It’s 2020 and Western media still haven’t wiped the mud off their hands.
Studios continue to excavate Middle Eastern graveyards for war stories that can be diminished for the benefit of a foreign audience, reduced simply to terrorist and terrorised.
But Channel 4’s ‘Baghdad Central’, now streaming on StarzPlay, offers something new: it portrays post-invasion Iraq, set in 2003, through the eyes of the Iraqis.
Palestinian-American actor Waleed Zuaiter brilliantly leads the cast as Muhsin Kadr Al Khafaji, a widowed man who must make impossible choices to solve the disappearance of his daughter Sawsan.
Based on the protagonist from Elliott Colla’s eponymous novel, Al Khafaji is a “poetry-loving, slightly world-weary ex-cop, who wants to bring himself back to life to fight crime,” according to producer Kate Harwood.
But Al Khafaji wasn’t the only one up against insurmountable loss. 49-year-old Zuaiter was dealing with his own grief when this script came knocking on his door.
When we sat down with the ‘Altered Carbon’, ‘London Has Fallen’ and ‘Omar’ actor on a windy Dubai evening, bundled up in the dark corner of a quiet cinema lounge, Zuaiter opened up about why constant typecasting, and the sudden loss of his father, nearly stopped him from taking on the role. And why he’s glad it didn’t.
Firstly, I know it took some convincing to get you to take on this role...
I think, over the past five or so years, I’ve just been in a place in my career where I’ve been wanting to play different types of roles. Quite honestly, not necessarily Middle Eastern roles. I’m very proud of being Arab. I just wanted to expand and challenge myself. When this [script] came around, I had a very negative filter. My father had just passed away and I was very depressed. I wasn’t being considered for the roles I wanted. I was like, ‘Oh, here’s another accented, Middle Eastern role.’ But the minute I removed that negative filter, I connected with [‘Baghdad Central’] immediately. It had all the qualities of a leading man, this anti-hero with heroic qualities. Khafaji is a very complex, beautiful, pained character. I realised I was in the same emotional place as him.
Could you expand on what you mean by that?
His wife passes away due to cancer; there are sanctions with Iraq and medical treatment isn’t coming in, so it was really cancer and sanctions that killed her. His eldest son was a dissident, speaking out against the government, so he was executed. Khafaji is at the lowest point of his life, and has experienced a lot of loss. I was in that place, as well. Within a matter of three years, we had lost one of our closest friends to cancer; she was 36. We lost my father very unexpectedly, without any warning. I had some tension with him. We had seen my parents around the holidays, in December, and he passed away in February, so I just felt like there was a lot of unresolved issues with him. [I also felt like I] reached the ceiling in my career, and everything just seemed pointless and meaningless. I really sank very deep into this depression. This role was a blessing in disguise.
Did you have to suggest a lot of changes to the script?
Not a single one. Honestly, I was so inspired and amazed by Stephen Butchard’s brilliance. We had worked together before on ‘House of Saddam’. He’s very clearly knowledgeable about Iraq. I was like, ‘How can he not be Iraqi?’ He really gets the nuances. All you really need to give justice to any nationality, is to portray the humanity and to go inside the homes and to see somebody who’s flawed, who’s not fasting during Ramadan, who’s drinking alcohol, who’s using substances to dampen the pain. It’s universal.
You mentioned not wanting to play only Middle Eastern roles. Is it partially because we’re not seeing complex Middle Eastern characters written?
That’s what I realised earlier today with another interview. There’s so much negative press about us, that there’s a tendency for us to go, ‘No, we’re not the extremist side,’ and we put ourselves on a pedestal, almost, and say, ‘We’re the exact opposite.’ When in reality, we’re just as flawed and human as everybody else.
You’ve spoken about learning the Iraqi dialect. How was that like?
In the beginning it was anxiety-inducing, because it was very foreign to me, even though I grew up in Kuwait and there are some similarities. The stressful part was learning it quickly. But the more we did it, the more fun it was. We developed a rule, mainly for the British audience: Because so much centres around the family, we wanted the family to be speaking to each other in English, so the audience wouldn’t have to be reading subtitles. But anything that takes place outside the home was in Arabic.
