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'People and their stories inspire me': Egyptian scriptwriter Mariam Naoum

Ahram Online speaks to scriptwriter Mariam Naoum about her latest TV drama series Taht El Saytara scheduled to air this Ramadan

Nourhan Tewfik , Tuesday 16 Jun 2015
Mariam Naoum
Scriptwriter Mariam Naoum (Photo:Alaa Elkamhawi)
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Over the past years, scriptwriter Mariam Naoum has established herself as a skillful sculptor of stories. With a repertoire comprising the film Wahed Sefr (One-Zero, 2009) and an array of TV drama series: El-Shamaa El-Ahmar (Stamped with Red Wax, 2010), co-written with the late Nadine Shams and Naglaa El-Hiddini,  Zaat (2013), Moga Harra (Heat Wave, 2013) also co-written with Nadine Shams, Segn El-Nesa (Women's Prison, 2014) and the current TV show Gamea Moanas Salem (Feminine Plural), Naoum as a woman of unbridled passion. She moulds raw works of art steeped in genuineness.  

Behind her intricate craft are years of education and experimentations. Graduating from the Screenwriting Section at the Higher Institute of Cinema in 2000, she remembers her professor and mentor Yehia Azmy with much gratitude.

She spent the nine following years experimenting with short films, children’s films, TV ads, and documentaries before undertaking scriptwriting for TV drama series and feature films six years ago.

“People and their stories inspire me”, Naoum tells Ahram Online, as we sit for an interview a few days before the debut screening of her latest series Taht El Saytara (Under Control).

It is how she continues to speak back and to the street, with its angst and hopes, that renders her repertoire a raw and authentic representation of the Egyptian society.

Taht El Saytara (Under Control)

This Ramadan, Naoum’s followers will discover Taht El Saytara.

Directed by Tamer Mohsen and produced by Gamal El-Adl, the series stars Nelly Karim, Dhaffer Abdeen, Hany Adel, Ahmed Wafik, Jihan Fadel and Mohamed Farrag.

Dealing with the topic of drug addiction, the series is the third collaboration between Naoum and Nelly Karim, in which Karim plays the role of Mariam, a former drug addict who relapses. The series tackles the question of what can incite a human being to become an addict, or overcome addiction.

Naoum reveals she was already interested in the topic and was conducting her third year of research when the idea of Taht El Saytara was first introduced in 2010. The series, she asserts, does not target drug addicts but rather the circle of family and friends around them. 

“Our society shames and dishonours whoever battles drug addiction. They are rejected and brutally denied participation in society. But what happens is that, if society fails to take in and contains former addict, he will be doomed to fall in the same pitfall again."

Taht El Saytara therefore becomes an attempt to guide the addict’s inner circle to comprehend this state and understand the tools they have to help them. It tugs at the notions of forgiveness towards -- and acceptance of -- the addict, and also discusses how “the families find it difficult to acknowledge that their sons or daughters are addicts, which only prolongs the duration of this problem,” Naoum continues.

As is typical of her work, she preceded the writing process with a profound preparation phase, which, as she says, “comprises meeting with the people who went through the experience.”

Naoum communicated with an addiction psychiatrist who helped her understand the intricacies of this sickness through facilitating discussions with patients and former drug addicts. This resulted in copious conversations with real-life characters – key to the success of the preparation process – allowing her to “witness and collect the greatest possible array of examples which are helpful when moulding the story.”

Taht El-Saytara
Still from Taht El Saytara (Photo: Series' Facebook page).

Interweaving real life and art as social responsibility

In her cinematic work, Naoum always finely embeds real-life stories into the writing and braids the people's experiences into the characters. The process is dictated by Naoum’s profound sensitivity and how she mulls over the happenings unfolding around her.

“Someone once told me that the more sensitive you are to what is unfolding around you, the more capable you become of transferring what you see. And while this sensitivity can be draining at times, I decided to use whatever tools I have to transfer such encounters,” she explains.

