Umm Kulthum biopic will be '50 per cent' music, says writer Ahmed Mourad

The Egyptian author says writing the screenplay for the highly-anticipated film was 'terrifying'

Ahmed Mourad is writing a screenplay about Egyptian singer and songwriter Umm Kulthum. Photo: Sharjah Book Authority
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A highly anticipated Umm Kulthum biopic will introduce the revered Egyptian singer to a new audience, says screenwriter Ahmed Mourad.

Ever since El Set (The Lady) was announced in February as part of the launch of Big Time Investment Fund – a partnership between the Saudi General Entertainment Authority and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture – details surrounding the film have been trickling in.

Speaking to The National ahead of his appearance at International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, Mourad confirms the film is already in production in Egypt. But no release date has been set.

“I have been on set nearly every day and been present particularly in important scenes. I am there mostly just to make some tweaks with the actors and directors because their viewpoint may be different to mine, and that can be the inspiration to make those important changes that make the scenes better,” he says.

“There are still discussions to be had about the release as there are certain times of the calendar where you can release an important film like this in Egypt, for example. Also there could be a possibility that we would want to premiere this film in an international festival.”

Three years in the making, Mourad would not reveal if El Set will follow Umm Kulthum’s life in chronological order, but says the important milestones of her career will be covered.

Chances are, there will be a lot to squeeze in.

Born Fatima Ibrahim as-Sayed El Beltagi in December 1898 in the village of Tamay e-Zaharya near the Nile Delta, Umm Kulthum had an extraordinary life that not only challenged societal norms – as a child, she once entered a talent contest dressed as a boy to avoid controversy – but also inspired the likes of former Egyptian King Farouk and his Pan-Arabist successor Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“The responsibility of presenting this story is terrifying,” Mourad admits. “She has this level of almost sanctity surrounding her because of her amazing achievements, but I want to try to respectfully break some of that shell to show who she really is and extract some details about her personality and life that hasn’t been shown before.”

A familiar and omnipresent element to the film will be the timeless music, with songs such as Alf Leila wa Leila and Entra Omry set to feature.

“While it's not a musical I can say the music occupies nearly half of the film,” Mourad says. “And I think that has to be the case for an artist like Umm Kulthum because her music provided a soundtrack to some seismic changes in the Arab world and still lives on today.”

Mourad's pedigree, with his literary works known for their cinematic flair, makes him well-suited for the task, as evidenced by the seven drafts required to perfect the final script.

Born in Cairo, Mourad released his debut novel Vertigo – a bloodthirsty tale of murder and political intrigue – in 2007, and it was hailed by critics for its Arabic take on the modern literary thriller.

In The National's review of the book, Vertigo was praised for its “thrills and spills worthy of a good pulp-fiction romp,” and the book was adapted for a 2012 Ramadan series starring Hend Sabry.

As well as being shortlisted for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Mourad's third novel The Blue Elephant – a taut thriller set in a psychiatric ward in a Cairo hospital – spawned a film and sequel starring Karim Abdel Aziz and Nelly Karim.

While Mourad has written the screenplays for all of his adapted novels as well as stand-alone films The Original (2017) and Kira We El Gin (2022), he says the adaptations are incidental. “If I wrote my books with an eye on the big screen then I will be writing as a producer and not an author which is really what I view myself as. If I am honest with you, if someone gives me a million dollars I wouldn’t write a screenplay again and would focus on my novels but life doesn’t work like that,” he says.

“Then again, there is something about the magic of cinema in its ability to heighten certain emotions. I remember watching Kira We El Gin in the cinema and people were crying in certain scenes and I thought ‘well, I didn’t intend those moments to be that intense on paper.”

Mourad documented his writing journey in his 2022 book Al Qatil Lil Mubtadi-een. Translated to Murder for Beginners, it functions as both a creative memoir and guide for writing Arabic mystery and thriller novels. The book will form the basis of his writing masterclass at the congress in Abu Dhabi.

Written in conversational style, the publication provides tips on plot construction (“a process of constant escalation”) and crafting that perfect twist, while providing anecdotes on his experience working in film and television. Mourad partly took inspiration from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), wanting to provide an Arab perspective on the art form.

“It is much needed because there are not a lot of books like this in the Arabic market and instead we have to rely on translations that are full of western examples that some may not relate to,” he says. “I wanted to explain the process from my perspective, how to seek inspiration from our surroundings and provide examples from our rich literature and film.”

That said, some aspects of the craft are universal. “There are no real short cuts,” Mourad says. “Behind every great book or screenplay there was a lonely person working in his study on his laptop.”

The International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries takes place on Sunday at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Entry is free upon registration at

Updated: April 26, 2024, 6:02 PM