Why you should be watching Baghdad Central
Ian Winterton | On 24, Feb 2020
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq by US-led coalition forces – the “liberation” to some, the “occupation” to others – police detective Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Kuwaiti-Americazn Waleed Zuaiter) is given a chance to atone for his apparent loyalty to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Early on, we learn that his son was executed for sedition, and his headstrong adult daughter Sawsan (Leem Lubany, excellent) – whom we see in flashback naively declaring “Let the Americans come – it will mean freedom, democracy” – blames him for failing to stand up to Saddam’s thugs. But in Baghdad Central, as in life, nothing is black and white; Saddam might be responsible for the death of al-Khafaji’s son, but his wife has also passed away due to lack of medical facilities – arguably the victim of harsh Western sanctions imposed after the First Gulf War.
A few months following George Bush’s premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished!”, the reality of the US occupation has hit. This new Iraq is represented in microcosm by al-Khafaji’s story. Yes, life is much improved with Saddam deposed, but US rule brings with it new dangers – as well as the rise of competing insurgent groups and some militant Islamists, rampaging freebooters flood the country in the form of Western security firms and it speaks volumes that the true villains of the piece are British and American mercenaries involved in sex-trafficking.
Impoverished but free, al-Khafaji is faced with Sawsan – now staunchly anti-American – joining the insurgents, while her sister, Mrouj (July Namir), looks likely to die as her mother did from failing kidneys. The chance for redemption comes after al-Khafaji is wrongly identified as the “3 of Diamonds” in the Americans’ playing card pack of wanted Saddam loyalists. Freed, he finds himself in the office of English ex-police officer Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel on top form), a supercilious man who arrogantly declares he knows what’s best for Iraq – “Iraq needs Iraqi policemen”. Though harbouring grave reservations – Temple “thinks this is all a game” – al-Khafaji can’t turn down the salary, and the free kidney dialysis for Mrouj, and becomes a detective.
At the same time, an American civilian is murdered and Sawsan goes missing – apparently to join a terrorist cell run out of the university. And, now working in the Green Zone, al-Khafaji comes to the attention of Salim al Nasir (Yousef Sweid), a man dedicated to “exposing those loyal to Saddam” who considers – perhaps rightly – al-Khafaji to be a war criminal.
Somewhat understandably, this convergence of events focuses al-Khafaji’s mind and – playing the myriad ends to the middle – he makes it his mission to heal Mrouj, find Sawsan and then abandon Iraq for Jordan. But, as he becomes embroiled in the web of murder and corruption, he comes to wonder if the words of well-meaning US captain Parodi (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) aren’t right on the money. “I don’t belong in Iraq, but men like you do.” Can al-Khafaji save his family and remain loyal to his country of birth?
Though obviously made by Westerners for Westerners, this a very welcome insight into the effect of our foreign policy on countries such as Iraq. Yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator (propped up by the USA for many decades) but the sheer ineptitude of the US occupation caused untold misery, and unleashed Islamist forces we’re still dealing with today. Perhaps worst of all is the Bush Administration’s belief that they could throw dollars at every problem they saw. “There are pallets of dollars all over this country just waiting for us to take them,” says mercenary Evans (played by Neil Maskell as a charmingly blunt psychopath, reminiscent of his stunning turn as hitman Arby in Utopia), and it’s the corrupting power of this money that truly damns Iraq.
Above all, though, Baghdad Central is a gripping thriller that puts our hero through the wringer. Over the course of six tense episodes, al-Khafaji is beaten, bruised and betrayed, but never loses his single-minded determination to save his daughters. The fast-moving plot and the tautly written script from Stephen Butchard (who previously delivered Iraqi drama for Western audiences in BAFTA-nominated House of Saddam) is ably served by a fantastic cast, which includes a brilliantly understated turn from Youssef Kerkour as implausibly named taxi driver Karl – a lovably loyal gentle giant.
Best of all, by the time Baghdad Central reaches its explosive conclusion, everything is in place for a second season. Having merely scratched the surface of the setting’s potential, here’s hoping the series and its doughty Inspector al-Khafaji returns soon.
Baghdad Central is available on All 4.