Based on the novel by Elliott Colla and adapted for television by Stephen Butchard (Vincent, House Of Saddam and Five Daughters), Baghdad Central is a handsome, six-part series from Channel 4, which, like many of its crime drama offerings from the recent past, seeks to view the genre through a slightly different lens.
The more intriguing crime dramas from the past decade have all had a strong sense of place, and as Brits have become used – and indeed crave – crime dramas from different places and cultures (hello Nordic Noir), Baghdad Central trumps them all by telling its story from the heart of a city we think we know, but really we don’t, and through the eyes of a main protagonist who lives and works there.
We first see Muhsin al-Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter) as an Iraqi policeman, in his car chatting with his two daughters – Mrouj and Sawsan – before war hit the city. Posters of Saddam adorn the walls, markets and streets course with vibrant urban life.
It is March 2003.
Fast forward to October 2003, and things are very different. Americans now occupy the city, and Khafaji is now an ex-cop who looks out from his balcony to see a city in ruins, the horizon often lit up by bombs against the night sky. This is now daily life here – the vibrancy of the streets, the people, the markets now juxtaposed with fear, suspicion and paranoia.
This is war. This is daily life.
And this sense of place, this sense of a new culture we haven’t really seen before on British television, hits you right between the eyes. The city is cinematically shot, and we’re drawn into this chaotic world instantly. Khafaji is an instantly likeable character, too – world-weary, cynical, but avuncular, with a wry sense of humour – and seems to be caught between two worlds: one populated by Saddam’s supporters and those who desperately want change.
His world is flipped even more on its head when Sawsan is reported missing. In a stable city that would be scary enough, but in a war-torn metropolis with potential enemies everywhere, it’s even scarier. Khafaji is called into action immediately, pacing the streets, calling on her friends and teachers at the university for any clues. He finds that she’s been working for the Americans in some capacity, and Mrouj backs this up, saying that she has been translating papers for dollars.
It’s a great opening act as we establish the family dynamic, get to know Khafaji better as he traverses the city in the search for his daughter and understand how people live in war-torn cities (spoiler: they do their best and they adapt to the new normal as quickly and effectively as possible). It feels like a traditional police drama with a strong male presence at its heart – like we see almost every week in TV crime drama – but it’s been placed in such an alluring almost disorientating location, with an unfamiliar culture swirling around it, that it feels fresh and different.
As Khafaji continues his personal investigation – including coming into contact with Sawsan’s enigmatic university tutor Professor Zubeida Rashid and a brilliantly funny taxi driver called Karl – there are side stories here that add dimensions and wallops of socio-political and cultural context.
One side story features Sanaa, a contemporary of Sawsan’s. She has been raped by a group of Americans (soldiers? bureaucrats? We’re not sure yet), and her cousin kidnaps an American citizen called Kibbert in order to find the perpetrators. While he’s captive at Sanaa’s house, the tension is unbearable – Sanaa is wracked with confusion, agony, shame and humiliation after her ordeal; while her cousin is intent on killing the Kibbert if he doesn’t give up the identity of Sanaa’s assailants. Just when you think that Sanaa is about to release him, she takes a gun and not only shoots him but herself.
It’s shocking, heartbreaking and makes you sick to your stomach – two casualties of war, but not from any traditional battlefield.
As for Khafaji, Baghdad Central takes another terrifying turn when the Americans – looking for Kibbert – begin rounding up seemingly random men. Khafaji is one of these men, and while in custody, he’s tortured mercilessly and brutally, including a particular painful moustache waxing; all the while accused, falsely of being part of a militia.
He’s finally sprung from captivity by Frank Temple, a British ex-Police Officer, who’s been installed in the city’s ‘Green Zone’ and tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi police force. Temple is a delicious character – bored, arrogant and at war with his American counterparts. He’s also sharp, manipulative and dangerously ruthless. Bertie Carvel as Temple is just fantastic and is surely channelling the late Leonard Rossiter in his portrayal, jutting out his chin and staring down his glasses with insouciance.
Temple sees an opportunity with Khafaji – he offers him help with Mrouj, who’s sick with an unnamed kidney condition, and a safe place within the green zone in return for helping him recruit new officers for his police force.
The atmosphere in the streets has changed, and Khafaji is now viewed with suspicion by those lads on the corners who once were friends. Suddenly allegiances are questioned, sides have been taken, and among this simmering Khafaji feels he has no choice but to accept Temple’s offer.
This was a fantastic start to the series: action-packed, full of procedural momentum, but also packed full of context, cultural and emotional depth. And in Khafaji, we might have our next great TV detective.
There was one shot that took the breath away: while Professor Rashid was travelling through the streets to work by car, her driver stopped at a junction. As they looked onto the crossing point they saw a horse; a beautiful thoroughbred horse who had been liberated from one of the Republican palaces, but was now left to wander the streets. Within the blink of an eye a car barreled into it, killing it instantly. It was a shocking, heartbreaking moment – one of several in the opening episode – and was perhaps a hideously apt visual metaphor for what the Iraqi people were now going through: set free, but into what?