After seven seasons of Homeland, it’s nice to see an Iraq war-set thriller that centres on Iraqi lives for a change. Nice because it’s the right thing for a socially conscious broadcaster to commission, but also just nice because it makes for some refreshingly original entertainment.
In Baghdad Central (Channel 4), Waleed Zuaiter stars as Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji – an experienced but out-of-favour Baghdad cop who is forced into a risky collaboration with the occupying forces when his eldest daughter (Leem Lubany) goes missing, and his younger daughter (July Namir) requires kidney dialysis. You may recognise Zuaiter from Sex and the City 2, where he was the souk-trader stereotype who tried to cajole poor, innocent Charlotte into buying knockoff designer gear. Or perhaps you know him better as the terrorist from various post-9/11 action-dramas including London Has Fallen and Homeland. Either way, it is likely you won’t have seen him in a role that does justice to his star quality and soulful eyes the way this one does.
Inspector Khafaji is undoubtedly the hero, but he is not carrying the show alone. Bertie Carvel does what Bertie Carvel does best, as the oddly compelling slimeball Frank Temple, a former Scotland Yard officer dedicated to re-establishing an Iraqi-led police presence in Baghdad. Moral ambiguity comes as standard with Carvel’s characters, but you really, really don’t know whose side Temple is on. Likewise, his nemesis, the US military police captain John Parodi (Corey Stoll), a man whose rod-straight posture may belie a more crooked character. Or not. When everyone’s motivations are a different shade of opaque, it is deliciously difficult to say.
Navigating a safe passage between these two colossal coalition egos is one of Khafaji’s many challenges, but at least he gets in plenty of practice. It seems impossible to get from A to B in this city without some spurious authority figure – uniform or no uniform – inserting himself between you and your destination. As Khafaji wryly observes to his cab driver pal: “If you can wear glasses and chew gum you can be an American soldier.” They’re speaking Arabic, to avoid being overheard, but also for other, non-diegetic reasons. Baghdad Central is what Channel 4 calls a “dual-language drama”, aiming to strike a perfect balance between subtitles-for-authenticity and English-for-easy-viewing. It mostly succeeds.
In particular, Iraqis talking among themselves in their own language creates space for deftly deployed gallows humour. In one scene, after days of “enhanced interrogation” at the hands of the US military, including waterboarding and having his facial hair violently and humiliatingly ripped off, Khafaji is finally released. He returns home to find his daughter’s femme fatale university tutor, Zubeida Rashid (Clara Khoury), waiting for him in his apartment. She wants to know what happened to his moustache. “It was confiscated,” he deadpans. “It will be sent to Washington as an example of Iraqi culture.”
So you see, Khafaji is a banter legend, like all your other favourite British TV detectives. Writer Stephen Butchard and director Alice Troughton are both British, while the original novel was written by the American Middle East scholar Elliott Colla, and their insistence on never othering the Iraqi characters is welcome. Yet something is inevitably lost when a foreign culture is plated up to suit the notoriously spice-shy British palate. Sure, people are the same everywhere – parents love their children, teenagers yearn for independence and no one likes the office jobsworth – but it is the textures and details of life in a different country that add up to visually distinctive TV drama. That partly explains the success of Nordic noirs such as The Killing.
Maybe this is just for starters, and there is a feast of local flavour to come from Baghdad Central’s six-part series. Besides some great dialogue, Colla has gifted Channel 4 with a central character rooted enough to sustain several more series should this find its audience. Inspector Khafaji could easily become the Morse of the Middle East, the Luther of the Levant or the Wallander of the war in Iraq – or maybe just Inspector Khafaji, which would be nice.