Great expectations: Scriptwriter Mariam Naoum on her bold TV work
 
 
Mariam and Hatem in Taht al-Saytara
 

The first episode of Zaat has a brutal female circumcision scene. In Taht al-Saytara (Under Control), a character locks himself in his car at a police checkpoint to take a final hit of heroin before getting arrested. The characters of Soqoot Horr (Free Fall) include a transgender man and a rape survivor.

It’s unflinching decisions like these that have made Mariam Naoum’s synonymous with great expectations in Ramadan television. Now 39, the scriptwriter has six series under her belt — and more in the pipeline.

Her work stands out each Ramadan for two reasons. Naoum’s characters are generally three-dimensional, speak realistically, behave unexpectedly (leading to dramatic turns of events) and don’t conform to stereotypes. And she chooses challenging, sometimes controversial topics, such as addiction, incarceration and mental illness.

“The stories are fictional, but the situations the characters are put in and some behaviors are taken from actual stories,” Naoum tells me as we talk in her apartment in Cairo’s western suburbs near the pyramids one Ramadan afternoon. “I’m always careful not to tell the stories people told me as they are. I feel like that would be very harsh, especially when dealing with someone who’s already struggling.”

It wasn’t in Naoum’s early plans to become a scriptwriter or be involved in cinema at all, in spite of her parents’ working in the arts — her father is novelist Nabil Naoum and her mother jewellery designer Suzanne El Masry. She wanted to study economics and was always choosing maths and science over arts as a child. But when she was a teenager she lived in Paris with her family and had a hard time making friends, so she started going to the cinema to fill her free time.

“The nice thing about Paris is that it’s full of small cinema spaces that show films from all over the world, not just American movies,” she says. “So I watched so many films, films that narrated their societies. It was very interesting. The Arab Institute in Paris did a celebration of Egyptian cinema for four months, over which they showed an array of Egyptian films. At the end of it, I decided I wanted to study cinema.”

So Naoum came back to Cairo and studied scriptwriting in the state-run High Institute for Cinema, because she wanted to tell stories that were specific to Egypt. During her studies she wrote four short films, and later worked on shorts with directors such as Ibrahim El Batout and Nadine Khan.

After graduating in 2000, she says she dabbled in writing children’s shows, dubbing scripts for cartoons, copy-writing in advertising companies and directing documentary films with Al Jazeera Documentary Channel. The Al Jazeera films were part of a series on foreigners living in the region, and Naoum directed seven episodes in Egypt — and then realized directing wasn’t for her.

“My favorite thing about documentary is that you’re constantly learning things,” Naoum says — it opens up new worlds. This can be felt in all her television series. Naoum puts a lot of effort into research, and her attention to detail makes her stories both believable and relatable, whether it’s teenage rebel Hanya in Taht al-Saytara or in the subtle build up to Reda’s crime in Segn al-Nesa.

The first series she wrote and scripted was 2010’s Bel Shamaa al-Ahmar (Red Wax) starring Yousra as a forensic medical examiner. Written in collaboration with the late Nadine Shams and Naglaa al-Hiddini, it represented a significant female collaboration at the time for the industry.

In 2013 came what was arguably her break-through show: She adapted novelist Sonalla Ibrahim’s character Zaat for TV, showing her live through Egypt’s modern history from 1952 until the January 25 revolution in 2011, extending the novel to the present day. The series – half directed by regular Naoum collaborator Kamla Abu Zikry and half by veteran filmmaker Khairy Bishara – was well received. Its timing was impeccable, too – Egypt was facing an uncertain future following former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in 2013, yet revolutionary spirits were still high.

Naoum’s only series to date with a male lead was made the same year: Moga Hara (Heat Wave) was an adaptation of an Osama Anwar Okasha novel that follows various members of a middle-class family.

For 2014’s Segn al-Nesa (Women’s Prison), loosely based on the late Fathia al-Assal’s play of the same title, Naoum paid visits to Cairo’s Qanater Women’s Prison and interviewed prisoners. She finds isolation interesting, she says: “Working on worlds with closed doors, where people want to put these people behind those walls and pretend they are not there.”

In 2015, she created characters that were upper-middle-class heroin addicts on a quest to recover with Narcotics Anonymous for Taht al-Saytara (Under Control). Naoum interviewed several recovering addicts through NA and consulted with physicians and psychiatrists to keep her characters in check and story realistic. It was a popular success, with rave reviews from local and regional publications – although Mada Masr’s Naira Antoun felt the show did not deliver on its promises in its depiction of addiction, and of female addicts in particular.

