The scene, from a recent episode of the hit US Showtime series "Homeland," is supposed to be Beirut. But it is really in Israel, a country similar enough in some areas to stand in for Lebanon, yet a world away in most other respects.
The show about Arab terrorists and American turncoats has inadvertently become a tale of two cities. Some Beirutis are angry because the depiction of their city as swarming with militiamen is misleading and because they see Israel as the enemy. And in Israel, some are peeved that Haifa and even Tel Aviv – a self-styled nightlife capital and high-tech hub – apparently appear, to outsiders at least, to be Middle Eastern after all.
Lebanese Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud told The Associated Press on Thursday that he's so upset about the portrayal of Beirut that he's considering a lawsuit.
"The information minister is studying media laws to see what can be done," he said.
Abboud pointed to the scene with the snipers. Hamra Street in West Beirut is portrayed as a hotbed of violence, but it is actually a lively neighborhood packed with cafes, book shops and pubs.
"It showed Hamra Street with militia roaming in it. This does not reflect reality," he said. "It was not filmed in Beirut and does not portray the real image of Beirut."
Twentieth Century Fox Television refused to comment.
'Israel invaded and occupied our country'
Several Lebanese interviewed by the AP said they have never heard of the show. When a reporter described the plot and said it was shot in Israel, the reactions ranged from anger to blithe acceptance that filmmaking is an imperfect art.
Hamed Moussa, an engineering student at the American University of Beirut, said it's not a problem that Israelis are portraying Lebanese. In fact, he said, Lebanese often play Israeli characters in Lebanese soap operas.
But Ghada Jaber, a 60-year-old housewife, said Israel should never stand in for Lebanon.
"It is very insulting," she said as she walked along Hamra Street. "Israel destroyed our country. Israel invaded and occupied our country."
'Homeland' star Claire Danes in Jaffa (Photo: AP)
"Homeland," based on the Israeli series "Prisoners of War," is about a US Marine named Nick Brody who was a POW for years in the Middle East. The federal government and the public see Brody as a war hero, but a CIA operative played by Claire Danes believes he was turned by the enemy and is now a threat to the US.
The second season began last month, and some of the urban scenes are shot in Tel Aviv, the Israeli metropolis about 250 kilometers (150 miles) south of Beirut. Jaffa, a popular mixed Jewish and Arab neighborhood of Tel Aviv, was an Arab town before Israel gained independence in 1948, and its Levantine architecture, mosques and minarets, situated along the Mediterranean, allowed the creators of "Homeland" to present a plausible version of Beirut.
To the average viewer, the Beirut scenes may appear authentic. But to the discerning viewer, hints of Israel are everywhere: cars with blurred yellow Israeli license plates, red-and-white curbs that designate no-parking zones, an Israeli-style traffic circle, and a well-known minaret and clock tower in Jaffa.
In one rooftop scene, parts of the Tel Aviv skyline, with hotels lining the Mediterranean and the iconic "Shalom Tower" skyscraper, can be seen in the distance.
Tremendous divergence of narratives
In one publicity shot released by Showtime from the recent "Back to Beirut" episode, Danes' character is walking through a Beirut open market and passes a stall selling two Israeli T-shirts: One red with the white Coca-Cola logo in large Hebrew letters, the other a yellow jersey of a Jerusalem soccer team with the name in Hebrew, Beitar Yerushalayim, and a menorah. In a fast-paced chase that actually aired, however, there were no traces of Israel.
The reactions to the show in Lebanon and Israel reflect the tremendous divergence of narratives between the two peoples – each seeing the other as aggressor, each seeing itself as a victim.
Many Lebanese cannot forget the massive destruction Israel inflicted on Beirut during a 1982 invasion when it succeeded in routing the Palestine Liberation Organization from the country. They resent the 18-year takeover of south Lebanon that followed, and their leaders in any case reject the existence of the Jewish state.
But to Israel, Lebanon has been a perennial staging ground for missile strikes and other attacks on Israel, more than justifying the massive Israeli operations there that have occurred in every decade since the 1970s.
Eytan Schwartz, a spokesman for Tel Aviv's mayor, said the Lebanese should, if anything, be pleased at the TV show's choice for a stand-in.
"If I were Lebanese, with all due respect, I'd be very flattered that a city, and a world heritage site, thanks to its incredible architecture, and residents who were named among the top 10 most beautiful people in the world (ranked by Traveler's Digest magazine in 2012) could pass as Lebanese," he said.
"All we can do is pray for a day when the Lebanese regime will allow our Lebanese friends to visit us and see for themselves," Schwartz said.
Nir Rubinstein, an Israeli Internet developer who fought in Beirut as a young soldier 30 years ago, said he understood the Lebanese anger, but also how Israelis might be insulted as well.
"This sort of diminishes Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which are more modern than Beirut," said Rubinstein, speaking for a generation of Tel Aviv residents who are aggressively proud of their city – a densely populated urban area of some 2.5 million people with a standard of living that rivals most places in Europe, a world-class tech industry and a raucous nightlife.
Beirut itself has developed impressively in the two decades since its 15-year civil war ended, and its growing renown as a party city in its own right – the most liberal and fun-loving of major Arab cities – is a source of some fascination to Israelis who are barred from going there.
But the portrayal of Lebanon as swarming with guns is hardly unreasonable nonetheless.
The country has dozens of armed militias that still flourish, and an alarming number of private individuals have weapons in their homes, including hunting rifles, guns and even RPG launchers.
The biggest militia of all, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, has gained so much power and influence over the years that it's now part of the government, wielding virtual veto power, and long-running talks on disarmament have gone nowhere.
The abundance of weapons is one reason why conflicts here can turn deadly so quickly.
In May, an explosive, eight-hour shootout in a residential area of west Beirut, which apparently began after a domestic dispute, killed several people - including a man who was firing machine guns and lobbing grenades from his balcony.
Lebanon also has seen a rise in clashes stemming from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Despite its immense popularity, "Homeland" does not appear to have reached Hezbollah's radar.
"I have no idea what you are talking about," Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim al-Moussawi told the AP when asked about the show. "This is the first I'm hearing about it."
Still, he described Abboud's plan to sue the producers as "a good step" and said Hezbollah will probably study the issue and put out a statement if needed.
Lebanon's leading LBC TV carried a report on the controversy Thursday, saying the show disparages Arabs and that its setting in Israel is "a double insult."
But Ariel Kolitz, a Tel Aviv businessman who was a childhood friend of Gideon Raff, the Israeli co-creator of "Homeland," said that it wasn't as if the production team had the option of shooting in Beirut, where Raff and other Israelis involved are not permitted to visit and where they could be in danger.
"It's a lot simpler to shoot here," he said. "That's it."