Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 4 April 2020

How a Dubai banker went from accounting to writing hits for the small screen

Dubai-born Lebanese banker Raed Bou Ajram is writing regional stories with a Western spin

Raed Bou Ajram's newest show Homecoming (Al Awda) wrapped up its first season on MBC last week. Raed Bou Ajram
Raed Bou Ajram's newest show Homecoming (Al Awda) wrapped up its first season on MBC last week. Raed Bou Ajram

Raed Bou Ajram didn’t plan on becoming a screenwriter.

The Lebanese banker, who was born in Dubai, was looking for a way to unwind from his workday when he walked into The Dubai Mall’s Kinokuniya in 2011 and picked out a selection of screenwriting books. After finishing them, Bou Ajram figured he would give writing a screenplay a go, for the sake of it.

“I then tried enrolling in some online courses, but they all got cancelled for one reason or another. It was like the universe was telling me to stop or to try harder,” Bou Ajram, whose newest show, Homecoming (Al Awda), wrapped its first season on MBC4 on March 10, tells The National.

But he persevered. He downloaded more than 40 pilot scripts of some of his favourite shows, such as Breaking Bad and Arrested Development, and studied the components that made a good story. By day, he was working in banking, and by night, he was furiously writing scripts.

“There’s a science to storytelling. From the exposition to the climax and resolution, the blueprints are essentially the same,” Bou Ajram says, adding that he set out to write a story based in the Middle East, with a western storytelling approach.

“They’ve really honed the craft of screenwriting in the West, especially where character and plot development are concerned. I wanted to apply those techniques to stories that would resonate with audiences here.”

Bou Ajram completed his first screenplay, Cactus Alliance (Tahalof Al Sabar), a thriller set in the corporate world, in 2012. He casually mentioned the script to a friend of his, Lina Matta, channel director at MBC4, and she offered to have a look at it.

“I forgot about it for a while,” he says. “Almost a year later, I received a call from 03 Productions, a subsidiary of the MBC Group. They said they had read the script and wanted to pick it up. I was thrilled. It was a surreal experience, seeing the writing grow into a fully fledged show.” Cactus Alliance debuted on MBC4 in March 2014. It was a 15-episode mini-series with a pan-Arab cast that was broadcast once a week.

“The original script was in English. I’m more comfortable writing in that language. It was translated to Arabic for the series,” says Bou Ajram. “Cactus Alliance did well, despite the fact that the episodes were a week apart. When it aired again back-to-back as a rerun 15 weeks later, the ratings doubled.”

Raed Bou Ajram's first show, The Cactus Alliance, debuted on MBC4 in 2014. It was a 15 episode miniseries with a pan-Arab cast that aired once a week. Raed Bou Ajram/MBC
Raed Bou Ajram's first show, The Cactus Alliance, debuted on MBC4 in 2014. It was a 15 episode miniseries with a pan-Arab cast that aired once a week. Raed Bou Ajram / MBC

Inspired by the positive feedback, he immediately began working on his next script, Homecoming, in 2014. The 30-episode drama revolves around the return of a successful novelist, Nassim, to her home town in Lebanon after seven years.

But, as confident as Bou Ajram was with his new script, showrunners at MBC were not ready to take it on in 2014. “It felt like a monumental feat for me, to be able to finish a 30-episode series. I showed it to MBC and they seemed interested at first, but they ended up shelving it. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time then.”

He says he was heartbroken, but didn’t have time to dwell on it. His career as a banker took over and he set out to complete his chartered financial analyst qualification, which takes three to four years.

“When I wasn’t working, I was studying. So there really was no time to write.” Once he finished his CFA course in 2018, he found the urge to go back to screenwriting. This time he was set on creating a psychological thriller that he says was inspired by Kill Bill, Ocean’s 11 and Girl, Interrupted.

In Homecoming, Nassim, a succesful novelist, returns to Lebanon from Australia after a seven year absence. However, a series of murders soon start taking place. Raed Bou Ajram/MBC
In 'Homecoming', Nassim, a successful novelist, returns to Lebanon from Australia after a seven year absence. However, a series of murders soon start taking place. Raed Bou Ajram / MBC

His meeting with the MBC team about this story brought Homecoming to their attention again. This time, they were eager to take it on. As with Cactus Alliance, Bou Ajram wrote the script in English and it was then adapted into Arabic. Production began in October 2019, and the show premiered on February 2 this year.

He says the show can stand as a single season and has a satisfying finale. “But there is room for the story to go forward, he adds. “We’ll just wait and see.”

Homecoming is currently streaming on MBC Shahid

Updated: March 22, 2020 06:55 PM

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