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by May Elkhishen

With Egypt’s reigning queen of scriptwriting: Mariam Na‘oum

Daring, determined, and ambitious, Egyptian scriptwriter Mariam Na‘oum’s string of controversial television series is proof that behind her coquettish, pretty looks and friendly demeanor is a force to be reckoned with.

Armed with an infectious smile, a passion for cinema, and an unequivocal determination to make a difference, Na‘oum has never shied away from breaking taboos and speaking her mind. Her audacity has catapulted her to glittering star status and made her indisputably the leading Egyptian scriptwriter.

Her portfolio includes unforgettable work like the award-winning feature Wahed Sefr (One- Zero), 2009 which was directed by Kamla Abu Zikry and won the prestigious 2009 Muhr Arab Feature Award for Best Scriptwriter at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF).

Her work also includes Moga Harra (Heat Wave), 2013 directed by Mohammed Yassin; Bint Esmaha Zaat (A Girl Called Zaat), 2013; and Segn el-Nessa (The Women’s Prison), 2014, also directed by Abu Zikry. Rowayat met with Na‘oum to discover the woman behind the writer and to speak to her about the future of the Egyptian filmmaking industry.

From mathematical whiz kid to aspiring scriptwriter

Born into a family of artists, it seemed inevitable for Na‘oum to catch the culture bug from an early age. “I was very lucky to have been brought up in a household that believes in the importance of music, art, and literature,” she reveals. Na‘oum is the daughter of author Nabil Na‘oum, and artist and jewelry designer Suzanne Elmasry.

Despite her infatuation with the art world and her constant hunger for books, Na‘oum’s childhood ambition was to become an engineer. “As a child growing up, I used to read so much that it annoyed my friends, but I always knew that I wanted to become an engineer.” In pursuit of this goal, she moved to France, where she completed her high school degree at Lycée Fénelon, Collège Jacques Prévert and enrolled at Tolbiac University to major in pure mathematics. A few physics courses later, she realized that this was the wrong field for her, and switched her major to economics.

During her university years, her favorite pastime was going to the cinema. Na‘oum spent her time scrutinizing the weekly entertainment guide Pariscope from cover to cover. The popular magazine became her guide to the treasure trove of both well-known and obscure cinema screens in France. “I never really felt like I belonged in France and the only thing that I would treat myself to was a trip to the cinema…I also used to collect magazines and interviews on filmmaking,” says Na‘oum.

She devoured a magnificent showreel of both commercial and non-commercial movies and her love of numbers was gradually overtaken by her love of film and the written word. Her stay in France coincided with the Institut du Monde Arabe’s 100th anniversary celebration of Egyptian cinema in Paris. This four-month-long celebration included the showcasing of an array of previously unseen black-and-white Egyptian movies. Leaping at the opportunity, Na‘oum never missed a screening. This cinema extravaganza became the spark that ignited her passion for scriptwriting. Na‘oum revealed her newfound ambition to study scriptwriting in Egypt to family friend and then-director of the Cinema Institute, Mohammed Kamel Elayouby. “He [Mohamed Kamel Elayouby] asked me to send him some writing samples before making any drastic decisions, and when he read them, he urged me to enroll.” And it was then and there that Na‘oum decided that writing films was what she wanted to do.

Despite the disapproval of many family members, Na‘oum knew that it was time to pack her bags and return to Egypt to create films. She enrolled at the Cinema Institute in 1996. “This sudden change of heart came as a shock to my family. A lot of people thought that I was stupid and that I was making a big mistake. People were telling me that I should have chosen to study cinema in Nice. This might have been a valid option if I was planning to major in directing, sound, montage, or photography; anything but scriptwriting really. For one thing, I will never write about France as well as the French people do, nor am I interested to do so. If I was going to write about Egyptians for Egyptians, then I had to study scriptwriting here [Egypt]. I did not want to study cinema in France, I wanted to create movies about Egypt in Egypt.”

