Script Files

Manar (pilot)

Log-line: When a missing white boy from Bay Ridge Brooklyn is suspected to be the executioner in an ISIS video, his mother, Leslie, joins forces with his Syrian best friend, Najla, to uncover the truth behind his disappearance, which implicates an entire community.

Series summary:
I imagine “Manar” as an 8-part, sixty-minute drama miniseries. Tonally, the narrative is a cross between “The Night Of” and “Broadchurch.” The story parallels a detective series front-lined by Leslie, the white 50-year old mother of the missing boy Jamie, and Najla, his 19-year old Syrian-American friend, who try to uncover the mystery of his disappearance. The heart of the narrative lies in the patchwork of characters who are interconnected to each other (as well as to Jamie) within the diverse community of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Although Jamie will remain missing throughout the series, he will appear in flashbacks and muted, dream-like memories where we cannot discern whether these moments actually happened in real life. His appearances will be in conversation with what’s going on in the present, and connected to the feelings (guilt, longing, etc.) the present characters’ have with regards to their own conflicts.

Much like “The Night Of,” “Manar” follows a crime case with cultural and political undertones, steeped in Islamaphobia and issues of racial and religious integration in a predominantly lower to middle-class New York neighborhood. And like “Broadchurch,” it drops in on a grieving family, and explores how this grief implicates a community in unexpected ways. I want “Manar” to highlight both these facets, except combine them in a way that creates characters who are not defined or limited by their ethnic backgrounds, but rather by their relationships to each other, and their shared feelings of sorrow, longing and desire to be understood or forgiven within their given circumstances.

The trajectory of the series follows Leslie and Najla eventually joining forces. There are two major hypotheses as to what happened to Jamie: one is that he was involved in a world of heavy drugs, which is what Najla attempts to trace, and the other that he may have become an Islamic extremist, which Leslie maternally believes after re-watching the hooded executioner’s eyes in the ISIS execution video. Leslie begins her journey from a place of prejudice as she tries to justify her theory, especially once she discovers Jamie’s friendships with members from the Muslim community. The front-liners in this community are Najla (Jamie’s friend and hidden love interest) who Leslie never met before, and his deli-owner boss Gunner Hassan, who she never thought was “Muslim.”

I would like the series to illuminate that by focusing so much on the distant violence of a “foreign culture,” the average white American family neglects to recognize the micro-aggressions and acts of violence that are within themselves, embedded in their own family structures and dynamics. I would like her alliance with Najla to push Leslie to realize the troubling behavior her husband Henry has had all this time, and that their son’s disappearance might have had more to do with this than with anything else. I would also like Henry to move towards this self-awareness as he breaks out in more extreme bouts of anger in his helpless guilt. Although I am open to the various conclusions that can be drawn about Jamie’s whereabouts in the end of the series, I would like none of the main “Muslim” characters to be (or become) “terrorists” or “extremists.”

Some of the basic plot-points and character details I would like hit in the series are as follows: (1) a comraderie between Gunner Hassan and Ali (Najla’s younger brother) in their mutual interest in rap music, (2) physically and emotionally violent acts by Henry within and beyond the household against his wife and the community, (3) a budding romance between Najla and Gunner Hassan, (4) Henry’s uncanny attraction to Najla, (5) Henry’s affair with Detective Miller, (6) the rising conflict between Gunner Hassan and his landlord Sayid (Najla and Ali’s father) which becomes a tribal Shiite-Sunni battle, (7) the drug scene that surfaces within the predominantly white community, (8) exposing Henry’s prescription to Oxycodone and revealing that Jamie stole pills from him, (9) exposing Professor Gurmani as one of Jamie’s drug clients, (10) revealing Dalia as Detective Miller’s daughter, (11) exploring the subtle attraction and friendship between Dalia and Najla, (12) the romance between Professor Semiha and Sayid, (13) Leslie’s attraction to Sayid, (14) Ali finding sneakers signed by LeBron James by the East River, (15) Sayid selling these sneakers in his store, not knowing they were Jamie’s.

