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Baghdad Central - July Namir interview (exclusive)

July Namir

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JULY Namir talks to us about new Channel 4 series Baghdad Central, a new Iraq war-based crime thriller that focuses on the Iraqi people and their plight in the wake of the US liberation and subsequent occupation.

The story follows an Iraqi ex-policeman named Muhsin al-Khafaji, who is desperately trying to keep his daughter safe – having already lost his job, his house and his wife. Khafaji then finds himself attempting to track down his missing estranged daughter, a search which leads to the ex-policeman and his daughter discovering that something very sinister is at play.

Namir talks about playing Khafaji’s daughter, Mrouj, and the extensive research she did for the character, both in terms of her heritage and the illness she is dealing with. She also expresses her delight that such a ground-breaking series has been made and what it means for the depiction of Arabic women, as well as women in general.

Q. You must be very excited as the air date approaches for Baghdad Central?
July Namir: Yes… this is a very, very exiting time. This show is the first of its kind, so I’m really excited that we finally get to see something like this on British TV.

Q. What did you think when you first read the script?
July Namir: The first thought was, ‘oh my God!’ that something like this was even commissioned because I’ve never seen anything like this. Plus, you have this fantastic BAFTA nominated writer in Stephen Butchard [The House of Saddam, Five Daughters]. It was a case of ‘wow’. The script was so layered and so beautiful. Whenever I read a script for the first time, I try and be outside of it, to be static, and not put any judgement on it early on, if you know what I mean? So, I try to read it like a spectator, and I thought it was a great story.

Q. And what appealed to you about the character of Mrouj?
July Namir: So many things… The first thing is that she’s the first multi-dimensional, layered character I’ve had the chance to play. She was really, really interesting and not the typical character that I’ve fallen victim to over and over again [laughs]. So, I was able to really challenge myself as the whole process of becoming Mrouj was challenging. Arabic is actually my second language but I had to use a different dialect. I had to master an English being spoken in Arabic dialect and an Arabic being spoken in Iraqi dialect. My parents are Egyptian. Fortunately, I had a fantastic dialogue coach, who helped me enormously. I would never have done it without him. He helped birth Mrouj.

I also did a lot of research into kidney disease, which is the condition that Mrouj is suffering from. Honestly, there was so much layering going on. But I am the kind of actor that really thrives under pressure. I love seeing how far I can push myself. So, I got to live this fantasy, if you can understand that?

Q. Did you get to speak to any Iraqi people that had experience of the liberation and subsequent occupation?
July Namir: We were very lucky because a lot of crew members were of Iraqi nationality. Our associate producer, Arij Al-Soltan, is Iraqi. She grew up there and has a great memory of it. She had so many pictures and was fantastic in making everything come to life. We also had many actors who were originally Iraqi, so they provided so much input.

Q. Was there anything in particular that you learned that surprised or shocked you?
July Namir: I didn’t know about how the medication was kept secret. It was denied in the country. When Saddam [Hussein] was in power, you couldn’t get access to medication, even painkillers. So, things like Paracetamol were only available on the black market, as if it was some illicit drug. But that meant that people with these horrific illnesses, or those who were in dangerous situations, had to suffer even more. I found that really shocking and disheartening.

July Namir

Q. And I guess that helped to inform your character even more given that she needs drugs?
July Namir: Exactly, it elevated the character to a different level because it made it so real. There is a real Mrouj out there somewhere… someone who actually lived that truth. This is based on facts. People were really going through what you see on screen. And so that knowledge made it all the more real for us all… and the responsibility went through the roof.

Q. This seems to be a landmark show for several reasons, but notably because of the way it depicts Arabic women as well as being a powerful dramatic and creative vehicle for women in general…
July Namir: Oh yeah, it’s the first of its kind when it comes to how Arab women are portrayed on TV, especially British TV. They just don’t get strong representation in terms of how you see them. If anything, they are usually seen as subdued, submissive and even irrelevant… like a prop. But Baghdad Central is the opposite of that. I grew up thinking they [writers] need to meet my mum. She’s a big character… very loud and brave and she’s lived such a colourlful life. So, I would often think, why don’t more truthful characers, like my mum, who have something to say and who are highly intellectual, appear more on our screen. So, this was really comforting to see. It’s the kind of characters that young women have been screaming out to see more of.