Seeing you in Netflix’s ‘Altered Carbon’ as an Arab character, without that being the main purpose of the character, was a big moment. Are streaming services changing the media landscape? Something like ‘Ramy’ on Hulu might not have been conceivable 10 years ago.
Absolutely. It’s very encouraging and just very, very hopeful. I love what Ramy [Youssef] is doing with his show. He’s a dear friend of ours; I was actually supposed to play his father, but it conflicted with this. ‘Ramy’ is groundbreaking. [‘Baghdad Central’] is, too, because this is the first Western drama from the Arab world.
Companies like Hulu and Netflix [prove that] the world is getting smaller. It’s becoming a global audience. The industry is starting to see the complexity of people, no matter where they’re from. There’s this focus on the Middle East, which I’m really happy about, because we’re in the news often. I’m also producing [projects], so one of my agents told me, recently: ‘Listen, we don’t want anything political, because we can turn on the news for that. Let’s just find great human stories that are entertaining and compelling.’ I really see that happening, quickly.
On a final note, being Palestinian can also be a somewhat unique experience; not all Arabs share the same experiences. What does being Palestinian mean to you?
It’s an interesting question. Because my answer changes over the years. There is a burden in being Palestinian. Anybody who’s Palestinian can relate to that. And I don’t say it in a bad way, but there’s a burden to being Palestinian, because there’s this duty to tell our story so that we’re not forgotten. And at the same time, to continue the struggle. For me, the struggle has to change. It’s a big part of my identity. I could never really lie, or say that I’m Lebanese or Jordanian or anything else. It’s just not in me.
You’ll see different body language, different reactions to it over the years. That’s changed quite a bit. One of the first managers that I met with years ago, she just had this reaction, and I asked her, ‘What was that reaction?’ She was very honest with me. She said, ‘Everything I watch on the news says that you guys are terrorists and you’re trying to claim something that isn’t yours.’ I was able to realise that that was the general perception. When you are able to realise that, then you kind of know how to navigate it a bit better.
I’ve never really been political. I’ve always been more of an artist. But when I produced ‘Omar’ and acted in it, it was important for me to play an Israeli. I wanted to step outside my shoes into somebody else’s shoes on the other side. That’s just my personal philosophy of being Palestinian.
Don’t miss it!
‘Baghdad Central’ is now streaming on StarzPlay. Watch the trailer below:
AL KHAFAJI’S DAUGHTER: REVERSING ROLES
British actress July Namir, of Egyptian descent, plays Al Khafaji’s other daughter Murooj, who suffers from kidney disease.
“It isn’t your typical Arab father and daughter, the roles are reversed: she’s his carer. Also, he’s not aggressive, nor is he overtly traditional,” she said.
Author of ‘Baghdad Central’ Elliott Colla based her character on his own daughter, also named Murooj. “He messaged me saying that they both started crying [when they watched the show], because it was like it was them on the screen,” Namir said.
Producer Kate Harwood revealed much of Colla’s book was changed here.
“It’s a good crime novel, but a lot of the crime happened away from Khafaji, whereas we wanted to locate it within his world,” she said.
“British producers value grittiness,” she added. “It’s part of our storytelling DNA. You only have to look at [the contrast between] American soap operas, which are very glossy, and British soap operas, which are very working class.”
Asked about the difficulties of funding a Middle East-set show, she said she was “very lucky”, but “they didn’t throw all the money in the world at us. We had to make it very much on a budget.”
Associate producer Arij Al Soltan, who left Baghdad aged 16 during the war, was on set the entire time to ensure accuracy. “She kept us honest,” said Harwood.
COULD ‘BAGHDAD CENTRAL’ RETURN?
“If we can find the money,” Harwood confirmed. “The Americans put so much money, so much cash dollars into the country, that when they handed Iraq back to the Iraqis, somewhere between 2.5-4 billion was unaccounted for. Where there’s money, there’s crime, and where there’s crime, there’s crime drama.”