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Baghdad Central - Seven Reasons Why We Loved It

Baghdad Central

Review by Rob Carnevale

BAGHDAD Central will go down as one of the un-missable television shows of 2020.

Set in the wake of the US liberation of Iraq and its subsequent occupation by US and coalition forces, the series predominantly unfolded from the perspectives of the Iraqi people and, most notably, Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji (played by Waleed Zuaiter), an experienced cop struggling to locate his missing eldest daughter.

His subsequent investigation prompts him to enter into an uneasy alliance with the occupying forces, including British operative Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel), an ex-Scotland Yard officer ‘dedicated’ to re-establishing an Iraqi-led police presence in Baghdad, and US military police captain John Parodi (Corey Stoll).

The final episode epitomised everything that was great about the show, combining elements of high tension and solid action with heart-breaking character revelations and honest social and historical observations. It was a complex yet resonant character-driven drama that succeeded in delivering nuanced perspectives on characters that are usually one dimensional or tokenistic.

And it’s for this reason that the show became so memorable. Here’s 10 reasons Baghdad Central was able to excel…

1) Waleed Zuaiter – The Palestinian actor delivered a tour-de-force as Inspector Muhsin al-Khafaji, a tragic but charismatic and highly intelligent hero, who deserves further adventures on the evidence of this. His performance captured elements of anger, sorrow, regret, intelligence and bravery.

He was first and foremost a father struggling to care for his two remaining daughters in the wake of the deaths of his wife and son. But to complicate matters, he was estranged from his eldest surviving child, partly because of the spectre of Saddam Hussein’s rule [and his part in it] that continued to hang over him, post-liberation.

As the truth behind him was revealed, Inspector al-Khafaji was found to have been powerless in preventing the execution of his son, yet complicit in the sustained dictatorship of Hussein. He held fellow Iraqis to account, too, which made his decision to remain in his country in the final moments of the climax so brave.

Through al-Khafaji’s torment and bravery, viewers had an insight into what it meant to be an everyday Iraqi – the suffering endured both pre- and post-liberation. There were never easy answers for this man. And yet he conducted himself with a selflessness and dignity that made his victories all the more rewarding. He was a rich character and someone worth investing time in.

2) Stephen Butchard – The screenwriter behind Baghdad Central had already made a name for himself with the likes of The House of Saddam and Five Daughters, and continued to excel here.

Butchard’s script wasn’t afraid to confront the harsh realities of life in Iraq, offering an intriguing dissection of the abuses that occurred post-conflict. This was a screenplay that exposed how life in Iraq didn’t always change for the better in the days following its liberation, while still exposing the horror of life under Hussein.

It also showed how women’s rights were the first to suffer amid the outbreak of war; something made even more astonishing given how few they had even before fighting began.

This was mature, thought-provoking, eyebrow raising writing that helped to create a memorable [even haunting] backdrop for the brilliantly realised characters that Butchard also populated the show with.

Baghdad Central

3) Bertie Carvel – British character actor [and Olivier Award winner] Carvel delivered his own masterclass as the ultimately despicable Frank Temple, the former Scotland Yard man who saw Iraq as the land of selfish opportunity. A ruthless ‘businessman’, who trafficked the women to be exploited [and raped] by grubby coalition men, he was in it for the money.

Initially, he was seen by Inspector al-Khafaji as an ally in his search for his daughter. Yet, as Temple’s involvement in his daughter’s disappearance became clearer, Temple became a formidable nemesis, a desperate individual for whom torture and murder weren’t beyond the realm of possibility. And yet, at the same time, there was also something hopeless and pathetic about him, as evidenced by his cowering antics in the face of battle during the finale’s climactic shootout.

Carvel brilliantly portrayed Temple as a ruthless opportunist who hid behind an establishment, yet who was equally out of his depth. His scenes with Zuaiter were rife with tension and mutual loathing and frequently rated among the show’s best.