Q. And it’s a strong showcase for female talent all around. You have a female director in Alice Troughton too. How was that?
July Namir: It was fantastic to be surrounded by so much talent. I was overwhelmed. The cast is fantastic. We just had so many amazing women around us. Alice, the director, brought so much energy and vision to this. She was full of ideas and had a real desire to show something truthful… something that was respectful to what really occurred – and to what people are still living.

Q. I think it was her who said that when war breaks out, women are often the first casualty… women and women’s rights. It’s something she wanted to portray?
July Namir: That was one of the things that really makes me so proud. Every single person involved in this series came in with the right energy. Everyone really had something to say. And everyone wanted to be as realistic and truthful as possible. And we feel like we’ve really achieved that with this, which is why we’re so excited for people to finally see it. Alice is just amazing. She really wanted to portray women rightfully and truthfully.

Q. Why do you think it has taken so long for this kind of storytelling to emerge?
July Namir: Maybe it’s a timing thing, but maybe it’s also a fear thing. We fear what we don’t know. And sometimes we like to stick to what we know because it’s comfortable and we think that if we go outside the box, it might not be taken so well. But now is the perfect time because people are a lot more vocal about diversity and inclusiveness. We have a fanastic new generation coming up, people who are vocal and passionate about their beliefs. Now, we really are in a time of change. You can really feel it. Everyone can protest something, whereas we didn’t have that before. Now, if you want to say something there are so many platforms to say it, you can Tweet about it. It’s an exciting time.

Q. How did you enjoy working alongside Waleed Zuaiter, who plays your father?*
July Namir: Waleed is amazing. He’s such a great guy. We had great chemisty from the start and our relationship really felt like a father-daughter relationship, as well as a friendship. Once you’ve established a level of comfort with your fellow actors, from then on you’re up. I was really lucky to have someone like him next to me.

July Namir

Q. And did you have plenty of chance to play around with that dynamic?
July Namir: We really had so many opportunities. I can’t wait for people to see that part of the journey because it’s so powerful. So, just to be a part of that… I felt so humbled by it. It’s a great thriller but it’s also lovely to see how this central relationship plays out in conjunction with the detective story aspect of it.

Q. You alluded to a feeling of having been typecast to a certain extent prior to this series. But you’ve also been a part of some great shows, such as Homeland and The Looming Tower. The latter, in particular, was a terrific insight into the calamitous events leading to 9/11…
July Namir: Well, everything I’ve done so far has led me to grow as an actor and a human being. I’m so grateful for every single project. But there’s also a history to the typecasting system and so many actors have the same kind of story. Personally, I’ve been blessed to work with so many fantastic talents over the years, who have taught me so much as an actor and a woman. I feel so accomplished because I have been able to star opposite some great people. The Looming Tower was a terrific series to be a part of and it was amazing to be able to work alongside a producer like Ali Soufan. Indeed, there’s two actors who appeared with me on The Looming Tower who are in Baghdad Central, so that was really interesting to bump into them again. We had so many fun times on set. I’ve also got to have some great conversations about what’s going on and the industry and creativity. It’s always refreshing to have these conversations with other creative, to exchange ideas and gain different insights and points of view.

Q. When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
July Namir: I was into music and writing for a very long time. I was actually a singer-songwriter at first. I never trained. So, I didn’t go to drama school. Was it luck? Maybe… I used to do plays and theatre at university and college and help my friends out. But then it clicked one day. I woke up and said: ‘I want to be many things, but I can’t do it all, so which one can will allow me to be as many of the above as possible?’ So, acting was a bingo moment. But I like the challenge of it… that fascinates me. I like to go to the extreme and see how far I can take something, or question emotions. I find people really fascinating… super fascinating. So, it’s a human thing, I guess. I love trying to figure out why someone would think that way, or say something. So, that was the fascination that started the fire. And now, fortunately, I’m in it and I’m addicted.

Q. And have you noticed things are changing within the industry, to allow more opportunities for all?
July Namir: Yeah, we’re having some great conversations. It’s great to be a part of them and the movement and to hear other people having them. We’ve had a lot of positive reviews and there’s a lot of positive vibes and energy. I hope it keeps rolling and we see more shows like this and projects like this. That would be the dream.

Read our review of the first episode

Photo credit: Kenneth Lam

Baghdad Central airs on Channel 4 on Monday nights from 10pm.