Baghdad Central: Interview with writer Stephen Butchard

Category: Interview, Press Pack Article

How did you get involved in Baghdad Central?

[Executive producer and Euston Films MD] Kate Harwood rang me with a five-sentence synopsis of Elliot Colla’s book of the same name – the relationship between a father and a daughter in post-invasion Baghdad. I was sold. The book told a story we hadn’t seen before, although I used it as an inspiration rather than purely adapting it.

Did you consult closely with Elliott Colla?

I’ve not met him, but we sent him the scripts and he understood the book stood on its own. We needed a different story to sustain a six-hour series, so we took the relationship between Khafaji (Waleed Zuaiter) and his daughter Mrouj (July Namir), then built everything else around that.

What are the key threads of the story?

The police procedural, obviously, plus the war and the politics. But they can only be texture, you don’t want to get on a soapbox or let it overshadow the human drama. The key was to show the family relationships and that their story is universal – it’s about a father trying to rescue his daughters. Khafaji is a reluctant hero who doesn’t set out to save the world but takes one step and realises he has to keep going, however dangerous the path. It’s about how environments corrupt as well, and that’s amplified in a war zone. The weirdest things can become the norm.

How useful was your work on House of Saddam (BBC/HBO, 2008) in informing Baghdad Central?

Very useful – I knew how the country had got to this point: ten years of sanctions had broken Iraq and left its people suffering. I knew about the hope that people had and how women who, under Saddam, had occupied high positions as doctors, nurses and teachers, but after the invasion were forced out of the picture.

Why was it important to include the pre-credits sequence where Sawsan wishes for the invasion?

It begins with hope for the young, then the liberation becomes an occupation and the older generation begins harking back to ‘at least under Saddam we had law and order’. People knew where they stood and felt relatively safe because things weren’t so lawless. It’s better the devil they knew.

How did the invasion ultimately make matters worse for women in Baghdad?

The events of 2003 brought significant increased violence, political instability, lack of security and religious resurgence - this of course effected all citizens, but women suffered more because of this; although things were never easy for women in Iraq at any time, history has proven that one of the very first casualties of war is the rights and status of women. Sawsan and her professor embody the class of women who exist at grassroots - fighting political and religious restrictions.

Women are central to this story...

Mrouj was the only daughter in the book. Sawsan was Khafaji’s niece and quite a low-key figure, so we tried to feature two daughters who both needed real personality and drive. They had ambition. Sawsan’s lecturer, Professor Zubeida (Clara Khoury) is female, that was a real story to tell as well. Many families who lacked male figureheads because of the war became prey for criminal gangs and traffickers. As soon as war breaks out, one of the first casualties is always women’s rights.

How is Khafaji unique as a TV detective?

He doesn’t choose to get involved. He’s an ex-policeman but we meet him when he’s dormant, hoping something good happens rather than pursuing it. Only when events awaken him from his slumber does he take action. First and foremost, he’s a father but, in the words of Liam Neeson in Taken, he’s a father with a very particular set of skills. His bravery comes from love for his family.

The family speaks English behind closed doors. How was that decided?

There were lots of conversations over that. We decided on a rule that we were making a drama predominantly for Channel 4 at that stage, to be shown on a UK channel, but we wanted it to be dual language, so where to draw the line? We decided the family were “our people”, they represent us, the viewers, so it’s okay for them to speak English when they’re together, but when they interact with the outside world of the city, we can move to Arabic and have a sense of him going into other social worlds.

What responsibilities does it bring for you as a white British male writer tackling living Iraqi history?

You can’t be glib about it. It’s about respect. I read as much as I could and talked to people who lived in Baghdad at that time. I did something similar with House of Saddam by talking to people who suffered under Saddam to get a feel for the fear, the dread, the paralysis. Khafaji becomes angry with himself for not doing anything, but it’s because he had to keep his daughter alive.

Why has it been so long since a major drama about the Iraq War?

We’d partly forgotten about it. It was this almighty rock in the pond in the Middle East whose repercussions are still being felt today. That region has never been the same since: Saddam was a despot but acted as a glue there. As soon as he disappeared there was a vacuum and that’s been filled by other factions. All this, and Iraqi and Iranian migrants are still being found in the English Channel. So this series is really about something. It’s a privilege and a responsibility when people share their pain and experiences with you, and then to have to write about people in that situation and their bravery. This is about hope in very difficult circumstances and in real trauma, how people can find a way through it all.