The empty world of Palestine-set BBC drama “The Honorable Woman”

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honorable Woman

The Honorable Woman, shown on TV in Britain and the US this summer and now released on DVD, has been heralded by mainstream critics as a rare attempt to tackle the issue of Palestine in a serious television drama.

The title, like much of the series, seems deliberately multi-faceted. Does it refer to the ennoblement of central character Nessa Stein (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), a British-Israeli businesswoman elevated to the British House of Lords for her efforts towards “peace in the Middle East?” The term “honorable” has overtones of the British House of Commons, where Members of Parliament address one another as “the honorable member.”

Or does it refer to Nessa’s stubborn adherence to her principles in the face of corruption and double-dealing (a key theme)? Is there a nod to John Le Carre’s 1977 spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy, since many of the series’ tropes seem to draw on his work, as well as on-screen inspirations such as Homeland and (less salubriously) long-running BBC spy drama Spooks?


The main storyline (and there are innumerable sub-plots and tangents to grapple with) is this: Nessa Stein’s father, an Irgun terrorist during the Nakba and then a weapons manufacturer for the State of Israel, is murdered in front of her and her brother Ephra when they are children.

They grow up to inherit the family empire, which Nessa refocuses on communications rather than armaments, with Ephra heading up a foundation which builds universities and hospitals in the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel.

But, we learn, Nessa has a “secret,” and this is being used against her, and against Stein Group’s supposedly noble aims to bring high-speed Internet to the West Bank.

Since this is all very high-profile and internationally significant, the US, British and Israeli secret services are in it up to their necks. There are also major businessmen — Israeli and Palestinian — bidding for the Internet contracts (one might expect such projects to be targeted by US, Japanese or EU companies, but none appear. That wouldn’t work, plot-wise).


The story’s many convolutions and layers are drawn out over eight episodes, each spanning an hour (minus advertisements). A major problem — before we get to issues of politics and representation — is that the material simply doesn’t warrant it.

One suspects that writer-director Hugo Blick has indulged in a few too many French noirs, but there are only so many shots of Gyllenhaal’s manicured hand draped over a chair-back, or of Ephra Stein’s wife and his housekeeper staring at one another down white corridors, that one can take.

The Honorable Woman takes place in a curiously empty world; in the few outdoor scenes, whether in central London or downtown Rafah, there are never any passers-by doing ordinary things (witnesses, one senses, might be inconvenient to the storyline and the aesthetic).

This heavily stylized manner also seeps into the script and acting. Gyllenhaal’s performance is, at times, almost valium-laden. Supposedly the head of a multi-million dollar business, she never appears to do any work, and has two main settings — speech-making or looking blankly at people trying to bully information from her, and then bursting into tears. Dialogue remains minimal, replaced by people making stylized, often stilted proclamations at one another.

Similarly unconvincing are the various spies (British and US) who, despite having senior roles in Middle East departments, seem to know almost nothing about the region.

The result is that it is difficult to engage with The Honorable Woman on an emotional level — and it’s hard to watch eight hours of TV about a bunch of people one doesn’t care about. There are exceptions — especially Rachel, Ephra’s wife, movingly played by Katherine Parkinson as a woman whose marriage is being torn apart and children threatened by other people’s secrets.


Since The Honorable Woman purports to be a serious dramatic take on Palestine, it seems fair to critique its depiction of the situation.

The Guardian’s take on this was that Blick “seeks to insure himself against the political incorrectness of the whole oriental stereotype by making the CIA and its British lackeys the meanest and most deceptive baddies of all.”

On one level this is true. It is the British and US secret services which are depicted as pulling the strings, and as being most willing to manipulate, corrupt and cold-bloodedly kill off pretty much anybody.

The degree, and style, of stereotyping of the Palestinian and Israeli characters is, however, more problematic. They aren’t the only cardboard cut-outs (Hugh Hayden-Hoyle as George Smiley’s even more hangdog younger brother?) — but what these stereotypes do in these more delicate circumstances is disturbing.

Almost every Palestinian — with one sort-of exception — is either a fighter (“terrorist”) or a slick government spokesman who mouths clichés about “martyrs for the cause.” The exception is Atika Halibi (Lubna Azabal), a translator who shares Nessa’s captivity in Gaza and then comes to the UK with her as part of the hostage deal. She is the main Palestinian voice in the series, but remains cold and secretive until the penultimate episode.

One of the effects of this is that, in contrast, we see plenty of Jewish personal interaction — warm and caring or angry and conflictual. Shlomo Zahary (Igal Naor), an Israeli businessman and friend of the Stein family, is the key stereotype: a big, family-loving, hard-talking tough guy. He doesn’t quite go around saying “oy vey,” but he’s not far off.

But no Palestinians in The Honorable Woman quite attain the status of “human being.” They are “bad” “terrorists” or “good” grateful recipients of Stein Group aid and — even more improbably — admiring audiences at Nessa’s excruciatingly patronizing speeches as she launches another phase of her Internet project.


The whole Internet discourse is, meanwhile, laughable. Doesn’t anyone associated with this series know how well-wired the West Bank is? Have they not witnessed Palestinian use of social media in recent years? Don’t they realize that the West Bank has plenty of universities and hospitals — it’s just that people can’t reach them, or they are closed down or bombed by Israeli occupation forces?

