Countless movies are filmed abroad each year but none are as enticing to me as the ones whose protagonists are tourists. The 2009 film Cairo Time by director Ruba Nadda is one that fits into that category.
The character of Juliette (played by the always phenomenal Patricia Clarkson) has come to Egypt for a vacation with her husband Mark, a UN official working in nearby Gaza. Mark is delayed by work and so he asks his longtime friend and Egyptian native Tareq (played by Alexander Siddig) to watch out for Juliette until he arrives.
Although Juliette is a fiercely independent woman back home in New York, she finds her new role as tourist in a heavily dominated male world to be decidedly different. Tired of the confines of her hotel room (even though it features a veranda complete with a spectacular view of the Nile River), she sets out to explore the streets of Cairo only to discover that her blond hair and fair, bare arms make her an easy target for inappropriate comments and a flock of harassing followers. However, it is Tareq who takes her under his wing, accompanying her around the city, offering not just the security and comfort that is often needed for foreign women traveling alone, but also a cross-cultural friendship, something that many travelers never have the privilege of acquiring when abroad.
When Juliette asks Tareq why there are no women at the coffee house where they are, he informs her it is because it’s a men only coffee house. Towards the end of the film, Juliette jokes that the first thing she will do upon moving to Cairo is open up a coffee house just for women. When she compains about the moral and social wrongs of Egyptian children working long hours in a rug factory, Tareq becomes annoyed with her imperialist-style thinking, the Western world playing the role of the heroic savior to the “other.” In time however, Juliette becomes at ease in hot and chaotic Cairo, due mainly to Tareq. She walks the streets with him relaxed, smokes apple cinnamon hookah and even travels with him to Alexandria to attend the wedding of his former girlfriend’s daughter.
What I loved most about the film were the scenes in which Egypt was the principal star and Clarkson and Siddig were in supporting roles. At one point Juliette travels to the famed White Desert, an area that features massive cream colored chalk rock formations that have been created as a result of occasional sandstorms. After returning in the early morning hours, they travel to a nearby pyramid, content to watch the blisteringly hot sun rise from the shadows of the desert. There is no dialog in this particular scene, simply them, the desert, and an ancient pyramid.
Cairo Time was filmed long before the famous revolution that took place in Egypt earlier this year. I wonder, would things be different for Juliette the tourist if she were to travel there now. I’ve read that since the revolution, tourism has been down in Egypt, with many tourists afraid to return. Yet insiders say now is perhaps the best time to visit the country. Just like when Tareq and Juliette had a gorgeous sunrise to themselves from atop a pyramid, you could too. But if your bank account doesn’t allow for an impromptu visit to Egypt at the moment, renting Cairo Time will suffice, because it is truly that wonderfully beautiful and poignant a film.