The art of adaptation

The year 2013 marked the beginning of a new chapter in Na‘oum’s book of achievements. Following the raving success of her three adaptations for television, Moga Harra (Heat Wave) by the late Osama Anwar Okasha, [1]Osama Anwar Okasha was an Egyptian screenwriter and journalist who wrote weekly for Egypt’s foremost daily newspaper, al-Ahram. He is famous for writing some of the most popular series on Egyptian … Continue reading Zaat by Son‘allah Ibrahim,[2]Son‘allah Ibrahim is an Egyptian novelist and short story writer and one of the “Sixties Generation” known for his leftist and nationalist views, which are expressed rather directly in his … Continue reading and Segn el-Nessa (The Women’s Prison) by the late Fathia El ‘assal, [3]Fathia El ‘assal was an Egyptian playwright who also wrote several television series and plays, including Nissa’ Bila Aqni‘a (Women without Masks), 1981; Segn el-Nessa, 1993; and Gawaz Safar … Continue reading Na‘oum was crowned the new queen of adaptations. The airing of Moga Harra and Zaat skyrocketed the talented writer to instant stardom. “I enjoy working on adaptations very much. There are so many adaptations that I want to recreate for the big screen, and before Zaat was aired, I had actually tried to approach several producers, but had not been lucky yet. I think it was probably because I was still unknown. I am still trying until now, as I have more than one story that I would like to turn into a script.”

She credits her success with literary adaptations to her immense love of reading and literature. “During my years at the institute, three of the shorts I created were based on short stories. I guess it is because I really love literature and I read more than I watch. If I have two hours free, the first thing I will probably do is read a book,” she says.

The creative bookworm always has her head stuck in a book, not just for entertainment, but also to broaden her horizons and fine-tune her writing skills. Na‘oum prides herself on her ability to make a story her own; there is always a difference between the original content and her adaptation of it. “It was not out of disrespect, but quite the opposite actually. I was very lucky to have worked on stories written by unparalleled authors, but I come from a different generation, so I see things differently, and I like to write about what I feel,” she explains.

Working on and perfecting an adaptation is challenging, and a good scriptwriter lives in constant fear of compromising the integrity and authenticity of the original work. Na‘oum is no different. “I do not mind if people think that the original work is better, but I would hate for people to say that Mariam has taken a story and ruined it.” She considers garnering author Son‘allah Ibrahim’s seal of approval on her version of Zaat one of her greatest accomplishments to date.

According to Na‘oum, creating an original script from scratch is equally challenging and is no walk in the park. In this case, the success of the script lies solely on the shoulders of its writer.

Scriptwriters spend months, if not years, writing and rewriting a script until they are ready to share it with the judgmental eyes of the public, whether producers, directors, or movie viewers. Na‘oum believes that the director is the magic wand that puts life into what she has written, so picking the right director is crucial. “Picking a director is as important as choosing a husband,” she laughingly admits. She considers herself extremely lucky for having worked with great directors, such as Kamla Abu Zikry, Mohammed Yassin, and most recently, Tamer Mohsen. Na‘oum hopes that her luck does not run out and that she continues to work with such talented and creative minds.

At the writer’s desk

Despite her love for scriptwriting and her exponential success, Na‘oum affirms that she never aspired to become an author or to write a book. “I have been asked by many if I have ever thought of writing a book, but honestly, I never wanted to and do not think that I ever will. I only want to write scripts,” says Na‘oum.

Literary giants and emerging writers alike occasionally suffer from writer’s block; the pit that every writer inevitably falls into, regardless of status or experience. The talented scriptwriter confirms that she is no different. “I go ballistic when that [writer’s block] happens. I usually suffer from writer’s block at the beginning of a new project. It feels like someone has tied and clamped my feet, and I find it very difficult to show people my first draft,” Na‘oum says. To overcome such an obstacle, every writer is pushed to devise his or her survival guide to get the creative juices flowing again. “What I try to do is force myself to take a break. I notify production that I need to take a few days off. During that time, I opt to do other things, like reading or even working on a future project. This usually helps me get back in the game again.”

