A TV adaptation of “Baghdad Central,” a novel authored by Georgetown University professor Elliott Colla, is set to stream on Hulu in March.
The series originally aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom on Feb. 3 and has received critical acclaim since its release, according to a news release from the Arabic and Islamic studies department. Colla, an associate professor of Arabic and Islamic studies, published the historical fiction source novel about the U.S. presence in Iraq in 2014.
The TV show is set in U.S.-occupied Iraq shortly after U.S. forces removed Saddam Hussein from the Iraqi presidency and disbanded the Iraqi army. The story features a former police inspector named Muhsin al-Khafaji who searches for his missing daughter. Al-Khafaji works as a detective for the U.S.-led coalition forces while following his own personal agenda.
The show is a six-part crime thriller for Channel 4 written by BAFTA-nominated writer Stephen Butchard.
After Euston Films bought rights to the novel in 2016, Butchard began writing the script, according to Colla. Butchard added characters and changed many elements of Colla’s initial plot, but Colla and Butchard reached a compromise in the end, according to Colla.
“I read drafts of the screenplay as Stephen worked on them and gave my feedback, but from the outset, our understanding was that this would be their story, though it would remain true to the characters and situation,” Colla said.
American actor and Oscar-nominated producer Waleed Zuaiter plays protagonist al-Khafaji. Zuaiter is best known for co-producing and starring in the critically acclaimed 2013 film “Omar.” Alongside Zuaiter, well-known theater actor Bertie Carvel plays Frank Temple, a former British police officer who helps rebuild Iraq’s police force. Co-stars also include “House of Cards” star Corey Stoll as Captain John Parodi, a U.S. military police captain and Temple’s archnemesis, and “Homeland” star July Namir as Mrouj, Khafaji’s sick daughter.
At the beginning of the production process, Colla worried the series might fall into discriminatory tropes prevalent throughout the industry’s adaptations of events in the Middle East, Colla wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“There’s a long history of orientalist, Islamophobic representations of Arabs in Euroamerican cinema and television,” Colla said. “But as soon as I met the producers, and then the director, and then the cast, I stopped worrying.”
Colla collaborated with Jonathan Curling, a producer in Egyptian television, and Arij al-Soltan, a young Iraqi producer, to maintain the historical integrity and realism of the script, according to Colla.
In contrast to traditional Western portrayals of Iraq, Colla’s novel captures the country’s often misunderstood nuances and complexities, according to Joseph Sassoon, a professor of history and political economy at Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies and al-Sabah chair in politics and political economy of the Arab world.
“Because of Elliott’s background as a professor of Arabic literature, he understood how the society functions and how it is structured,” Sassoon said in an interview with The Hoya. “He didn’t come with the usual biases of a lot of politicians or journalists or even sometimes academics when they write about this country.”
The series will showcase Colla’s accomplishments and draw attention to Arabic literature and culture, according to Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, chair of the department of Arabic and Islamic studies.
“All of us AIS are proud of Colla’s accomplishments and their contribution to our fields of Arabic language, linguistics, literature and the other Islamic humanities,” Stetkevych wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We hope that his novel Baghdad Central and the television series will serve to alert readers, viewers and critics to the world of Arabic literature and culture, and the presence of so talented and engaging litterateur among our research and teaching faculty at AIS.”
In the summer of 2017, Colla travelled to London to work on early drafts of the script. In August 2018, Colla went to Morocco to meet the production crew and cast. The day of the first script read-through with the entire cast was also the first day of classes at Georgetown, according to Colla. Colla had initially told producers he was not going to be able to make it, he wrote.
“I happened to be teaching a comparative literature course on noir fiction that year,” Colla wrote. “I got off the phone and my family said, ‘No! When someone turns your book into a film and invites you, you go.’ And besides: have you ever had students complain because you had to miss a class?”
Colla ultimately accepted the invitation and explained to his students he would be missing class to go to Morocco for the television production, he said.
“Sure enough, no one complained,” Colla said. “But at the same time, I doubt many of them believed it. It was a far-fetched claim for a bookish professor to make.”