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Marco Werman: I’ve also been watching the new season of ‘Homeland,’ the Showtime series that centers on the work of CIA operative Carrie Mathison has a new narrative. The first two episodes featured a drone strike on a wedding party in a Pakistani village and a Benghazi-like disaster in which the Islamabad station chief is beaten to death by a mob -- all pretty dramatic. But if you live in Pakistan, you see Homeland differently. We often speak with Bina Shah on The World, she lives in Karachi in Pakistan, and she wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, titled ‘A Homeland We Pakistanis Don’t Recognize.’ I asked her what she found surprising about the way Pakistan is portrayed in Homeland.
Bina Shah: Well, we’re used to Pakistan being portrayed as a country with chaos and with trouble, with problems, with security issues. So, I was prepared for that and obviously it’s Homeland, it’s about a CIA agent, so it’s not going to be all flowers. However, I was very surprised by the things that they got so wrong. For example, the US embassy, there’s no way protesters could stand right outside its gates and protest. It’s hidden way deep inside a diplomatic enclave, heavily protected. Nobody gets in there without a vast amount of security and papers and checking and so on and so forth, so that was one of the first things that struck me.
Werman: Consistency is always a problem in Hollywood. We’ve kind of learned that if it’s Hollywood, especially if it’s Hollywood on a small screen, it simply needs to be taken with a grain of salt. How important is Hollywood, do you think?
Shah: Well, we know that Hollywood plays fast and loose with reality, and so that’s something that we have to expect. But in a series like Homeland, which is really looking at one of the most vital arenas in the world, and the area of Pakistan and its geopolitics is so important on so many levels. So even though Homeland is just entertainment, it does influence perception and that is what I tried to talk about in my piece for the Times, that it is very odd for me, as a Pakistani, to see how Pakistan is viewed through this lens of Hollywood. The image that I see reflected back to me is vastly distorted. For me, that’s disturbing because I know that millions of Americans watch this show, that’s the impression they’re going to get of the country.
Werman: Connect the dots for us. How consequential is this portrayal of Pakistan when millions of Americans are watching this show --I assume millions of Americans, but there are a lot of people watching it -- to the perception of what’s happening to Pakistan to foreign policy of the United States towards Pakistan? Is it going to get that big?
Shah: It’s going to increase the fear, it’s going to increase the mistaken perceptions, the misunderstandings, and public perception does drive policy. So, if you have Americans who’ve never been to Pakistan, they’re watching a show that essentially fearmongers, it raises questions about the safety of American personnel, it raises questions about the feelings and attitudes of Pakistanis towards Americans -- these things are important. They need to be portrayed accurately, they need to be portrayed with nuance. All of that is just missing from Homeland.
Werman: You mentioned the oddness of protesters just outside the American embassy in Islamabad, which couldn’t happen. That seems to be one detail, but is there something that is larger that you feel is just wrong with the way Pakistan is portrayed in the series?
Shah: The connections that Homeland makes are too facile, they are just too obvious. For example, the main Pakistani character is a young medical student whose family is supposedly killed in an aerial strike that Carrie orders. So, immediately they have him looking up at the camera while Carrie is looking at them, and the connection is so obvious. Now he’s going to become the terrorist. These are facile statements to make. Pakistanis have suffered tremendously in the war on terror, we’ve had thousands of people killed, we’ve had thousands of people maimed and injured. All Pakistanis do not go on to become terrorists. I think this is the biggest mistake that Homeland makes.
Werman: Check that for us, because I’d like to know what the reality has been on the ground. When there is a drone strike, is there a reaction that you’ve noticed -- almost a typical reaction that takes place?
Shah: No, there are many different types of reactions and that’s the thing that I think the show misses out on. There are some people who protest peacefully, there are others who protest violently, there are some who just retreat into their pain and they become just a broken ghost of war, there are others who become very valuable but they write newspaper articles, so they respond in an intellectual way. There’s so many layers of complexity. Homeland just misses out on all of them. Again, I don’t expect it to understand or portray everything, but the depth and the nuance that exists in my country is completely flattened for a very one-dimensional story.
Werman: Bina, have you heard from the producers of Homeland since your piece appeared in the Times?
Shah: No, I haven’t. I don’t expect to.
Werman: Bina Shah is an author based in Karachi. Bina, good to speak with you again. Thank you.
Shah: Thanks for having me.
Werman: By the way, we contacted Showtime for a comment but did not hear back in time for this broadcast.