The rise of social media and the rapid development of technology have paved the way for young people to get their work out to the public, be it good or just mediocre. “There is a huge difference between writing a script and a blog. The younger generation believes that having an idea is enough to garner them ‘writer’ status, and that is a monumental problem.” According to Na‘oum, education is crucial for success. Emerging writers must strive to learn the fundamentals of the art. Reading is every writer’s gateway for success. “Read, and not only books about cinema, but about the theater, too. This [reading about theater] is an integral tool for proper character formation,” she advises.

The world of filmmaking is flamboyant, exciting, and vibrant, yet needless to say, chaotic and demanding. So how does the rising scriptwriter succeed in juggling between being a dedicated and passionate writer and a full-time mother? “It is difficult and quite stressful,” she confesses. “There are times when I can manage, and there are other times when I simply cannot, and I think this is one of the main reasons why I get a writer’s block…Marwan [Na‘oum’s seven-year-old son] is used to my schedule and I make it a point to work as much as I can during the day while he is in school. I am a morning person, so it is not very difficult to do so.”

Egyptian cinema lights are shimmering

Egyptian censorship guidelines are an enigma that only a few have succeeded in unraveling. Over the years, numerous works of art have been banned, censored, or altered unjustifiably. However, Na‘oum has been lucky enough not to have encountered any major problems with the censorship office thus far. “They do not have any real guidelines, but at the end of the day, they are employees who just want to do their job. And the only feedback they gave me was to tone down a few scenes, but nothing was ever censored.” According to Na‘oum, censorship should be lifted, if and only if, the age rating system is diligently applied. “I am against censorship, but we must make sure that underage youth do not bribe their way into the movie theater to see rated movies…Television channels must also air their content at appropriate timings based on the nature of that content,” she adds. Na‘oum strongly urges parents to play a role as well and monitor the content that their children watch at all times.

Despite the tumultuous years Egypt has endured, there is a glimmer of hope. Amidst the chaos, corruption, and uncertainty a legion of talented filmmakers has succeeded in creating high-quality, unconventional, and noncommercial films. These new films have sparked the interest of producers and filmgoers alike. Na‘oum applauds these new, young talents and is optimistic about the future of the country’s filmmaking industry. “I am very happy with the rise of this new independent wave. It is great that filmmakers were able to create independent content using conventional means of production and distribution.”

Now that we have the films and filmmakers, we need to promote them. Na‘oum believes that for these new independent films to get a real shot at success, the government has to be the driving force behind their distribution, at least in the beginning. “I recommend that each cinema complex dedicate one small screen to show such films, even if they do not profit from them. Not all films should be profitable,” explains Na‘oum.

With several major projects under her belt and many more projects in the making, the gifted scriptwriter has become an icon in the Arab and Egyptian entertainment industry in recent years.


1 Osama Anwar Okasha was an Egyptian screenwriter and journalist who wrote weekly for Egypt’s foremost daily newspaper, al-Ahram. He is famous for writing some of the most popular series on Egyptian television, such as the five-part series Layali el-Helmiyya (Helmiyya Nights), 1987-1995, and el-Masrawiyya (The Egyptians), 2007.
2 Son‘allah Ibrahim is an Egyptian novelist and short story writer and one of the “Sixties Generation” known for his leftist and nationalist views, which are expressed rather directly in his work. His work includes The Smell of It, Zaat, and The Committee.
3 Fathia El ‘assal was an Egyptian playwright who also wrote several television series and plays, including Nissa’ Bila Aqni‘a (Women without Masks), 1981; Segn el-Nessa, 1993; and Gawaz Safar (Passport), 1997. The late playwright was also a board member of the Egyptian Women Writers’ Union and a member of a plethora of cultural institutions, including the Union of Filmmakers, the Filmmakers’ Syndicate, and the Committee to Defend National Culture.
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