The recent hacking of the popular Showtime series “Homeland” by a team of Arab graffiti artists hired to draw pro-Assad graffiti on a set depicting a Syrian refugee camp has elicited laughter and applause. The series has drawn pointed criticism for a litany of factual errors, historical absurdities and offensive political messages. In a public statement explaining their actions and motives, the graffiti artists cited many of these critiques, laying particular stress on both the show’s longstanding and inexplicable efforts to depict an alliance between al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah and its recent defense of domestic surveillance in implicit allusion to Edward Snowden.
The show’s staggering inattention to the complex political and cultural realities of the Middle East rendered it an ideal target for the graffiti artists, who proceeded to plaster the set with slogans critical of the show. If “Homeland” producers were unable to differentiate between the political agendas of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, they were equally unlikely to differentiate between pro-Assad and anti-“Homeland” graffiti scrawled across the walls of the set. Their contributions — which ranged from the satirical “Homeland is a watermelon” to the more direct “Homeland is racist” — passed unnoticed by the show’s set designers and were broadcast on Oct. 11. While the affair reveals much about the show’s blinkered conception of authenticity as a purely aesthetic vision of violence, hatred and misery in the Middle East, it also adds to the rich historical legacy of dissident art in the Arab world.
The Arabic language has long served as the most potent weapon available to dissident Arab artists in their struggle against European colonialism and American imperialism. These artists echo the earlier demonstrations of defiant resistance from Arab poets. For more than 100 years, these poets publicly and effectively deconstructed, satirized and countered colonial discourse, always depending on the ignorance and arrogance of their targets to avoid punishment. Colonial administrators in the Arab world, much like the “Homeland” production team, repeatedly demonstrated both an insufficient grasp of the Arabic language and a general disinterest in the content of native culture. These critical weaknesses were readily exploited by perceptive poets.
The modern origins of anti-colonial Arabic poetry can be traced to the verses of the Egyptian poets Mahmud Sami al-Barudi, Ahmad Shawqi and Hafiz Ibrahim in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both Barudi and Shawqi were persecuted and exiled because of the anti-colonial content of their work. Perhaps no verses of poetry were better known and loved in colonial Egypt than the opening lines of Shawqi’s famous attack on Lord Cromer, who exercised nearly unchecked authority as consul general of Egypt between 1883 and 1907:
Is it your age or that of [Khedive] Ismail, or are you Pharaoh ruling the Nile?
Or an absolute ruler of the land of Egypt, never questioning and never questioned?
O you who enslaves necks with your power, could you not find a path to hearts?
When you left, the country thanked God, as if you were an incurable disease departing.
A stronger parallel to the “Homeland” episode, however, can be found in the actions of Iraqi poets in the interwar period. While the British Mandate in Iraq was formally terminated in 1932, Britain retained an official military presence and continued to exercise tremendous informal control of Iraqi politics. Iraqi nationalists resented the presence of British troops on Iraqi soil, the British manipulation of Iraqi elections and the unfavorable terms of the oil concession negotiated by Britain, and nationalist poets eagerly embraced the opportunity to speak to these concerns.
Much like the “Homeland” graffiti artists, who tentatively began with Arabic proverbs that could be read in a subversive manner and only shifted to direct criticism of the show once they realized that nobody was paying attention, the verses of these Iraqi poets gradually evolved from metaphorical critiques to direct assaults on the colonial presence in Iraq as they began to realize that the censors simply weren’t reading their poems. The British Embassy in Baghdad tasked just one official with monitoring the entire Iraqi daily press, and time constraints and linguistic limitations prevented him from actually reading the inflammatory verses that filled the pages of nationalist newspapers. As long as the poets used obscure titles and euphemistic terms like “Thamesians,” they simply escaped the censor’s attention. While the British Embassy repeatedly intervened to force the government to punish the authors of editorials mildly critical of Britain, they did nothing to counter far more inflammatory verses openly published in Iraq. To take just one example, Maʿruf al-Rusafi once publicly denounced the Iraqi government’s employment of the British official C.J. Edmonds in the Ministry of Interior:
There you are with our affairs thrown before you,
Approving and rejecting our very lives as you will
You take from us a salary as an employee,
And this, by God, is the most painful part
Today we bear the burden of your tyranny,
And for the privilege, we pay your wages in cash
It’s not difficult to imagine that the spiteful pleasure felt by Iraqis who saw Edmonds soon after this poem was published rivaled that of Arab audiences who comprehended the message of the “Homeland” graffiti artists.
Unlike the Iraqi poets, though, the graffiti artists directed their protest to both the Arab public and the primarily American audience of “Homeland.” The fact that the public statement of these artists was published in English attests to the adaptation of dissident art in a globalized world. Now that they can speak to an American audience, these artists have substantially expanded the subversive potential of the Arabic language deployed in anti-colonial critique. Unfortunately, as the obliviousness of “Homeland” suggests, the evolution of Western attitudes and approaches toward the Middle East has proven far less innovative and impressive.