A young Egyptian takes a life-changing journey from Kuwait City to Baghdad, and then onto the silver screen
CAIRO: It’s 2003. The advent of the Iraqi war is being predicted by political and military advisors everywhere. The atmosphere in Kuwait is unsettling. Many citizens and residents are still scared from the Iraqi invasion in ’91 and aren’t taking chances. People can’t leave quickly enough.
It is this setting that awaits Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, an Egyptian and a field translator for the Los Angeles Times. On March 21 2003, the start of the war, he and his team crossed the border into Iraq, “We entered from Safwan in the south. Two days later we were ambushed by Iraqi militia and had no choice but to escape back to Kuwait. To get back in, we were going to join dozens of journalists on buses to cover a food aid distribution organized by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent. Then our partner Mark showed up in 4×4 dressed in a full U.S. military uniform that he had used to cross the border. Fahmy told The Daily Star Egypt.
It is an experience that Fahmy put down in a book, converted into a screenplay, and is now getting made into a full-length feature film production. “It was a distressing time that traumatized me. I decided to share my experiences by turning them into a book. The writing process helped me put things into perspective and deal with the trauma, he said. Although he may have started the book for such personal reasons, there were incentives to keep going all around him. “A lot of my motivation came from questions I would get from my family and girlfriend. They were so clearly misinformed [about what was going on in Iraq].
The journal-turned-novel he is referring to is Baghdad Bound: An Interpreter s Chronicles of the Iraq War (Trafford Publishing, 2004), which gives a first hand account of the chaos, destruction and ruin of the Iraq war. In fact, “the first chapter was written under military curfew at the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad, to the non-stop echoes of gunfire .
It was before the war, in November 2002, that Fahmy moved to Kuwait and took a job at a university. “During the build-up, the university shut down and most of the country was crippled in preparation for the war, especially with all the ‘chemical war’ propaganda at the time, said Fahmy.
That’s where things picked up. “I was asked [by the LA Times] to go and see what was going on in Iraq, to be an interpreter for their journalists. He agreed. “I wanted to help and be part of history. The fact is, what you see in a 30-second newsreel is nothing compared to reality.
Fahmy believed in bringing a more nuanced analysis of reporting on the war. “Most coverage out there really labeled everything and put it all in a frame of sectarian conflict. It was we independent reporters who were able to report on a diversity of issues. Among his LA Times colleagues, Fahmy worked most closely with Mark, a Jewish reporter with an intense approach to reporting on the issues. Together, they documented “the day-to-day war on the street and humanitarian stories that dug deeply into the minds of Iraqis in the farms and villages. The embedded journalists might have gotten better video footage, but they weren’t impartial. They lived as the military did and were promoting Bush’s war.
“The last thing on my mind was a movie. Only when I was approached by producers like Winston Azzopardi, of the film Troy, is when I realized that I had something worth adapting, said Fahmy, who developed the screenplay with friend Mohamed Hefzy, who has also written the screenplays for Private Alexandria and Tito and won the award for best screenwriter in Egypt, 2005. “We also received help from Jonas McCord who has claimed two Emmy Awards, a Hollywood veteran who has written such brilliant movies like Malice, the famous TV series Dirty Dozen, and has also co-produced Class of 61 with Steven Spielberg.
Fahmy has also been working with executive producers Hank McCann and Bob Knotek (Ask the Dust, Steel Magnolias). “Among others, we have approached Sean Penn to direct the film. The actors on our wish list nominated to play the intense role of Mark, the LA Times star reporter, are Mark Wahlberg and Tim Robbins. Don, known humorously to us as the cowboy photographer who jumps into burning buildings and drags Moody with him everywhere, would be perfect for Woody Harelson.
Just as difficult will be the casting for Fahmy himself, and his estranged Iraqi girlfriend Hala Alsalman, whose love he was driven to win back while in Iraq. “Finding two bilingual Arabic actors to play the roles of Moody and Hala remains tricky because they both must speak perfect English and Arabic, with the appropriate dialects. Luckily, Hend Sabry, the famous Tunisian actress residing in Egypt, who starred in the award-winning Yaqoubian, has officially accepted, said Fahmy.
Fahmy summarizes the script for the film as an intense war thriller laced with a passionate and true love story, set in the back drop of the Iraq War. “The story carries so many messages and sheds light on how the interpreter essentially controls what people in America read on the front pages of their morning paper. It shows how both Arabs and Americans have been negatively affected by the war, and the pre 9/11 world. [The film] will leave the viewer shocked, but more aware of the political convulsions we hear about every day in the ‘new Iraq’.
In other efforts to share his experience, Fahmy has lectured at American University in Cairo, Cairo American College, University of California Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department.Members of the Baghdad Bound team will be attending the Cannes Film Festival this week where the unofficial announcement of the film will take place. Find out more at www.baghdadbound.com