Waleed Zuaiter can remember the precise day he was “catapulted into adulthood”, as he puts it. It was Thursday 2nd August 1990, and Zuaiter, then 19, was in Kuwait for his brother’s engagement party with his parents and 93-year-old grandmother. Born in California, from the ages of 5 to 19 he was raised in the tiny Middle Eastern state, where his Palestinian father worked in finance, before he returned to the US to attend university.
“Growing up in Kuwait, it was one of the most secure, wealthy countries in the Middle East, it was perfectly peaceful, ” the actor says today. That summer in 1990, there had been fearful rumblings that Saddam Hussein might be plotting an invasion from neighbouring Iraq. In August, those fears were brutally realised.
“I looked out of the window and there were Iraqi tanks right outside, it was so surreal. I speak fluent Arabic so I went out and spoke to the soldiers. Most of them had no idea what they were even doing there.”
Knowing they were to be at best evicted, Zuaiter and family fled to Jordan, the nearest open border, over three gruelling days. They slept for a few hours each night on his father’s Persian carpets, and saw the horrors of war all around them.
‘“Seeing death’ is the best way to describe it,” he says. “I remember very specifically that there was a family who didn’t have time to bury a child who’d died from dehydration, so it just looked like they threw a dead baby out of their car. It was horrifying to the point where you wonder if it was an illusion. I really lost my innocence then.”
The story is remarkable enough on its own, but the situation in which Zuaiter tells it today makes it all the more so. Now a chiselled and silvering 49-year-old, he sits in a crisp grey suit in a central London hotel, where he’s promoting Baghdad Central, a new six-part Channel 4 detective drama set in Iraq, in which he plays the heroic lead.
Described as ‘Morse of the Middle East’ and co-starring Doctor Foster’s Bertie Carvel, Zuaiter steps into the role of Muhsin Kadr al-Khafaji, a world-weary, demoralised ex-policeman supporting his daughters after the fall of Saddam in 2003.
Zuaiter has been an actor in the US for decades, with credits including Homeland, Prison Break and House of Cards among dozens of other credits, but Baghdad Central marks his first time leading a series.
“I figured I could bring some detail and authenticity to the role,” he says, with a smile of understatement. “The setting is foreign but the show really doesn’t feel it, because so much of what goes on is familiar. This is the kind of role I’ve always wanted to play, and I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more of these opportunities.”
But he almost didn’t take it. When the role was pitched to him two years ago, Zuaiter’s father had recently died, sending him into “a hole of depression” which he couldn’t shake.
“I was in a weird state of mind, with a very negative filter. I heard about it and just thought, ‘ugh, another accented Middle Eastern role’ – which I’d been trying to break out of because in the States they’re a little narrow-minded when it comes to casting those. But I read it a second time and just thought, ‘wow’. It really resonated.”
As an American actor of Middle Eastern descent, for several years Zuaiter struggled to find parts that didn’t involve a negative, stereotypical portrayal of people from the region. After 9/11, he was made to promise his father – who was never particularly approving of his decision to go into acting, especially as Zuaiter’s brothers went into finance, working for George Soros – that he’d never play a terrorist. It wasn’t easy, he says, “when all the roles involved something like being the leader of Isis in the US.”
“My first TV gig was an episode of Law and Order, where I played a guy in a sleeper cell who literally grabs a box cutter when the police come for him. I remember turning down a few things because I was so angry.”
Around the same time Zuaiter was in Kuwait in 1990, Joana – who has Lebanese, Scottish and Fijian ancestry – was in the region too, with her mother and grandmother. Unable to get out, the three women were eventually taken to Baghdad and held in a hotel with more than a dozen mainly British families. It was from there that Hussein made an infamous television appearance, explaining that they were being kept in order to prevent war.
Footage of the dictator ruffling one terrified-looking child’s hair went around the world. Joana, who was eventually released and made it to the UK as the last group of foreigners out of Iraq, was one of the hostages standing behind him.
“Yeah that’s funny – well, now it seems it, but at the time they were all worried about worst-case scenarios. Her mother even cut Joana’s hair really short and put a pillow under her shirt, to disguise the fact she was a girl, as she feared what might happen to her. They were terrified.”
Given recent global events, Zuaiter worries for the immediate future of the Middle East. “I fear things could get worse again, unfortunately. We say it in the show, but this is the cradle of civilisation, Iraq, Syria, Iran. Civilisation then spread to the rest of the world but the irony is that conflict is always coming back to that region, which I find so sad,” he says.
“People in the US are confused by what’s going on. But as somebody who’s been in the States for a while, it seems like it’s a war machine. Like every 10 years or so there has to be a war.”
He intends to play his part in an image change. Now that television executives have seemingly investigated every crime in Scandinavia, Baghdad Central, which is based on a novel of the same name by US author Elliot Cola, is arguably the first ‘Middle Eastern noir’. It was part of the appeal for Zuaiter: telling a universal whodunnit story that just so happens to be set in Iraq, and shows how similar, rather than different, the Middle East is from the West. After enough drama in his own life, TV’s newest detective can’t wait to tell it.