4) July Namir and Leem Lubany – As al-Khafaji’s younger and elder daughters, Namir and Lubany may have appeared like polar opposites (one weakened by illness, the other driven by a desire for rebellion and revenge), but they shared two crucial things in common: courage and strength. As such, they offered a ferociously pro-feminist viewpoint to the series.

Rather than being victims, which they could so easily have been, they offered a steely resolve, coupled with more everyman qualities. Namir, for her part, frequently overcame the limitations posed by her illness to offer her father emotional support… her belief in him ultimately gave him purpose. Yet her illness, in itself, served to show the poor treatment afforded to Iraqi men and women by Hussein’s dictatorship, which made access to medication for illness all but impossible.

Lubany, meanwhile, was the face of a disaffected nation post-liberation. Where the arrival of US and coalition liberators initially brought hope, the reality of life under their occupation was far from free. And that, in itself, prompted a turn towards violence that flirted with its own extremism – a downward spiral from which there was little hope of a happy ending. Again, Lubany’s journey was made all the more satisfying because of the strength of her performance, enabling her final scenes with Zuaiter to truly resonate.

5) Youssef Kerkour – The Moroccan-born actor and comedian shone in the small but pivotal role of taxi driver Karl. His unlikely friendship with Inspector al-Khafaji was beautifully developed, offering another fully-rounded Iraqi character.

Karl was often the voice of a nation, offering witty but barbed insights into the occupation that were arguably on the lips of many during those early days [and beyond]. But he was also unveiled to be a deeply selfless character, a loyal ally to al-Khafaji, whose kindness eventually prompted him to take unnecessary risks to look out for the people he cared for. Kerkour may have drifted in and out of the series but he made every scene count.

Baghdad Central

6) Corey Stoll – The US actor was always compelling as US military police captain John Parodi, another of al-Khafaji’s unlikely allies who saw a hope for Iraq’s future in the guise of the police inspector. Their relationship may always have been fragile, as issues of trust and loyalty continually placed them at odds with each other, but there was also a mutual appreciation that enabled things to eventually get done.

Stoll imbued his character with both gritty resolve and world-weary scepticism. When he eventually admitted, in the final episode, that he didn’t belong in Iraq, his comments felt like they came from a place of real meaning. This, to him, was a war he hadn’t asked to fight, and which he may not even have believed in, but which came to matter to him for the effects it had on the people he had helped to liberate. He knew he was ultimately powerless in preventing abuse, for fear of the controversy exposing such abuses could create, but he was prepared to offer al-Khafaji an unlikely hand of friendship and support, while continually being aware that it had to be with US benefit in mind.

7) The final episode – The very best stories deliver the most satisfying conclusions and in Baghdad Central, viewers were treated to a bittersweet finale that was adept in continuing to highlight the challenges faced by Iraq, post-liberation.

The sixth and final episode was tense and occasionally action-packed, delivering the expected fireworks in an intelligent fashion.

But it also provided further insights into its central characters motivations, while shining a light onto the wider Iraqi situation in the process. In doing so, there were no neatly wrapped endings. This was just a jumping off point in people’s lives.

For both al-Khafaji and his daughters, the struggle for freedom and basic human rights would continue. One chose to continue fighting, his way, within the Iraqi border; the other opted to try and make her voice heard outside of her country. Both knew the journey wouldn’t be easy, but both were determined to take it.

In bringing Baghdad Central to such a logical, realistic close, the final episode exposed the problems faced by liberating forces, having previously [and successfully] showed the hardships that preceded them. It showed the desperate plight faced by Iraq, which continues today. And it gave voice to a people whose lives and struggles would otherwise be forgotten. By confronting its audience with such a bittersweet climax, it ensured their memory would continue to live long in people’s minds long after the final credits had finished rolling. These are lives that continue to be lived, facing problems that have no easy answers.

Read our interview with July Namir

  1. Very interesting and clear

    Hiam Taher    Mar 27    #
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