Naoum’s art therefore speaks back and to an idea that preoccupies her. An audacity canopies her work. She neither conceals nor seals the cracks. She believes that works of art have a social responsibility, a fact that she stumbled upon while working on Zaat, and which represents her artistic philosophy and the angle she chooses to take.

This amalgam of art and social responsibility is particularly evident in Naoum’s current show Gamea Moanas Salem (Feminine Plural) which is presented by outspoken Egyptian journalist Reem Maged and presents inspiring examples of women who Naoum says “are from different social classes and are able to fight through life on all levels.”

The weekly show started airing on both ONTV and the Arabic language station of German broadcaster Deutsche Welle on 2 May, before it was suspended from ONTV. 

The choice of women presented in the show’s episodes are a collective decision by Naoum, Magued and the programme’s director.

“It too relates to the idea of social responsibility that I’m interested in. In as much I focus on depicting truth which most of the time is agonizing, I find it important to also transfer anything positive unfolding in reality. It’s important to see both sides,” Naoum explains. 

Even though her personal poignancies, thoughts and aspirations seep into this creative process, Naoum says that she does not force her point of view upon her work. In fact, Naoum’s work proves that she’s a staunch advocate of people and their stories, which as she proceeds to explain, “is never a problem because what happens on the street speaks to me as well. It so happens that the equation is a harmonious one in that by transferring reality, I am also expressing myself.”

Gamea Moanas Salem
Still from Gamea Moanas Salem (Photo: the program's Facebook page)

Adaptations of literary works

Naoum’s craft is even more pronounced in how she creates TV drama adaptations of literary works, and which is evident in her chef d’oeuvres Zaat, Moga Hara and Segn El-Nesa.

A literature aficionado, Naoum had worked on adaptations of literary works, and particularly short stories, since she was a student at the Higher Institute of Cinema. But she says that the process is not, as some assume, a blind adaptation of the literary text but rather allows for -- and welcomes -- the scriptwriter’s own creativity. 

In the case of Zaat, Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel only sufficed for 10 episodes of the series. To create the 20 remaining episodes, Naoum embarked on a period of research on Egypt’s social history, looking into history books and watching documentary films, as well as talking to people who witnessed this historical period.

The same applies to last year’s Segn El-Nesa, in which Naoum says she was even less dependable on the literary text, a theatrical play bearing the same title by the late author Fatheya El-Assal.

She explains that visits to the Qanater Prison revealed many changes that had taken place since writers like El-Assal, Nawal El-Saadawi and Salwa Bakr and others tackled those issues.

Those changes incited her to refrain from abiding by the text and to write her own story.

“We kept the play’s original name in celebration of the late El-Assal without whom the inspiration would not have not come about,” she adds.

It was while working on Moga Hara, an adaptation of late Egyptian screenwriter and journalist Osama Anwar Okasha’s novel Monkhafad El-Hend El-Mawsemi, that Naoum remained most loyal to the original literary text. In the series, which she co-wrote with late Egyptian scriptwriter Nadine Shams, she introduced relatively minor changes, which included “changing the time frame, characters’ ages and the network of relations.”

Naoum’s next project will be an adaptation of Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher’s Wahat Al-Ghuroub (Sunset Oasis, 2007) which will be produced by Al Adl Group and screened in Ramadan 2016.

Naoum also oversees scriptwriting workshops, where she helps budding writers by assessing their work, and suggesting solutions to problems they encounter with the texts. The aim, Naoum explains, is to “examine how they can reach the aspired results without forcing my opinions or thoughts on them.”

She has already cooperated with alternative film centre Cimatheque, and is currently working on a similar project with Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

She is also scheduled to deliver such assistance as part of a workshop by the Nadine Shams Foundation for Supporting Young Scriptwriters, which is scheduled to launch after Ramadan.

Segn El-Nesa
Still from Segn El-Nesa (Photo: Series' Facebook page)

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