Pilot Synopsis:
2014, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Leslie, a white middle-class woman is haunted by a paralyzing mixture of hope and grief as she yearns to find a lead on her son Jamie, who has been missing for six months. She sits in her son’s empty bedroom, holding his toy rabbit with a loose eye. She shuts and reopens her eyes to find Jamie seated on the bed, holding the rabbit. He suddenly rips the rabbit’s eye off. Leslie shuts and reopens her eyes again to find herself in the present.

Numb inside her home, Leslie drifts away from her husband, Henry, who is unsuccessful in pulling her out of this depression. In the morning of the six-month anniversary of Jamie’s disappearance, Leslie comes across a newly published ISIS execution video online.

That same morning, Najla, a Syrian American, and her younger recluse brother Ali are on their way to school in a yellow bus. Najla drops off Ali at school, fearful that he may be the victim of bullying once again. She reminds him that she won’t be picking him up from school today, and walks over to her university. On the way, she encounters a white guy and his clan, who taunt her verbally, inviting her to a nightclub. The white guy recognizes her as the girl with the “film project about the missing boy.” She successfully stands her ground, and keeps walking.

Najla attends her favorite film class taught by her mentor, Professor Semiha. After class, Professor Semiha asks Najla about her film project, and Najla tells her that she has been struggling to get people to speak about Jamie, and that no one seems to have much to say. Professor Semiha tries to check in with her to make sure she is taking care of herself, grieving healthily, and that perhaps she should take a break from her project. Najla refuses to believe that Jamie might be dead, and leaves.

In the meantime, Gunner Hassan tends to his deli, listening to news about the ISIS execution video. He is visited by a friend who tells him that he’ll be able to MC tonight. Moments later, he is visited by a memory of Jamie, wearing an apron, helping him out in the deli like he used to. The vision is interrupted when Gunner Hassan receives a call from his grandmother telling him that their landlord showed up at their door because their rent is past due.

Henry tries to cure his headache, seated alone in his principal office. He takes a few pills, and is interrupted by a visit from Detective Kiara Miller who was referred to him by the math teacher. She tries ask about Jamie’s case, and offers to help the Pearsons. Their conversation is interrupted by a school bullying incident.

Henry tends to Ali, who has been beaten. When the school nurse mentions that the only contact they have on file is his sister Najla’s, Henry recognizes the name, and asks the nurse to call her up.

Meanwhile, ignoring all calls, Najla tries to film an interview with one of Jamie’s teachers, Professor Gurmani, who admits that Jamie was selling Oxycodone to his classmates, and that he threatened Professor Gurmani by saying he would lie to the Dean, telling him that Professor Gurmani sold him the drugs.

Najla, confused by this information, heads out onto the streets, and finds herself in front of the Pearson home, where she is haunted by a memory of Jamie. In this memory, Jamie speaks to Najla in Arabic, trying to impress her. He asks her why she never told him her middle name, which her late mother had given her. She tells him that her middle name is “Manar,” which means “guiding light.” Najla is broken out of her trance when she notices Leslie staring at her through the window. She immediately walks away. As she does this, she finally receives the phone call about Ali.

Leslie watches Najla walk down the street in a hurry. The TV is on in the background about news regarding the ISIS execution video. Leslie flips through old photos of Jamie. She heads up to his bedroom, and lies in Jamie’s bed. She notices something wedged between the wall and the bed. She pulls out an English-Arabic Dictionary.

Najla is in school about to pick up Ali when she is interrupted by Henry. He tries to reassure her that they will get to the bottom of this bullying incident, and asks her how she’s been. Najla avoids further conversation, and leaves with Ali.

