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Ancient Egyptian history and cosmology run deep throughout Moon Knight, as anyone who knows the comic or has watched the first episode of Marvel’s latest adaptation on Disney+ will have seen. The title character antihero — and his alter egos Marc Spector and Stephen Grant, all played by Oscar Isaac — is the avatar (or “Fist”) of Khonshu, the bird-skull-headed Egyptian god of the moon, who has granted Moon Knight supernatural abilities to carry out his holy vengeance. His chief foe in the series is Ethan Hawke’s Arthur Harrow, a cultist zealot closely associated with Ammit, a god also known as the “devourer of the dead,” hoping to dole out deadly justice based on future crimes.
But while this may be the very first time that a Marvel title has ventured into ancient Egyptian history — and the first to be set in the Arab world (as Moon Knight progresses, much of the action takes place in Egypt) — the series’ connection to the country doesn’t stop there, like so many other Hollywood productions do. In fact, both behind and in front of the camera, an array of top Egyptian talent was present, part of a mission for authenticity led by director and executive producer Mohamed Diab (who also happens to be Marvel’s first Arab filmmaker).
Now based in L.A. but best known in Egypt for writing major hits, such as El Gezeira, and directing acclaimed hard-hitting dramas, including Cairo 678 and the Cannes-bowing Clash, Diab — who helmed four of Moon Knight’s six episodes — says that a major part of the 200-page pitch to Marvel he put together with his writer-producer wife, Sarah Goher, was all about ensuring that his country and its citizens were correctly depicted onscreen, ducking the stereotypes and cliches so often seen.
“A big part of our pitch was avoiding the orientalist look, which always dehumanizes us,” he says. “It shows us as exotic, where women are submissive and men are evil. And it wasn’t only about representation of the people, but of the place itself.”
Although he says he doesn’t want to “name names” (he has previously pointed to Wonder Woman 1984 as a prime example), Diab claims it has been painfully obviously that most Hollywood titles set in Egypt weren’t shot there. He says it’s “disrespectful” how little attention is often paid to detail, and how regularly Cairo is shown as a mysterious and exotic city rather than the noisy, chaotic and bustling modern metropolis that it really is.
“Lots of times, Egypt is shot in a way where you only see the pyramids in the middle of the desert, even though we have pyramids in the middle of the city, if you’d just turn around,” Diab notes, likening that to “shooting Paris and seeing Big Ben in the background.”
It should be noted that not a single shot of Moon Knight was made in Egypt (due to various reasons, not least the current government and censorship issues, Hollywood cameras haven’t rolled in the country for some time). Instead, much of the show filmed in studios in Budapest, Hungary, where Diab and his family decamped for more than a year. But he brought on board a number of Egyptian creatives to help achieve his vision.
Chief among them was noted composer Hesham Nazih, who was picked to write the crucial soundtrack. A major name in his home country, having penned the music for more than 40 films including Marwen Hamed’s box office smash Blue Elephant, Moon Knight marks Nazih’s first work with both a Hollywood studio and Diab.
While he says he’s never been formally told why he got the call, Nazih points to his work scoring the music for a concert accompanying The Pharaoh’s Golden Parade in April 2021, a major cultural celebration in which 22 ancient mummies were transported from the old Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the newly built National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.
“It was a very big event on the streets of Cairo, and it was all over the news,” he says. “And a few days later, my agent received an email from Marvel asking for a demo reel.”
When he eventually spoke to Diab, the director explained that the reason he’d put his name forward was because of his admiration for the way his work “encompasses authentic Egyptian elements in a very contemporary way.” So that’s what Nazih did for Moon Knight, creating a score — particularly the main theme — that sounds both classical and oriental at first, but swiftly morphs into something more modern.
“It’s so Egyptian, but it’s also something that everyone can relate to,” says Diab of Nazih’s score, adding that he wanted the soundtrack — mixing old songs with new — to help underline the fact that Cairo is a “big urban city that never sleeps, with its own music scene, and with plenty in common with the West,” and to not resort to the standard music that feels like it’s “from the Middle Ages.”
Alongside Nazih, Diab also brought on board Ahmed Hafez as one of Moon Knight’s three editors. While he has nothing but praise for the other two (each took on two episodes), he says that Hafez — a previous collaborator who worked with him on Clash and his most recent feature, last year’s Venice-bowing Amira — brought “another taste of Egypt,” as someone else who “understood the culture.”
On the vast set in Budapest — where two entire Egyptian housing blocks were built — Diab says he would “bug” costume designer Meghan Kasperlik and production designer Stefania Cella “every single day” about the problems he had with Western productions showing Egypt and the Middle East. “But what they did was so amazing,” he says.
He appreciates that it’s not easy, particularly when it comes to smaller details that few may pick up on. But he says that these are just as important for those who are being depicted as, say, the location of the pyramids.
“With something like a woman’s veil, for example, you tie it in a certain way, and it puts you in a completely different country,” he notes.
As such, perhaps prompted by his daily bugging, both heads of department hired Egyptian assistants. “And they all did such an amazing job helping create the Egyptian feel,” says Diab, who jokes that he also gave Moon Knight‘s VFX supervisor Sean Faden “nightmares” by constantly telling him when things didn’t look like Egypt.
But it didn’t stop behind the camera. Diab pushed for Egyptian Palestinian actor and Ramy star May Calamawy to play Layla El-Faouly, a significant character from Spector’s past who wasn’t initially written as Egyptian. And for another role he brought in Egyptian British actor Khalid Abdalla, the star of The Kite Runner who also appeared in Netflix’s Oscar-nominated doc The Square (and is soon to be seen in The Crown, playing Princess Diana’s boyfriend Dodi Al-Fayed). “I always wanted to work with Khalid,” says Diab.
The authenticity of the casting extended beyond major roles, with Diab not just flying in several relatively well known Egyptian actors for smaller parts, but also an Egyptian taxi driver who he says has just one line.
“If you see someone who’s Egyptian in the show, they’re probably Egyptian!” he says, estimating that “90 percent” of the Egyptian roles — even when it came to extras — went to Egyptians.
Even before the show hit screens, Diab claims that the hard work had already proven to have worked. “Most of the extras we got were Egyptians living in Budapest, and some of them I swear were tearing up, telling me that they hadn’t been home in five years and saying how close it looked,” he says.
Alongside his own efforts, Diab is quick to salute Marvel, which he says was hugely supportive, putting a lot of effort and resources into helping him create a truly authentic look and feel not seen in a major Hollywood project before. While he had his own suggestions for key hires, ones he notes he only put forward unless he knew they were “the best” for the job, he says studio execs also had numerous ideas themselves. He also says that he heard from Marvel boss Kevin Feige that many of the Egyptian creatives he brought on board were “going to be used again.”
It’s also important not to forget Marvel’s central, key appointment: Diab himself. “I think they hired me to help reinvent themselves, and it’s not just for me, I see this across Marvel,” he says. “They wanted something from my tastes, something that felt grounded, and something completely different. I think this is Marvel reinventing themselves and giving chances to new blood.”
Should Moon Knight return for a second season, Diab has plans to up the authenticity levels further.
“We’re very, very, very eager to shoot in Egypt, because no matter how good we made it, Egypt is much more beautiful,” he says, adding he’s hoping they can try to organize a premiere in the country as the first step. Getting the permits to shoot a second season might not seem the easiest at present, but Disney+ is due to launch in the Middle East in June, allowing the country to watch Moon Knight and see how it’s being depicted onscreen, and he hopes this will help change attitudes.
“I have the feeling it’ll be a celebration, and I think Egypt is going to welcome it,” he says.
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