Arts & Culture | Incorrigible Idealist vs. Impenetrable Darkness: The suspect politics of ‘The Honourable Woman’

Heralded as a critical and popular success, the BBC TV series 'The Honourable Woman' has been particularly praised for its authentic and sensitive portrayal of the moral complexities of life in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, such recognition is largely misplaced, warns Tony McKenna.

Arts & Culture, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Sunday, October 12, 2014 18:58 - 1 Comment

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The Honourable Woman - Ceasefire Magazine

From the very start, it seems, the writer/director/producer of the Honourable Woman (BBC 2) wants you to know that this is serious stuff. The series has, after all, the conflict between Israel and Palestine as its backdrop and – given recent events – this can’t help but impart an aura of ominous prescience. We are treated to lots of long, lingering shots of desert expanses, punctuated by sand-swept villages, all set against the soundtrack of a haunting, rolling lament that echoes across the beleaguered landscape. This is important, for it helps us understand that we are dealing with HISTORICAL FORCES which are VERY ANCIENT INDEED. The scenes from the smouldering rubble of the West Bank are thrown into relief by CIVILISATION – which, in this case, pretty much means ‘England’.

All is not well here, however, for we find ourselves in several spare government offices, witnessing a number of government functionaries/spies hold a series of meetings in which they whisper at each other in very low tones, every now and again adding a darkly knowing reference to ‘the Americans’ – this, too, is important because it allows us to understand that there are CONSPIRATORIAL FORCES AT WORK which are VERY CONSPIRATORIAL indeed.

In fact, the conspiracy in question is so conspiratorial that it has conspired not to make much sense to itself. We do know that the object of the conspiracy is one Nessa Stein – businesswoman and the eponymous ‘honourable woman’ of the series. Stein’s father was a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist fanatically committed to Israel’s ‘security’ and the young Nessa was witness to his murder at the hands of sinister fanatics. Her perpetually winsome and tragic expression and the fact that she speaks in a very slow and monotonous voice all of the time are helpful. For they express INNER PAIN. More than this, her father’s murder has shown her the futility of extremism.

Now, positively oozing humanity, Nessa realises that only a compassionate Western liberal can really save the Palestinians…from themselves. This is a role she is in a position to play because she is the head of a multi-million dollar corporation – and it is well-known fact that western business interests in the oil-rich Middle East are frequently motivated by humanitarian concerns and are nearly always A GOOD THING.

Nessa aims to provide the Palestinians in the West Bank with internet connections, thus educating and elevating them. Unfortunately, there is a key obstacle working against her lofty idealism: their refusal to be elevated. When THE DARKLY CONSPIRATORIAL FORCES which, as the series progresses, seem to implicate everyone and no-one; when these convoluted strands eventually unravel, the reality proves to be all too simple; it is revealed that the true villainy has been unleashed by a Palestinian terrorist mastermind – Zahid Al-Zahid. As part of his litany of crime, he has ordered the rape of Nessa by his own son as a way to exact revenge on her dead father, he has her brother murdered, and, in fact, he was the orchestrator of the assassination of her father all those years ago.

Al-Zahid’s is a sinister malevolence. Caged in the broken embittered body of an old man slowly dying in some dusty impoverished hovel, the scope of his power – its ability to infiltrate the highest echelons of government, to actualise a series of bloody murders of prominent, powerful officials – nevertheless seems almost without limits. But although one can’t doubt the sheer venom of Nessa’s bête noire  – at the same time Al-Zahid has all the dimensions and scope of a James Bond villain; an untrammelled evil which borders on psychopathy – and is, therefore, denuded of any genuine political content.

In fact, the only Palestinian character in the whole series that is explored with any artistic depth and merit is Atika, the woman who is taken into captivity in the West Bank alongside Nessa, who eventually adopts the latter’s child, and also has a love-affair with Nessa’s brother. Atika’s humanity is rendered palpable by her quiet, subdued and deep affection for Nessa and her brother, for the tenderness with which she relates to her adopted child, and also for a certain still inner-strength. But in the finale it is revealed that her character is a sham, for she has been a member of the terrorist group which is involved in the culling of Nessa’s family. When Nessa is captured again, she confronts Atika, and her one time friend explains that her own family were murdered – by the Israeli-military using Stein-manufactured weaponry – during their fight for the cause of Palestinian statehood.