Najla and Ali sit with their father Sayid in their home. Sayid unsuccessfully tries to question Ali about what happened, and ends up driving him away to his room. Najla tries to appease her father as they share a moment remembering Najla’s late mother. Najla tells her father that she has to be out late tonight. Sayid urges her to be careful, and wishes she wouldn’t wear her hijab for show. Najla ignores this, and leaves the house.

Seated inside a car, Henry receives a phone call from Leslie, which he ignores. His car is parked right by Verrazzano-Narrows bridge. He touches his bruised knuckles, then gets out of the car. He lets his shoes touch the water. The he walks over to brick wall of the bridge. Methodically, he starts punching it with his bare knuckles.

Leslie, unable to reach her husband, is sprawled on a table, looking through the English-Arabic dictionary. She notices a few circled Arabic words: “absolute,” “devote,” “fair trade,” “hands,” “illuminate,” “love,” “pain,” “sacred.” She has Jamie’s laptop, which has stickers from his university, open in front of her. She looks through his folders. She finds essays for school. She keeps searching until she comes across a few photos, in particular, one that is slightly blurred with half of Najla’s face. Leslie clocks this. She goes on his Facebook, checks his private messages, pictures of friends, etc. She finally looks at this Facebook wall, noticing a post from today by a Salih Ismail, who doesn’t have a profile photo. He has posted in Turkish and Arabic, which Leslie translates online to: “May Allah be with you through the light.” Leslie tries calling Henry again, but this time, his phone is switched off.

In a tiny BedStuy nightclub, a soul jam band plays as Najla watches from a corner. She notices the same white guy from before, talking to a few others discreetly. She sees them exchange a handshake with cash and a plastic bag. She tries to film them, when suddenly Gunner Hassan appears on stage, starting his MC set with the soul jam band. Najla recognizes him. In her distraction, she loses sight of the white guy. She tries to move between herds of sweaty people, trying to locate the white guy. She is interrupted by a girl, Dalia, who asks her if she’s looking for someone. Dalia tries to make small talk, but sees that Najla is distracted. She gives Najla her number and disappears.

Najla shuts herself in the club bathroom, trying to look through what she filmed of the white guy just before. She tries to look closely at their handshake. Once she leaves the bathroom, she is confronted by the white guy, whose entourage grab her camera from her and shove it to the ground. They corner her, when Gunner Hassan notices this and breaks it up. He recognizes Najla.

Najla and Gunner Hassan leave the club. They share a tense moment as Najla tells him to leave her alone. They part ways.

Najla, in the subway, inspects her camera. She tries to watch the footage again, but her camera won’t turn on.

Najla walks down her neighborhood streets, when she passes by the Pearson home again. She notices the only light turned on upstairs, in Jamie’s room. Jamie appears to her again.

Meanwhile in Jamie’s room, Leslie has rummaged through his things, turning his drawers and wardrobe inside out. She collects a bunch of his photos and goes back to the living room. It is completely dark, apart from the light of her laptop. She looks at her laptop, walking towards it slowly. The ISIS execution video is on the screen. She watches it. Then re-watches it, staring at it intently.

Najla’s vision with Jamie is interrupted when she sees Henry’s car pulling in. She hides to make sure she isn’t seen. She watches Henry walk into the house.

Leslie, breathing heavily, starts laying out photos of Jamie one by one onto the table. She focuses on his eyes in the photos. Henry enters the house, but she is too distracted to care. She replays the video, recognizing someone or something she wished she didn’t.

  • Melis Aker
    "Field, Awakening" (previously called "Field, Interrupted"), "Manar," "Gilded Isle," "Bee"
  • Project Type:
    Television Script
  • Number of Pages:
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Language:
    Arabic, English, Turkish
  • First-time Screenwriter:
  • Student Project:
Writer Biography - Melis Aker

Melis Aker is a writer, actor, musician from Turkey. She is currently a 2050 Playwriting fellow at NYTW and an Ars Nova Play Group member. She was commissioned by the Atlantic Theatre for their Middle Eastern Mixfest to develop her play Scraps and Things, and has been invited to join the Middle East America writers room at the Lark.

