I tend to be wary of Western films and dramas about the Middle East. Too often they tend to reduce Middle Eastern politics to easily digestable and simplistic tropes whose primary purpose is entertainment.
As Jack Sheehan has pointed out in Reel Bad Arabs, Hollywood has a particularly bad record when it comes to dealing with anything Arab or Middle Eastern, with an endless list of films which reproduce racist images or reductionist stereotypes that tell us far more about how America views the Middle East than they do about the Middle East itself.
Such films invariably rely heavily on Orientalist exoticism and intrigue, irrational violence, terrorism, and one-dimensional, generally killeable ‘ Arab’ villains who have not changed that much from the black-faced Almoravid fanatics who Charlton Heston waged war against in El Cid.
TV is generally not much better, even when it appears to be operating on a more sophisticated level than Rules of Engagement or True Lies. I was particularly appalled by Homeland, which despite its endless plaudits, I actually couldn’t stand to watch. Even the few episodes that I saw were steeped in whopping Orientalist clichés in their representation of ‘Arab terrorists’ as the personification of irrational evil.
Complexity and nuance, as is so often the case, was reserved for Homeland’s American characters, whether they were heroes or villains or a bit of both.
I was nevertheless intrigued to see the first episode of the new-BBC eight part series, The Honourable Woman, which has come to the screen amid much anticipation as a British Homeland, to see to what extent it followed or departed from this rather ignominious tradition.
As tv drama goes, there is no doubt that this is top drawer stuff. It’s stylish, enigmatic, immacualtely well-directed and well-acted, albeit in a somewhat stylised and mannered fashion. Maggie Gylenhall puts in a striking performance of wired emotional fragility as Nessa Stein, the philantrophic Israeli entrepreneur haunted by her arms dealer father’s murder.
Pretty much everyone in The Honourable Woman appears to be haunted by something and concealing some morbid secret, whether it’s Steven Rea’s cynical M15 agent, Nessa’s brother, her Palestinian housekeeper/nanny, or Nessa herself. Danger, menace, foreboding and intrigue abound, and plotlines ominously point towards much more to come.
The premise of the opening episode nevertheless seems fatally flawed. In the same room that Nessa’s father was murdered, she announces that her company will be implementing a billion-dollar project to introduce broadband into the Occupied Territories. Why? Because Nessa believes that ‘terrorism’ can only be eradicated by eradicating poverty.
Some viewers might think that eliminating the occupation and halting the ongoing Israeli colonisation of the West Bank would probably help too, but there is no reference to such matters, except for a brief episode in which Nessa and her secretive-looking housekeeper are attacked by Islamic militants in the Gaza Strip, presumably to demonstrate that she has personal experience of ‘terrorism’.
Of course that may change, but for the time being we have an improbable scenario in whcih Gylenhall’s ‘honourable woman’ is apparently trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by bringing broadband to the West Bank and inviting a Palestinian violinist to play a prestige concert in London.
This might make good satire, if The Honourable Woman was critiquing Stein’s simplistic altruism, but there is no indication of any such intentions. Instead, in keeping with BBC notions of ‘balance’ that apparently apply to drama as well as news, Stein appears as a vulnerable idealist threatened by spooks with dubious agendas, and equally dodgy Israelis and Palestinians.
There is an Israeli entrepreneur and Stein family friend who is obviously a greedy and ruthless bastard. We know this because he says fuck a lot, especially when Nessa doesn’t give him the broadband contract because his company has been – wait for it – laundering money for Hezbollah.
Then there is a representative of the Palestinian Authority who essentially orders Nessa to give the broadband contract to Palestinians. And the Palestinian entrepreneur Samir Meshal (neat trick to choose the surname of the political leader of Hamas there) who gets the contract, only to be found hanged on the day that he is supposed to be accepting it.
The idea that the PA can make anyone do anything is fairly laughable, but the idea that it could or would threaten a millionaire Israeli businesswoman in London, with connections to the Foreign Office, is asking far too much suspension of disbelief.
Of course all this might develop into something more powerful and insightful. But my first impression was lots of style and atmosphere and very little substance, and this impression wasn’t helped by the BBC’s ‘interactive’ online extras, in which you can read ‘Samir Meshal’s last letter’ and look at his ‘fingerprint’ as though the whole thing were a Middle Eastern version of Cluedo.
Personally, I am all in favour of writers and dramatists engaging with contemporary political conflicts, and such engagement is by no means incompatible with entertainment, genre, and the conventions of tv drama.
But the question is whether these efforts are intended to shed light on these conflicts or simply turn them into tricksy stories to attract high ratings and hook viewers.
Homeland, in my opinion, belonged firmly in the second category, and I suspect that The Honourable Woman does too.