'Very few works reference social history of Siwa': Mariam Naoum on Sunset Oasis

Mohamed Atef, Sunday 18 Jun 2017

Scriptwriter Mariam Naoum worked on the first 18 episodes of the Ramadan series Wahet Al Ghoroub (Sunset Oasis), directed by Kamla Abu Zekry and based on Bahaa Taher's award winning novel

Mariam Naoum
Mariam Naoum

Mariam Naoum is among the most renowned scriptwriters of her generation. She rose to prominence in 2009 with her film One, Zero, and lately with her Ramadan series, Sunset Oasis, has proven very popular.

Ahram Online (AO): Why did you choose to create a television adaptation of Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis?

Mariam Naoum (MN): I am a great literature enthusiast. When I read the novel, I was immediately fascinated by its characters and its magic settings. The novel really fantastic, it transports us into unusual worlds. I was immediately tempted to write a scenario that took place in Siwa, especially one set in that period of history, with these historical events, which are seldom tackled in literary works.

I have had the idea in mind since 2012. Meanwhile, I worked on other series. Then one day I suggested a television adaptation of Sunset Oasis to Gamal El-Adl. He was very enthusiastic about it and we started to work on it.

AO: What were the main challenges you faced?

MN: The same challenge always arises when trying to adapt a literary text for the screen; that is, how to transform the characters’ intangible feelings into visuals, how to give an image to these feelings. Most literary texts express that through inner voices, through “me’s” who tell their story. The scriptwriter thus needs to work on externalising that. This is exactly what happened in Sunset Oasis.

There was also the challenge of representing a historical period, one for which it is difficult to find in-depth references, notably visual ones. This made the right choices of direction, accessories and such, a challenge. There almost no works covering the social history of Siwa.

When adapting the story of Zaat by Sonallah Ibrahim, I found quite a few references about the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but it was not the case for the oasis of Siwa in the 19th century. I essentially had to rely on the memoires of people who lived in that time and on some travel writings.

AO: Would you say there is a bit of exoticism or of orientalism to this work?

MN: This is what I tried to avoid at all costs. When I was faced with details that seemed incompatible with Egyptian culture, I would not hesitate to use my own imagination to reconstitute the images of this time period.

AO: Were you in contact with the novelist, Bahaa Taher, while writing the script?

MN: First of all, I would like to thank him for allowing the screen adaptation of his novel. We had a few conversations about the novel. Then I was given complete freedom to do what I wanted with it.

AO: Is there any political projection or are there links to the present context?

MN: If yes, it is completely unintentional. I practically did not change the events of the novel. I can understand that some people made the link between the bombing in Alexandria in the 19th century and the revolution of January 2011; sometimes the characters talk like Egyptians did five years ago, but it is not intended.

History repeats itself. How could I avoid this, for fear of being accused of political projection and wanting to twist these historical events to serve my point of view? The uprisings that followed the bombing of Alexandria, the store break-ins, etc, all these details come from the documents of the official investigation at the time. I did not invent anything.

AO: Do you think that the visual aspect took over, overshadowing the scriptwriting?

MN: When it comes to historical works, the visual aspect (settings, accessories, lighting) always grabs the viewers’ attention, but it is not what defines the work. We cannot judge it on the sole basis of these attributes. A dramatic work, whether it is a film or a television series, should be judged differently, as a whole, while taking into account its different components.

AO: You worked on this series up to episode 18. After that, scriptwriter Hala Al-Zaghandy took over, following a disagreement with the team. What do you have to say about that?

MN: I am sure that Hala Al-Zaghandy tried to stay as loyal as possible to the spirit of the first half, so as to maintain the rhythm. The director, Kamla Abu Zekry, set out and preserved a very particular rhythm from the beginning, one that some people deemed a bit slow.

AO: Was there any coordination, with regards to the writing?

MN: I worked directly with Ahmad Badawi, who wrote the dialogues, but I am not at all in contact with Hala Al-Zaghandy. In the end, it is up to the public to judge the work in its entirety.

AO: So far, you have worked on quite a few works with director Kamla Abu Zekry, and you’ve proven to be a successful duo. Will the current disagreement put an end to these collaborations?

MN: I have worked with Kamla, but with several others as well. I have even worked on television series with other directors.

AO: Do you have any upcoming projects?

MN: Yes, I am currently working on a television series for next Ramadan. I cannot reveal the details yet.  

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