a lot of building, and it was very hot and very hard work and they had two days to finish. So when we arrived they had no time for us, understandably. We were given the paint and told, spread text here and there, and that should be fine. And then they were off doing their own thing.
When we initially started spray painting we had come with proverbs that were quite subtle. In the Arabic language we use a lot of proverbs and poetry in our day-to-day language, so these were statements that people would understand what they mean, but if they don’t come from the culture, it might not be as obvious. We thought let’s be a little subtle and try to be critical through these texts that could be interpreted in multiple ways. But then we discovered that no one even asked us what we were writing, so we started improvising. We started using things that came to our mind. We tried to be humorous about it, and tried to be straightforward, to see what it was we could get away with
So you got more comfortable.
Yeah, we realized that we weren’t being monitored and they weren’t following up. So then we had our freedom and were much more playful. We didn’t worry so much, and could just play around.
Was it fun?
Yes. Absolutely! But this wasn’t just an act for fun, it really had this underlying message so we’re happy that it’s getting out.
Were you nervous?
Yeah, of course. [Laughs.] We were doing something that has consequences. But we also realized that this point was important for us to make. This is not necessarily a specific attack on Homeland, but on the inaccuracies in the visual depictions of the region, not just the storylines. And that has consequences on real-world situations.
What are those consequences?
From increased racism to affecting the way foreign policy is being dealt with in the region. Obama said this was his favorite show. So when you have a show where Iran and al-Qaida are friends all of a sudden … nuanced, complex issues are simplified in ways that influence the way people understand it and that can have very real consequences on actual involvement in the region.
Was there any graffiti you considered using that you thought, no, that’s too far?
Well to be honest I think we did a pretty good job of keeping it quite tame. There are statements that are quite obvious, like “Homeland is racist.” However the word we chose to use is the translation of the word homeland—not just a phonetic translation of the title—so it doesn’t necessarily implicate the show itself. I’ve been told by other people that’s what’s been nice is we didn’t get too aggressive with it. It’s not just this vendetta against Homeland, though we have a lot of issues and problems with Homeland, but to indicate there is a bigger problem and a bigger picture that needs to be addressed.
Do you watch Homeland?
I didn’t before this situation presented itself, because I had heard and read all the criticism of it and I decided to boycott the show. But when this situation presented itself I felt like, well if I was going to put myself in the situation, I had to understand the context. So then I watched the entire show, prior to working on the set.
Did you find it as distasteful as you were expecting?
Yes, I did find it incredibly problematic. I found it quite offensive.
Did you like anything about it?
It’s a great production, it’s good acting. They use all these manipulative, filmic Hollywood tactics. In that sense it’s almost hard not to get sucked into it. But I don’t know that I would genuinely sit down and watch it.
Were you surprised your work actually made it to air?
We were surprised and not surprised at the same time. Previous episodes showed us that they aired things that were absurdly incorrect, everything from the language being spoken in this absurd way, to making these kind of cultural faux-pas. At the same time, we were thinking, no, something will come up in post-production, or surely they discovered something and erased it or painted over it. So then when the episode aired and we saw all the stuff was there—when you see it on that scale, it’s surprising but at the same time its not
Did you watch the episode?
Yeah, I really wasn’t paying attention at all to the plot, just scouting out the set. After you accomplish something like this, and especially because we’re now removed from it—we did this back in June—and you’re looking at it from this outsider perspective and feeling like, “oh yeah, I did that!” And we’re getting this overwhelmingly positive response, and its like, oh we did do something meaningful. I don’t think you can anticipate the scale of something like that until it happens
Have you talked to anyone from the show?
No one has contacted us, but I would love to talk to the Homeland producers. I’d be happy if this resulted in a dialogue … if it created a platform from which these things can be talked bout in a less aggressive, confrontational way.