This is quite a sleight of hand, though. Much of the show has been devoted to depicting Nessa’s loss – her brother is portrayed as a naive but sympathetic presence, his character unfolding over the whole series. For this, Nessa’s loss attains a fullness and resonance that Atika’s suffering cannot, for the latter’s is merely articulated in a short snatch of conversation at the very conclusion of the series. This is significant, for though the show does reference the loss of Atika’s family, and her suffering, and thus satisfies a formal criterion for impartiality – it nevertheless reduces that suffering by rendering its content virtually invisible in terms of the fabric of the plot. There is an underlying logic at work here, which extends far beyond the parameters of this particular piece. It has been evinced, for example, in the reportage from Gaza in which the names and details of three Israeli teenagers who were murdered earlier this year were fleshed out and exhibited, whereas the murders of Palestinian children were rendered in terms of cold, anonymous statistics – despite the fact that the Palestinian deaths were far more numerous – a dead child every three days for the past 14 years, in fact.

In the mainstream media coverage, the vexed issue of murdered children in Gaza glides seamlessly into a racist narrative: it is not Israeli bombs that are cutting down young lives, but the ‘terrorists’ themselves, who are happy to use their own children as human shields because such ‘people’ have less than human sensibilities. And it is remarkable how closely the aesthetic logic of The Honourable Woman has assimilated this narrative. In the final episode, the rabid villain of the piece actually takes the time to state outright that he has purposefully sacrificed his children, and when Atika suggests his actions are motivated by revenge above all, Al-Zahid simply stabs her. This allows her to redeem herself by killing him and sacrificing her life to bring Kasim, Nessa’s child, back to her.

All of which is presented as part-and-parcel of a nuanced, ambiguous, morally-complex picture; but, again, what is really going on here is quite simple: Atika has managed to renounce her dark side, her familial connection to the barbaric struggle waged by Al-Zahid and, in so doing, comes over to the world of civilisation and humanity represented by the long suffering Nessa. As Guardian journalist Gabriel Tate put it, Atika becomes a kind of “Darth Vader, sacrificing herself and killing her mentor”.

The Honourable Woman is an extremely intelligent piece of drama. Not because it provides fully drawn, convincing characterisations – It doesn’t. Not because its plot has any type of coherent internal logic, or that the various elements and incidents within it survive any kind of critical scrutiny -They don’t. It does have some fine acting which is married with potent, atmospheric camera shots and scenes. The dialogue, in places, sparkles – it is hard to forget, for instance, spy chief Julia Walsh’s laconic reflection on the lack of mettle on the part of her male colleagues – ‘In a room full of pussies, I’m the only one with a vagina.’

But more than anything, the ultimate success of The Honourable Woman lies in its ability to harness a very specific Zeitgeist – a slicker, more modern-day-version of Kipling’s ‘white man’s burden’ – in which history is positively directed by the wealthy, white middle-class westerners whose sheer sense of entitlement is fused with a gushing liberal humanitarianism; and in the character of Nessa Stein, the honourable woman of the piece, this achieves its most potent expression; for whatever is done to her, whatever she endures, Nessa remains an incorrigible idealist, overflowing with humanity, brimming with luminescence – over and against the impenetrable darkness which has crawled out of the slums of the West Bank, constantly seeking her out.

It is little surprise that The Honourable Woman has received such rave reviews; the character of Nessa Stein is a liberal’s wet dream – a fantasy palliative to the distasteful images of bombed buildings and ruined bodies; something which allows one to feel the true nature of the problem lies in the inherent backwardness of the victims – the true solution, their reconstruction according to a more ‘civilised’ paradigm.

The skill of The Honourable Woman lies in its ability to disguise its fundamental spirit – its almost missionary zeal – behind the constructs of an utterly convoluted plot-line, thus allowing it to appear in the guise of a complex, ambiguous morality tale in which there is no clear demarcation between good and bad, and in which all sides appear to be in some way complicit.

Tony Mckenna

Tony Mckenna is a writer based in the UK. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, New Statesman, ABC Australia, The United Nations, The Progressive, New Internationalist, Adbusters, In These Times, The Philosopher’s Magazine, New Humanist, Counterpunch, Open Democracy, Znet, Monthly Review, and Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, among others. His short stories have appeared in The Ranfurly Review and The Penniless Press. @MckennaTony

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Hannah H
May 3, 2016 15:48

I appreciate that I wasn’t the only one who saw how biased and traditional this show was. I had gone into it really hoping for a new take, an impartial take that showed the triumphs and tribulations of each side, of what’s going on in Israel-Palestine. Such a disappointment. Even more so because there are so many out there who will view it as the conversation-changing show I’d hoped it could be, and will only find themselves with the same distorted views.

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