Melis' plays include: Field, Awakening (Sundance Lab semifinalist, Berkeley Rep Ground Floor finalist, Lark Van Lier New Voices Fellowship finalist) which performed at Signature Theatre's New Plays Fest, Golden Thread's New Threads series, Corkscrew Fest; Manar (Columbia@Roundabout finalist, Theatre503 Playwriting Award semi-finalist) was at The New Group’s New Works series, LaMaMa, Golden Thread’s ReOrient Festival, LPAC’s Rough Draft Festival, and featured by Silk Road Rising on NPX; 330 Pegasus (Lark Jerome New York Fellowship finalist) received a Noor Highlight series reading at NYTW; Azul, Otra Vez was workshopped at NYTW and BRIC; When My Mama was a Hittite (Columbia@Roundabout finalist) and Gilded Isle are under development at NYTW.

Acting credits include "The Blacklist: Redemption" (NBC), Love in Afghanistan (Arena Stage/Roundabout), Tear A Root From the Earth (Kennedy Center/New Ohio), We Live in Cairo (New World Stages). Melis gave a TEDx talk in Ankara, and works as Ayad Akhtar's assistant. MFA Playwriting (Columbia), Acting (RADA), BA Drama & Philosophy (Tufts).

Rep: Kevin Lin at CAA (literary).

Add Writer Biography
Writer Statement

“Manar” is based on a play of mine with the same name, which received multiple development opportunities ranging from readings at The New Group (2018), LaMaMa (2017), LPAC (2017) and Columbia University (2016) in New York, as well as multiple workshops with Golden Thread Productions (2017) in San Francisco. The play was also a semifinalist for the Theatre503 Playwriting Award in London (2016), and a finalist for the Roundabout Theatre’s Columbia@Roundabout series (2017).

My desire to adapt the play into a series was encouraged by my agent Kevin Lin, and novelist/playwright Ayad Akhtar, who is also my mentor. The pilot itself has been in existence since November 2018, and has had two drafts in total, which is why I still consider it to be in an earlier stage of development, even though the play and main kernel of the story have had a longer life.

In the summer of 2014, I overheard two Anglo-Saxon women speaking among themselves on the tube in London. I heard fragments of their conversation, enough to discern that one of the women had a missing son, and that she was afraid, in the midst of all the ISIS attacks happening at the time, that he might have been involved. At the time, I had found this thought to be absurd, but as I began to replace my unnecessary judgement with curiosity, I was haunted by the notion. I began to do some research and discovered a Huffington column called “Mothers of Isis:” women who, without any formal certainties apart from their maternal instincts, believed they recognized their children in ISIS videos, tracing their whereabouts from link to link, trolling online for endless hours, days, months.

Today, cultural, national, religious and ethnic conflicts have escalated to the level of the digital. Once with a designated time and location, ideological battlegrounds used to be tangible and physical. Today, the time of battle and the battlefield itself are online, intangible, and of course, unpredictable. International warfare, propaganda and recruitment are carried out on a medium that is ephemeral, much like memory and grief itself.

As a Turkish woman who moved to Brooklyn at age 24, I have had encounters with Islamaphobia in neighborhoods where diverse communities lived in close proximity, both in distance and social class. I was driven to begin writing as I anchored myself in the viewpoint of Najla: a Syrian American teenager who chooses to be typed and defined by her culture by choosing to put on a hijab even though she doesn’t necessarily have faith, or familial pressures to follow such dictums. Her passion for film, her friendship and innocent romance with the missing white boy all paint the picture of a girl who tries to march to the beat of her own drum, while trying to uncover what happened to her friend as she starts forming a relationship with his prejudiced mother. As I try to navigate my own identity between Turkey and America to locate my own truth, I find myself drawn to characters who are undergoing a similar journey and duality – pulled between two truths that carry equal amounts of weight.