This ignorance of the basic facts of daily life in Palestine pops up throughout, whether in checkpoint procedures or the overall depiction of Palestine as an impoverished charity recipient.

The most troubling misrepresentation of Palestinian actions lies, however, at the heart of the plot. Nessa’s big secret (this is a bit of a spoiler, but you’d have figured it out pretty quickly) is that she was raped after being kidnapped by what is meant to be (however improbably) a renegade Fatah splinter group hiding out in southern Gaza just after Hamas was elected in 2006.

The rape isn’t a random act, but one ordered by the faction’s leader (a Blofeld-like villain with a medical drip instead of a white cat) and carried out by his son, with the express intention of getting Nessa pregnant so that she will bear a child who will be the grandson of the Palestinian fighter who ordered her father’s assassination.

There are various major problems with this plot device, beyond its biological improbability. Firstly, it reduces the Palestinian cause to the level of a tiny, breakaway splinter group impelled by personal hatreds, rather than a resistance to occupation and oppression.

Secondly, proven cases — even credible accusations — of sexual violence by Palestinian armed factions are vanishingly rare, if not non-existent. There are plenty of examples of rape being used as a weapon of war by western armies, but it is no whitewash to say that it is not an allegation that stands up against the Palestinians, and to use it in a supposedly serious drama like this is deeply troubling.

What, then, can be said in conclusion? The Honorable Woman is a tightly (if sometimes improbably) plotted thriller. It is often beautifully (perhaps too beautifully) shot and, if one can handle the stylization, there is some interesting acting.

But as a dramatic effort to tackle one of the most pressing issues of our time, its inability to grasp basic facts make it ultimately a failure. Hugo Blick obviously has some interesting ideas about how to make modern TV thrillers, but his ambitions outreach his abilities, or at least his research skills.

Sarah Irving is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-editor of A Bird is not a Stone, a collection of contemporary Palestinian poetry in translation. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh.




Well said.
To me, the show as an entertainment media was exceptional. But context wise was.. flawed, to say the least. I've had lots of bones to pick, but you covered most of that.

Also, I still can't believe people go through the trouble of creating a fully-fledged series or a majestic blockbuster film but still fail to find someone who can speak Arabic properly, or even worse, can't bloody write it. Seeing someone in this day and age write Arabic in separate letters is laughable.


Peter Kosminsky's "The Promise" was a much better attempt at grasping the intricacies of the conflict. I recommend everyone watch it.


one more time bombed by Zionist war criminal with BBC giving the massacre a cover-up?

And regarding Hugo Blick - he probably knows his trade, but he and his masters on BBC sure know even better how NOT to tell a truth about Zionism and its backers in UK and USA.


I agree with the main thrust of your article. The fibre broadband premise was laughable and the narrowest view of Palestinian society imaginable.

However, my understanding of the title was that ATIKA was actually the honourable woman: anything for the cause but nothing for personal hatred. An honour so deeply held that Atkia is as prepared to die for it as she is to die for the cause.

Actually, I thought that inversion - we assume NESSA is the honourable woman throughout for all the reasons you mention, plus the incomplete picture of the Palestinian side - was the entire point of the series. And in that interpretation, there is some room for the optimist in me to think that perhaps it wasn't as bad as you suggest?


Excellent piece - an insightful and comprehensive review of a typically Anglo-centric drama from the BBC. Quality production, some outstanding acting performances, but genuinely marred by the disturbingly shallow depiction of Palestinians - they remain virtually de-humanised in this drama, with the main charachter turning from the pathological hatred depicted as the motivation of Palestinian resistance, ultimately only finding redemption in her martyrdom in the cause of true honour.
I watched this programme after seeing Channel 4's 'The Promise' - a less pretentious, far more balanced and satisfyingly instructive drama.


A drama like this was always going to be an archetypal template of stereotypes and cliches, pandering to It's target audience desire to feel high brow and informed without having done 'the hard yards'. Understanding of Palestine in this context would be approaching zero and/or Israel-centric. An education beyond the constraints of popular media and BBC entertainment often leaves a programme viewer feeling empty and unfulfilled.


I wouldn't have watched this even before reading the plot line and review. You have to know it couldn't possibly be anything but nonsense.


Yes there were some inaccuracies and some untold factors within the plot but given the audience what would you expect? The same is true of The Tudors and other such mini series. Creative license and budgetary constraints have much to answer for! That said, I felt the plot itself was good and opened opportunities for discussion on the Israeli-Palestinian situation with people who wouldn't ordinarily engage on the subject. Not everyone knows how to research!

This show enabled me to point people in the direction of further screen interpretations of middle-east based fiction such as Omar, Paradise Now, Bethlehem, Rana's Wedding and ultimately Jenin Jenin! and 5 Broken Cameras.

Fiction can raise awareness on issues in a way that news simply can't so I welcomed the broadcasting of this show in the UK during the most recent Gaza attacks.


This serials are about the modern people dispossessed, killed and tortured, and also slandered.
I wonder what if BBC had a serial about how Africans were happy under UK colonialism, without even letting on African to say what s/he really thinks. Would it also OK?