In June, three Cairo-based street artists were approached by a production company to make the set of a refugee camp on hit Showtime series Homeland feel more authentic. Instead of putting up some pro-President Bashar al-Assad nonsense, though, they filled the walls with puns and clever transliterations.
According to the Washington Post, the production company first reached out to an artist known as Stone to help find “Arabian street artists” assist with the set. But nobody wanted to participate “because of their political standpoints,” one of the artists, Heba Amin, said. And so they thought, “What if we could use this as an opportunity to be subversive, to make a point with it?”
In a statement released Wednesday, the three artists—Heba Amin, Stone, and Caram Kapp—write that they were given images of pro-Assad graffiti (“apparently natural in a Syrian refugee camp”) as inspiration:
Our instructions were: (1) the graffiti has to be apolitical (2) you cannot copy the images because of copyright infringement (3) writing “Mohamed is the greatest, is okay of course”. We would arm ourselves with slogans, with proverbs allowing for critical interpretation, and, if the chance presented itself, blatant criticism directed at the show. And so, it came to be.
“It’s very important for us to address the idea that this kind of stereotyping is very dangerous because it helps form people’s perceptions of an entire region, a huge region, which in turn affects foreign policy,” Amin said. “It was a way to claim back our image.”
Set designers were too frantic to pay any attention to us; they were busy constructing a hyper-realistic set that addressed everything from the plastic laundry pins to the frayed edges of outdoor plastic curtains. It looked veryMiddle Eastern and the summer sun and heat helped heighten that illusion. In their eyes, Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror-fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanizing an entire region to human-less figures in black burkas and moreover, this season, to refugees. The show has thus created a chain of causality with Arabs at its beginning and as its outcome- their own victims and executioners at the same time. As was briefly written on the walls of a make-believe Syrian refugee camp in a former Futterphosphatfabrik (animal feed plant) in the outskirts of Berlin, the situation is not to be trusted- الموضوع فيه أن.
Phrases that made it onto the set, according to the artists’ photos, include: “Homeland is NOT a series;” “Homeland is watermelon;” and “This show does not represent the views of the artists.”
Other slogans contain cultural references, including #BlackLivesMatter, Amin said. In the phrase “Homeland is racist,” the word used for “homeland” could be interpreted a different way, Amin said. In another instance, the artists used a transliterated word for “homeland.”
As a Hezbollah commander leads Claire Danes through a refugee camp in Lebanon, behind them on a wall, in Arabic, is scrawled, “Homeland is racist.”
“We discovered that no one was paying attention or even asking what we were writing,” Amin told the Post. “Initially, we started writing the proverbs, and then we realized we could write whatever we wanted.”
The episode aired Sunday.