'Mark warned me about wandering the streets alone. Men keep following me.’‘You’re a beautiful woman.’
Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) is a stressed, middle-aged, married woman from Canada. She edits a magazine while her husband works abroad for long stretches in Gaza. Tareq (Alexander Siddig) is a bourgeois café owner who plays chess, smokes Cleopatras and never recovered from a broken heart in his student days in Damascus. When Juliette comes to Cairo to for a dream holiday with her husband and finds he’s still stuck in Palestine, she turns to her husband’s Egyptian ex-colleague.
Cairo Time, 2009, dir. Rubba Nada, 2009
Of course there are a million different versions of any big city, and I’m not surprised that this world of luxury Zamalek hotels and tense, hot, autumn-leaves romance is a million miles from the Cairo I know. But this film takes a woman and makes her incapable of facing ‘the Orient’ without a male protector. Juliette wanders the streets for a morning before the sexual harassment drives her to seek out Tareq again, and from then on he becomes her guide, her protector, and inevitably her lover.
He takes her out in a felucca and saves her life when a motor-scooter swerves across her path. He’s suave, carefully-spoken and undeniably very handsome- the tempting Eastern mirror held up to her Western marriage. Although the movie is careful not to posit Tareq as representative of all Egyptians, he is chosen by Juliette as her window onto Egypt, and it’s a window into the past, an Omar Sherif movie, oriental, nostalgic, ageing, moneyed perspective onto a city that refuses to slow down or halt the march of progress even when it’s ugly and dirty. ‘I like Cairo the way it was,’ he sighs, gazing into her blue eyes.
Cairo Time is a film about looking, seeing and how our perspective can alienate us or bring us together. The director Ruba Nadda, a Canadian of Middle Eastern origin, is surely no stranger to the work of Edward Said, and the husband in the UN refugee camps is not made into a false hero. Neither does Tareq allow Juliette to wallow in her sympathy for the poor, interjecting sarcastically ‘You could save the whole Middle East!’ when she complains about the poverty and injustice. Yet while the minimal dialogue is in itself not too cringey, the other Egyptian characters in the movie only have to be caricatures, because they are not really perceived independently by Juliette, they are shown to her by Tareq.
We hear the old story of why Arab men are dangerous from a French girl she meets at the Embassy, and once again Juliette functions as a silent, unjudging receptacle for someone else’s perspective: ‘He became very possessive and demanding. They always do. They start out great and then... you know. But he was a great lover.’ I think that moment confirms what we suspected: Juliette’s moment of Oriental passion will remain a moment only, a drop in Cairo time, and she will stay with the alienated Western security of her fond but absent husband. In the best moments this makes for a spark of tragedy between her and Tareq; in the worst it becomes a stereotyped fantasy of a mid-life affair.
There are moments of clever humour- the one-liner when they go to Alexandria: ‘You know the library burned down... You’d be surprised how many people ask me this.’ And while corny, the moment when she calls his galabeyya a dress comes off lightly and deftly. But these don’t do enough to confront the film’s bewildering message of who is watching whom, and who is revealing what. The Orientalist gaze is the focus of the movie, and often in a troubling way. We’re tourists at a double remove, watching a woman who chooses to see Egypt through the eyes of a man, a romantic interest and a strong silent type.
Reviews laud Patricia Clarkson’s mesmerising performance, yet although it’s beautiful and captivating throughout the movie, there’s something troubling about her passivity, reminiscent of the gorgeous Agnes Aynes lost in Egypt with Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik.
Her gaze when uninfluenced by Tareq is uncritical and passive to the point of absurdity:
On the Nile: ‘It’s very beautiful.’
To the chambermaid: ‘Your hijab is very beautiful.’
To a peasant girl who shows her into her basic home: ‘Is this your bedroom? It’s very beautiful.’
She tells Tareq the magazine she works for is about major issues- he buys a copy and finds it’s a Cosmo-style women’s magazine. He is The Orient, so he can peel away these secrets from her while remaining mysterious and unreadable himself. And when she talks about the poverty she sees, he can reinforce the mystery of the Orient in defence, with those irritating sudden bursts of anger that exotic men in movies always seem to have, despite the fact that his perspective is that of the caring bourgeois loath to rock the hierarchical boat which has left him so comfortably-off:
‘So many of these children are left to fend for themselves and no one seems to care.’
‘You don’t live here. It’s complicated!’
When Juliette, tired of waiting for her husband, gets on a bus to go to Gaza and look for him, she has to call Tareq to rescue her in the middle of the desert. It’s a moving scene because it reminds us of the relative miseries and disempowerment of the Western traveller in comparison with the oppressed people of Gaza. Juliette is stuck in the desert when they turn back the bus- a rough Israeli border guard hauls her off the bus, hands her a mobile phone and tells her to phone a friend. The gaze is this time in the eyes of the passengers looking out of the window at her, knowing they too will not be allowed to reach their destination.
When captured by the male gaze, the city has always been female. But In Cairo reinforces the idea, no less poisonous for its implicit acceptance, that for a woman traveller, the (subjective, female) city must be brought to life, incarnated, in a single, dominant man.
Cairo- transfixed in beauty
Cairo Time is slow-moving and exquisitely shot. Scene after scene shows off still images of Cairo in perfect light. The sunset over the White Desert, flashes of green from a train window across the fertile delta to Alexandria, the pyramids perfectly set behind the fountains on the embassy lawn. If the city is a woman in this film, she’s exquisitely made-up, calm and reposed in flattering light.
Something’s not quite right about the cinematography though. It’s like whoever envisaged the shooting was hearing about Cairo from someone else’s remembered cameos: a police officer helps an old lady cross the road (but where’s the traffic?); a muezzin calls to prayer observed only by the protagonist (but where are the worshippers?); a solitary man lays out a prayer mat on the bridge (but where are the hooting taxis? the passers-by politely stepping off the pavement to bypass him? the sellers of lighters, hibiscus juice, fava beans?) Even though it’s shot on location, it feels like a studio with never quite enough extras.
By making the hustle and bustle of Cairo something the protagonist needs to be protected from, the film uses the beautiful settings like desktop art: minimising the people to a few heroes and a dim horde of horny young men and poor people. But Cairo’s not like a still- it’s made for cinema because it’s constantly moving, throbbing, making noise- the people are what make it like it is. In our memories, we may dim out the hordes of school children and the men chirruping picked-up Cockney phrases to tempt tourists in order to focus onto the magic of our one-to-one with the Sphinx or the Nile, but in the moment we never can, and I don’t know why we’d want to.