Baghdad Central episode 1: how much of this is based on a true story?

Posted by for Life

What happened to Sawsan? Does Professor Rashid know more than she’s letting on? And how much of this is based on a true story?

Baghdad Central, starring Altered Carbon’s Waleed Zuaiter, premiered on Monday 3 February at 10pm. As expected, though, the first episode – which opened with the disappearance of Khafaji’s estranged daughter Sawsan (Leem Lubany) – left us with more questions than answers.

Set in American-occupied Iraq in 2003, we learned that Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Zuaiter) has been keeping his head down following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. All he wants to do is drink his coffee (although he takes care to do so away from the balcony, so that the Imam doesn’t see him), stay out of trouble and care for his youngest daughter, Mrouj (July Namir), following the death of his wife.

But, when he learns that his eldest has gone missing, Khafaji dusts off his (now defunct) police badge and uses it to gain access to a university campus. There, he comes face-to-face with Professor Zubeida Rashid (Clara Khoury) – and quickly discovers that he may not have known Sawsan as well as he thought.

Before he can take his investigations any further, a case of mistaken identity sees Khafaji become the victim of arrest and torture at the hands of the US military. His moustache is ‘confiscated’ – “it will be sent to Washington as an example,” he jokes – and he is bullied and berated for accepting a cigarette from his captors. His luck changes, however, when he is brought before Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel), recently arrived from Britain and tasked with rebuilding the Iraqi Police Force.

With Temple’s help, Khafaji is able to reclaim his identity as a detective, and promises to solve a murder for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). However, it soon becomes apparent that Khafaji has only become a collaborator in order to gain access to the secure Green Zone and further his search for his daughter.

Where is Sawsan? And is she still alive?

As we learn early on in the episode, Khafaji hasn’t spoken to his eldest daughter for some time. Indeed, it is only through Mrouj that he learns Sawsan got a job working as an interpreter for the Coalition Authority.

It soon becomes apparent, though, that there’s more to Sawsan’s job than “earning dollars”. 

Is Professor Rashid involved in Sawsan’s disappearance?

When Khafaji first spies Rashid, he sees her speaking with a female student. He’s too far away to hear the details of their conversation, but he can tell that the younger woman is frightened by her body language.

When he asks Rashid about this, she agrees with his assessment, telling him that her student had received a death threat.

“For what?” he asks.

“The crime that she is a woman with her own ideology,” she responds simply.

Baghdad Central episode one: Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel) speaks with Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Zuaiter)
Baghdad Central episode one: Frank Temple (Bertie Carvel) speaks with Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Zuaiter)

Khafaji goes on to question Rashid about his daughter, asking her about the job she helped her to get with the Coalition – and the dollars she has been earning.

Rashid, though, is resistant to his line of questioning, and is quick to point out that his badge no longer holds any authority. Indeed, she adds, he will soon be seen as a trespasser.

“Why do you not appear surprised she has disappeared?” Khafaji rallies.

“Because she is an intelligent, patriotic woman,” Rashid tells him. “Because women in today’s Iraq have a habit of disappearing.”

When pressed for more details – and when Khafaji insists he’s asking as a father, and not as a detective – Rashid relents… but only a little.

“Sawsan believes in a secular and free Iraq,” she says. “But, as her father, you will know that.”

Later, we see Khafaji apologise to Rashid for believing her to be involved in Sawsan’s disappearance – but, while we don’t suspect the unapologetic feminist of murder, we do have a feeling that Rashid knows more than she’s letting on, especially when it comes to Sawsan’s line of work.

Indeed, as Mrouj points out: “Why is [my sister] working for people she didn’t like or trust? She wouldn’t.”

What happened to Sanaa?

As the episode reaches its close, we learn that Sawsan – along with her friends Amjad (Tawfeek Barhom), Sanaa (Nora El Koussour) and Zahra (Maisa Abd Elhadi) – are part of a secret resistance group.

Inside a shadowy building, Sawsan’s three friends meet without her (noting that she is “gone”) to decide the fate of the American man they are holding prisoner.

“We can’t let him live,” Amjad says. “Even if what he says is true, even if the men who attacked Sanaa are unknown to him, he must be the first.”

“We are not fighters,” Zahra replies. “We are students. Last year we were children!”

“We are resistance now,” he rallies fiercely. “We have no choice.”

His words have a profound impact on Sanaa, who insists that “it is my shame and no one else’s”. As daylight breaks, she approaches their prisoner alone and removes the gag from around his mouth – making sure to do so gently, carefully. Then, she shoots him in the head, before pressing the gun to her own temple and killing herself.

As Zahra sobs over her friend’s body, we are left wondering: what did these men do to Sanaa? And why did she feel this was her only escape?

Baghdad Central episode one: Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Zuaiter)
Baghdad Central episode one: Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji (Zuaiter)

How much of Baghdad Central is based on a true story?

Baghdad Central is adapted from the 2014 novel of the same name written by American author and scholar of the Middle East, Elliott Colla. However, Channel 4 writer Stephen Butchard has insisted that he simply took “inspiration” from the book and didn’t adapt it.

“The book told a story we hadn’t seen before, although I used it as an inspiration rather than purely adapting it,” he said.

“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 and his daughter Mrouj, then built everything else around that.”

All of this means that, yes, the murder mystery at its centre is fictional. It’s important to remember, though, that the events unfolding around Khafaji are very much based on reality.

In the first few scenes – which we are told take place in March 2003 – a number of explosions are shown rippling across the Iraqi skyline. This marks the first stage of the Iraq war which began on 19 March that same year.

For those of us who watched the news story unfold at the time, we know that Iraq fell to the US-led forces on 9 April 2003 – we all watched as the statue of President Saddam Hussein was toppled in Firdos Square. We know, likewise, that the Iraqi government collapsed and the police force was disbanded. That, on 1 May 2003, President Bush declared the “end of major combat operations”, after which the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was set up to help form transitional governments and rebuild Iraq.

What we don’t know, however – what we have never been shown, in fact – is what all of this looked like from the point of view of an Iraqi. And it is this unique POV which Baghdad Central hopes to bring to Western audiences.

As executive producer Kate Harwood said in a recent interview: “The point of view is Khafaji’s, it’s the Americans and the Brits who are ‘the other’.”

When is the next episode?

If you’re into binge-watching, you’re in luck: the entire series of Baghdad Central is now available to watch online via All 4. If you prefer to digest your crime dramas and mull things over, however, don’t despair: the remaining episodes of Baghdad Central will air every Monday on Channel 4 at 10pm.

This means that you can tune in to watch the second episode live on 10 February. 

Sign up to our daily email for a curated edit of the latest news and must-read features from Stylist, so you’ll never miss out on the conversation again.

Images: Channel 4

Share this article

Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray