It's October 2003. Saddam Hussein’s regime has fallen. For six months, Baghdad has been occupied by American forces.
Muhsin al-Khafaji, an Iraqi ex-policeman who has lost his job, his house and his wife, is living amidst the chaos, desperately trying to keep his sick daughter Mrouj safe.
That’s the backdrop for Channel 4’s new, six-part thriller, Baghdad Central, written by Stephen Butchard (it was inspired by Elliot Colla’s novel of the same name).
Waleed Zuaiter is brilliant as Khafaji. But when he first auditioned, he wasn’t sure if he wanted the role.
“I didn’t want to play another accented Arab on Western television, but my wife read with me and encouraged me. When I did the self-tape audition and spoke the words, I had a feeling this project and character were special.
“The writing is so rich and deep and character-driven, and a quarter of it feels like a foreign-language film. There’s a beauty in that and it elevated everyone’s performances.”
In the first episode of this emotive dual-language drama, Khafaji ends up being recruited by ex-police officer Frank Temple, a Brit whose aim is to rebuild the Iraqi Police Force from the ground up. The Iraqi man is tempted by the incentive to get proper medical aid for his ailing daughter.
The complexity of his character was something that really resonated with Zuaiter; there’s “this whole choice of loyalty to country or loyalty to family”.
“His sense of pain and everything has knocked him down, and when you’re in that situation — I’ve been there — where your kids look up to you for strength and you don’t have it, that hit me right off the bat.”
Being a show about war also made it a very personal project for Zuaiter, who largely grew up in Kuwait.
“My family has struggled in war and poverty, we have lived from pay cheque to pay cheque, been evicted unjustly and experienced Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
“I was born in Sacramento, lived in Kuwait from the ages of five to 19, went back to the US for college but returned to Kuwait for my brother’s engagement party — then Saddam invaded. Because they’d closed the border to Saudi Arabia, we — me, my parents and my 93-year-old grandmother — had to get to Jordan.
His co-star Bertie Carvel, 42, has, of course, had very different experiences growing up. He was born in Marylebone, London, and won a place at RADA after studying at the University of Sussex.
The Olivier-award winning star is famous for stage roles such as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical and Rupert Murdoch in Ink, while he’s best known on telly for BBC One drama Doctor Foster.
He says he enjoyed working with the diverse cast on Baghdad Central.
“We are used to seeing stories set against the backdrop of conflict in the Middle East, but which centre on a British or American hero. Protagonism is privilege, so it feels important that this story is told from the perspective of an Iraqi family and told by such an incredible cast from all over the world,” he says.
Carvel did lots of reading in preparation for the role, including Rory Stewart’s memoir; a young British diplomat, in September 2003 Stewart was appointed as deputy governor of a province in southern Iraq.
What also jumped out for Carvel was information about Iraq’s ancient history, as he says it re-framed assumptions he had about where Iraq sits in our consciousness.
“My favourite line in the whole series actually is Khafaji’s neighbour turns to him as he’s looking out on the desolate city and says, ‘Civilisation was born here’.”
- Baghdad Central starts on Channel 4 on Monday, February 3