Book by Georgetown Professor Made into TV Mini Series
It’s not every day that your book is published, and it is an even more rare occurrence when it is adapted for the screen. For Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies professor Elliott Colla, this became reality with the announcement that the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 will release a mini-series based off of his 2014 thriller Baghdad Central in March of 2020.
The novel, which Colla wrote in just seven weeks, follows the saga of Muhsin al-Khafaji, a flawed and deeply human cop who unravels a mystery in 2003 war-torn Iraq. Colla was inspired to write this story after noticing that the depictions of Arab men in American media lacked any real depth of human character.
“Western screen culture tends to depict Arab men as a problem — as terrorists, fanatics, wife-beaters,” Colla said in a February issue of Radio Times. “Occasionally directors try to make individual male Arab characters likeable, but too often that involves making them super-pious, as if they can’t imagine compelling, virtuous Arab men who aren’t praying all the time. Khafaji smokes and drinks, and loves poetry. He has a messy backstory, worldly desires and sordid dreams.”
Many books and films reinforce these stereotypes or, like 2008’s The Hurt Locker, fail to focus on Iraqi individuals at all. Colla hoped “to start conversations, spark curiosity, and perhaps ignite debate among people who had never read, and never search for, Arabic novels in translation or the new scholarship on the Middle East.”
Though Stephen Butchards’ six-part adaptation deviates from the novel, he took care to maintain the essence of Colla’s book, focusing primarily on the story of both Iraqi men and women. Colla has been immensely happy with the changes made by Butchard, stating that “seeing the series take shape was like discovering that my novel had a sibling!”
Colla also noted that this story is as important now as it was then.
“The same people who were calling for the invasion of Iraq are now calling for a war on Iran…The story of Baghdad Central may take place in 2003, but the characters and situations might as well have been drawn from our present moment,” says Colla. “It’s never too late to revisit an old story and re-examine its pages in the hope that we might just learn something from the past.”
“After seven seasons of Homeland, it’s nice to see an Iraq war-set thriller that centers on Iraqi lives for a change,” writes a reviewer from The Guardian. “Nice because it’s the right thing for a socially conscious broadcaster to commission, but also just nice because it makes for some refreshingly original entertainment.”
-by Shelby Roller (G’19)