DUBAI: In contemporary Egyptian cinema, no composer has made a greater impact than Hesham Nazih. Across more than 40 films over an award-winning 20-year-span, Nazih has heightened each project he’s scored, from “Son of Rizk” to “Blue Elephant.” Now, the composer for Marvel’s TV show “Moon Knight,” Nazih has officially made the crossover that only a handful of true international greats, such as Ennio Morricone and A.R. Rahman, have pulled off before him — an opportunity he didn’t take lightly.
“I knew this was huge step for me,” Nazih tells Arab News. “Working with Marvel was a game changer for my career. I had countless thoughts in my head, and I had to fight a lot of them off.”
“Moon Knight” is a singular work for Marvel Studios in more ways than one. Starring Academy Award nominees Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke as well as Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy (from TV’s “Ramy”), it tells the story of a man with dissociative identity disorder plagued by ancient Egyptian deities in a show that is equal parts comedy, horror and Indiana Jones-esque adventure.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s a show that, from its very conception, refused to follow the usual path of Orientalist oversimplification of Egypt — both ancient and modern — that Hollywood has historically taken. Instead, Marvel brought in Egyptian voices both in front of and behind the camera, including director Mohamed Diab, editor Ahmed Hafez, and Nazih.
At first, the composer says, he was paralyzed by the responsibility of identity, questioning how many Egyptian musical traditions to consciously imbue in the show’s score, before realizing that was only getting in his way. After all, Egypt was in his soul, and would come out in his music whether he intended it to or not.
“I decided to stop these thoughts and just enjoy the moment. I told myself, ‘I'm writing music for a Marvel superhero. At my fingertips is a huge orchestra to play with the best conductors in the world.’ I let it out freely and unconsciously. I followed my emotions,” says Nazih.
It didn’t take long for him to emotionally connect with the work. As he sat in his studio in Cairo late at night, a space fitted with a bed in case he wants to spend long stretches of time focused on his work (as he often does), he began to watch the series unfold, finding himself overcome.
“What’s amazing about this show is that you can relate to, and feel for, the characters easily, with no extra explanation. It's so clear and impressive on the screen. Giving it my heart wasn't really a hard task, because it was calling to my heart all the time, really,” says Nazih.
“In episode five, for instance, during one scene, there was a moment of silence, so I stopped playing. In that moment, for the first time while playing, I had tears in my eyes. This one got me in the throat. It wasn't because of the music. It was because of the performance of Oscar Isaac. I knew how important that scene was, because it was important to me. I opted for the simplest form of scoring because it delivered instantly,” he continues.
In that moment, Nazih remembered the young boy he once was, sitting in front of a small television watching old movies, noticing how the music was what drew him in the most.
“I was maybe nine years old when I knew this is what I wanted to do. Watching those movies, I kept wondering how this was happening to me, how this music caused a gush of emotion that just (hits) you in your chest and your stomach and everywhere. I was so taken by this when I was a kid. I remember films such as ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Rocky,’ the moments they had when the music and the picture and the color and sound become one in your head and heart. I knew I wanted to do this, too. I didn’t even know what it was called, but I knew I wanted to do it,” says Nazih.
“Moon Knight,” with its throwback storytelling elements, gave Nazih the chance to create a score that was as universal as the ones he’d first fallen in love with, all with his Egyptian heart. He and Diab, however, did disagree at times as to how prominent the Egyptian elements should be, Nazih reveals.
“Mohamed wanted to build the score onto the Egyptian elements, and my idea was that the Egyptian presence is there, and it's obvious, but this is not a purely Egyptian show. It has to come out through the story authentically, and at the right moments. One of the great things about this show is that it’s meant for the whole world to watch and relate to. So it couldn’t just be for us Egyptians,” says Nazih.
Part of the issue was that Egypt and its culture is not a monolith. Egypt is a sprawling country with many cultures and musical traditions, so labeling something ‘Egyptian’ was limiting what that could mean. Because of that, the team mixed in music that captured some of the diversity of the country.
“In Egypt, we listen to different kinds of songs and types of music each and every day,” says Nazih. “You go to the street and you hear Mahreganat, or Egyptian street music. Then you find a coffee shop playing the bassoon music from 70 years ago, and then down the block a hotel has classic Egyptian jazz. It’s all here.”
When Marvel heard Nazih’s score, the feedback was instant — it had exceeded every expectation.
“They kept saying how exciting it was, how fresh it felt. It was hugely gratifying,” says Nazih.
That reaction was mirrored when the show, which debuted this week on Disney+ in the Middle East, was released internationally at the end of March. Nazih’s score has racked up millions of streams across multiple platforms, with many who have no knowledge of his Egyptian heritage or huge body of work commenting that it does what they want a great score to do: Heighten the Marvel storytelling they love so much.
That success did not go unnoticed. Diab revealed to Arab News that Marvel was considering working with Nazih on future projects. While Nazih has not been contacted yet — or perhaps has signed too many non-disclosure agreements to reveal anything — he knows his superlative work was recognized by Marvel’s execs.
“After the final episode aired internationally, (Marvel president) Kevin Feige invited us for a Zoom meeting. He said so many amazing things to me, and to everyone else as well. They’re all really amazing people. They were all helpful and nice and positive. It’s only for such people that you really want to stay up working all night to deliver and outdo yourself, reaching places that you didn’t even know you could go to,” says Nazih. “I would love to work with them all again.”