Naoum has a written a film too — Wahed Sefr (One-Nil, 2009), her first project with Abu Zikry. It follows it characters from various backgrounds as their lives intertwine during an important African Cup final. Naoum says the film took five years to make as it was a challenge to bring producers and actors on board. Many were sceptical that such a story would meet box office success. While the film didn’t make a lot of money, the producers – the National Cinema Unit and the Egyptian Media City Production Company – didn’t make a loss either. And the film went on to win almost 60 prizes in local and international festivals, according to Naoum.

But it’s television shows that Naoum has built her name around. “I consider myself lucky to find a middle ground. I work within the market, which I don’t identify with, but at the same time doing the things I love in the way that I love,” she tells me. “I’m lucky I got to tell stories from my point of view in the way I saw fit. This is something that makes me not regret not making films.”

Naoum is part of a generation of filmmakers that has shifted focus to television production in the past five years. With producers fearing for the return on their investments in cinema, many have opted to put more money into television, which felt less impact from the economic crisis following 2011. Several directors, writers and actors who made names for themselves in cinema started working in TV, creating a noticeable improvement in the quality of Ramadan series in terms of both directing and depth of content.

“Lots of taboos were broken, because when filmmakers came to television, they came with their ideas. So television was no longer just filling time, it became about real stories,” Naoum says, adding that this expanded the viewership. “Young people started following online – a new way to take in the series. I’m really for diversity, having various storytelling methods. We have a society that’s very rich with stories and an industry with a long history of bringing them to life.”

Mariam Naoum

Mariam Naoum

“I think cinema will pick up again,” Naoum continues. “All the television makers are filmmakers, and their first love is cinema. I think all of us want to make films. If this opportunity is available we’ll go for it. Then we’ll see this leap on quality of television in cinema.” She cites the recent commercial success of Hepta as an indication that the industry is about to flourish.

This Ramadan, Naoum’s Soqoot Hor (Free Fall) stars Nelly Karim as Malak, a catatonic upper-middle-class mother. After appearing to kill her husband and sister in the first episode, she’s taken to the Abbasiya mental health hospital for treatment and later transferred to a private hospital.

The topic was suggested by Karim (also a long-term Naoum collaborator) after they finished working on Taht al-Saytara, because she wanted to dig deeper into the world of mental health. It was the first time for Naoum to work based on an actor’s prompt.

There are far more characters in Soqoot Hor than in Naoum’s previous projects, and in another first she worked with a large team to do the research, develop the characters and write the script in the available time. Naoum and her friend scriptwriter Wael Hamdy (Hepta, Mikano) developed the script from her idea with the help of a psychiatrist and visits to public and private mental hospitals. Nadine Badrawi and Khairy al-Fakharani helped build the characters, while Sara al-Tobghy and Mohamed Hesham helped create the dialogue.

“With Soqoot Horr, which had so many characters, even secondary characters have a large file with their history and how they got to this point,” says Naoum. “Even if it doesn’t appear on the screen, it’s important for our process as writers, for the director and the actors.”

But Soqoot Horr doesn’t seem to be having the same impact on viewers as her previous shows. I’ve heard many conversations over iftars and on social media about how its pace is too slow, with minimal storyline and character growth.

“It’s related to the nature of mental illness itself,” Naoum says in response. “In a public hospital these people are in a kind of jail — this is a feeling I wanted to send out. They have no life outside. People outside are relieved to be done with them. The fact that people throw their relatives in there is due to the shame of the illness or to get rid of them. So if I had created a life outside for these characters I’d have broken the feeling of isolation, loneliness and that they are thrown away.”

“When you hear a story from a patient, this isn’t necessarily the whole truth,” she adds. “We felt that when doing the research — where we can’t tell where is the real truth. So if we’d shown their lives outside the hospital it would break this and their stories would become facts.”

A common criticism on social media is that the show’s grimness and emotional heaviness makes it hard to follow, but Naoum feels this response is positive because it proves the show has touched people. “What makes people feel this heaviness is that they’re seeing something real,” she says. “It’s not just a story.”

For Ramadan 2017, Naoum is working on an adaptation of Bahaa Taher’s novel Wahet al-Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis), to be directed by Abu Zikry. It takes place at the end of the nineteenth century at the start of the British occupation of Egypt, and centers around a policeman sent to Siwa after being suspected of involvement in the resistance movement with his Egyptology-infatuated Irish wife. But she’s also working another TV project, and two film scripts.

“I’m a turtle,” Naoum says, explaining that she won’t be taking a break anytime soon. “My work process is slow and I need time to process the ideas, and what I want to say between the lines. I always have lots of things I want to say through the story. That takes time to figure out.”

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Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist