Season one of Homeland was a nail biter. I remember streaming the whole season in one go, itching to find out whether Brody was really going to do "it" or not. In season three, the Iranians seemed like a really crazy lot. I haven't been to Iran and I don't speak Farsi so I assumed that Iran really must look as grey, dull and schizophrenic as it does in the season - and in the news.
Season four of Homeland brought me home to Pakistan and the first three episodes made me giggle - sometimes uncontrollably.
The Pakistan depicted in Homeland, a "shithole" as the fictional director of the CIA, Director Lockhart puts it, isn't just far from the truth - it's actually on a different continent.
Homeland's version of Pakistan has been shot in South Africa, the "Pakistanis" being played by Indians and Pakistanis who had migrated there a long time ago. I smiled when I realized that I had never seen the Pakistan depicted in the show, even though I live here, I giggled when I saw dark brown guys playing the light-skinned, European-looking Pathans who belong to the tribal regions of Pakistan and I laughed out loud when a character says "It was many thanks to meet you" in Urdu, the language spoken in Pakistan.
Why does this matter? It hasn't induced ire in me as it has in other indignant Pakistanis. Many are writing columns and blogs about how Homeland has reinforced a downright barbaric stereotype of Pakistan. My only major criticism of the series, for now, is that if they could find a baby who looks exactly like Brody, why couldn't they find Pakistanis who actually look like Pakistanis?
It has pushed me to feel a little sorry for myself - and for the people who watch the season and haven't been to Pakistan, don't speak the language, and their only information about the country is from the news and this series.
Let me give you an example of why this matters. On a beautiful spring day, a group of UNC undergrads decided to go down to a small town in North Carolina for a bluegrass festival. This group included me: a Pakistani, a few North Carolinians and a girl from Washington D.C.. At the venue, local farmers had put up stalls, selling homemade jams, fruits and produce. The girl from D.C. and I went up to a stall and asked to buy some jam. The farmer sold us the jam and asked, "Are ya'll sisters?" I looked at her and smirked. The girl from D.C. was half white and half Bangladeshi, half Muslim and half Jewish, and looked absolutely nothing like me. We were the only brown-skinned girls in a park full of Caucasian Americans, enjoying bluegrass in the Deep South. We laughed and I replied, "No, sir, we're just brown." The man smiled, embarrassed when he realized his faux pas and we giggled and walked on.
The problem with not knowing and visiting your world is having to rely on others to tell you what it's like. We trust the news and the media to give us a correct - and realistic - portrayal of a place. Instinctively, we trust Carrie Mathison to show us reality as well because she is fighting countries that actually exist. The American media shows Pakistan as a country where every woman is shrouded in a burkha, a "third world" country where every Pakistani walks around with sticks, ready to kill a white guy: stereotypes reinforced by Homeland.
I'm not going to be naïve about this and defend the indefensible. Pakistan has a monstrous set of problems, and some Homeland gets right. Anti-Americanism is incredibly common, there is a major influx of terrorists at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and the U.S. is conducting drone strikes in Pakistan - with Pakistan's unofficial and tacit approval.
I feel uneasy because I feel Homeland is cheating its viewers. Why? Because Pakistan is also a country of infinite beauty, lush green parks and mountains, and where city girls can walk freely with a burkha and without a burkha. Islamabad is a quaint and sleepy city, a place with farmers' markets, small bistros and a highly secure diplomatic enclave: where a protestor cannot come miles in front of the U.S. Embassy.
I know it's silly, but I believed in Brody and Carrie. I believed them when in season three, I saw the cheering, jeering crowds in Iran at a public beheading of a hero and I felt angry at "those crazy Iranians."
Now, while watching season four, I feel like slapping myself for getting so caught up in a tale of fiction and for not dismissing stereotypes when I had the chance.
I met that farmer eight years ago, the day when he realized the stereotype he was imposing on my friend and me: that all brown Asians look the same. In a small rural town of North Carolina, he probably didn't meet many international students. He was probably trying to strike up a conversation to ask about us, who we were, and where we were from. And I walked off thinking that he was just a small town guy who didn't know any better. Post-9/11 he would have, undoubtedly, had seen a "clash of civilizations" image of Pakistan and Islam, and perhaps he would had been open to discussing his views - and mine. I regret not sitting down with him, smearing jam on a piece of bread, and discussing where he was from and where I was from - dispelling certain stereotypes that I had of him and he had of me.
I don't expect Homeland, or the news media, to stop portraying countries and religions in a stereotypical way and promoting negative images of countries they don't want to like. A hero needs a villain after all. But I do realize that it is our job, as global citizens, to talk to each other, understand each other and realize that we are sometimes involuntarily programmed to hate each other, no matter how educated and worldly we really are. That realization leads to an appreciation and a desire to understand each other. Maybe it will lead to a journey on country roads in each other's homeland, with an openness to accept and listen to each other, in a place far from a television and Carrie Mathison.