‘Baghdad Central’ takes on TV’s worst Arab stereotypes. Even its cast was ‘shocked’

Tribune Content Agency

A piano plays a minor-key waltz as the slouching silhouette of Muhsin Khafaji, a disgraced detective, walks up a dilapidated alleyway. So opens “Baghdad Central,” a six-part police serial produced by Hulu and Britain’s Channel 4, with the Iraqi capital sometime after 2003 as its backdrop.

Saddam is gone. In his stead, the Americans have come, the British too, sallying into the treacherous sands of post-invasion Iraq to remake a nation in their own image — no matter what Iraqis want — and make some money along the way.

Enmeshed in their plans is Khafaji (ably played by Waleed Zuaiter), a one-time Iraqi police inspector in Saddam’s regime. Initially suspected of being an insurgent, he’s recruited to work with British and U.S. officials in the Coalition Authority — a stand-in for the Coalition Provisional Authority, the invasion’s oft-bumbling governing body — in its outwardly earnest efforts to construct a new police force.

Khafaji has his own, complicated reasons for becoming a “collaborator”: One daughter, Mrouj (July Namir) needs kidney dialysis that only U.S. army-run hospitals can provide; Sawsan (Leem Lubany), his other daughter, has vanished while working with the coalition as a translator and may be involved in the slaying of foreign personnel. And yes, his past under Saddam’s rule was not wholly innocent.

It’s a smart setup, one that doesn’t shy away from the blundering hubris that often plagued the occupying forces’ efforts. But like the book by Middle East scholar Elliott Colla on which it’s based, “Baghdad Central,” which premieres Friday on Hulu, takes the unique step of putting Iraqis — those most impacted by that hubris — center stage.

“Is there not one person in the entire United States of America who understands my country? Who has a … clue what they’re doing in my country?” asks Khafaji.

“That would be a no,” replies Army Captain John Parodi (Corey Stoll), the main American character.

Pity the Arab actor in the West: When their ethnicity isn’t a barrier, they’re often relegated to the role of crazed terrorist or ardent souk purveyor.

That was precisely where Zuaiter found himself a few months before he got the script for “Baghdad Central.” It was a low moment for the 49-year-old actor: The loss of a close friend was followed by the death of his father; worse, his father had passed with lingering tensions between the two about Zuaiter’s choice of career. (His other brothers had followed more conventional careers in business and finance.)

“I just sank into a very deep depression,” Zuaiter said in an interview at the “Baghdad Central” premiere in Dubai last month. “I thought, ‘I’ve reached a ceiling in my career. I’m not getting seen for the roles I want to be seen in — leading, heroic, or… different, just non-Middle Eastern.’”

Which was why, when the script for “Baghdad Central” came in, he dismissed Khafaji as “another accented Middle Eastern character, probably going to be the Good Arab or some other stereotype.” He didn’t read for the role.

“It took my reps at the time and my wife behind the scenes conspiring for me to put myself on tape because they knew I was perfect for it,” he said. He sat down for a closer reading of the script.

“It’s hard to explain. I just felt like this role was written for me, that nobody else could say this.”

Namir, Zuaiter’s costar, was “bewildered” when she read the script.

“I just thought to myself: ‘Finally.’ I was shocked that a British channel would commission something like this, in a good way,” she said.

Though Zuaiter has appeared in “Homeland,” “London Has Fallen” (check: terrorist) and “Sex and the City 2” (check: souk trader), this is the first time he’s had top billing. It brought, Zuaiter says, a “responsibility” to capture the point of view of the millions of Iraqis affected by the political situation.

“My co-star Bertie Carvel — I’ll quote him — has said ‘protagonism is privilege,’ and I really believe that,” he said.

You can glimpse that perspective in Khafaji’s neighbors, with mere boys brandishing Kalashnikov rifles and organizing themselves into a militia to defend their street. Or in the impossible choices his friends face, whether they should work with the occupying forces and risk being killed by others or starve. Or in the blurring of the line between terrorist and collaborator, navigating a war-ravaged life where even survival is a challenge. And coursing through the show is the outright contempt with which the Americans and the British swatted away Iraqi lives and concerns.

“What do you think liberty and freedom looks like?” asks Carvel’s Frank Temple, an ex-Scotland Yard officer working in Iraq with the coalition and Khafaji’s boss. “It’s not a land of milk and honey and dancing horses; it’s a land of business, and market forces.”

But the show also touches on the moral compromises Khafaji and other Iraqis engaged in under Saddam. As a policeman, he took part in some of the horrific abuses against fellow Iraqis — including members of his own family.

“We were all guilty. We did nothing … except survive,” Khafaji says in one scene, confronting a would-be assassin. “We have no country. Only blame.”

Some have leveled criticism at the series, noting that the likes of Khafaji were a rare breed among Iraqi police and indeed most of the country’s reconstituted security forces. Corruption, absenteeism, nepotism, human rights abuses, gross incompetence in leadership: Such things were and remain a problem in Iraq, and “Baghdad Central” does sidestep much of it.

Still, in terms of reflecting the Iraqi experience more accurately, “Baghdad Central” has one advantage over many projects set in the region: It genuinely qualifies as a dual-language drama, one that employs Arabic for a full quarter of the dialogue. The production, which features several Palestinian actors playing Iraqis, brought in dialect coaches to get the right inflections of the accent. Viewers toggle between subtitles for a portion of Khafaji’s screen time and scenes in which he speaks English.

It was an arrangement, said executive producer Kate Harwood, that came after much debate with “Baghdad Central’s” writer, Stephen Butchard.

“Stephen didn’t want to do a dual-language show, because he felt it would make Khafaji the ‘other,’” she said, meaning that having Khafaji speak Arabic wouldn’t connect with Western audiences. They landed on what amounts to a compromise measure: Outside of his home, as you might expect, the character speaks Arabic with Arabs and English with coalition personnel. But he also speaks English with his family — a decision intended to reflect the universality and relatability of his life at home, according to Harwood.

Another challenge, of course, is that subtitled shows are often thought to be a hard sell. Yet with the success of films such as “Parasite” and TV series including “Narcos,” the moment for global content may have arrived.

In that sense, “Baghdad Central” is part of a positive trend, said Fadi Ismail, a Dubai-based producer with DKL Studio, which develops shows in the Middle East.

“This will be good for all of us. We’ve been waiting for years for this chance,” said Ismail. “We’ve always been told that now is the time for content, no matter where it’s from. But now we’re seeing it happen.”

Harwood, who described the many stories to explore in the series’ Iraq war setting as a “screenwriter’s gift,” also believes audiences are ready for “new settings and new worlds.”

“I hope it’s an actual flattening and not just a fashion or fad,” she said. “Audiences respond to character and story, and if you’ve got them through the subtitle barrier, then the world is your oyster. You should be able to go anywhere.”


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