Juliette Grant is a more modest version of one of those ugly Americans—or in this case Canadians—who naïvely parades around a foreign country proudly oblivious of the local customs. Played by Patricia Clarkson with a confidence verging on intransigence, the lead character in Ruba Nadda’s Cairo Time represents the bafflement of the Western liberal stranded in a Muslim country whose practices are in conflict with her own sensibility. Arriving in the Egyptian capital to meet her husband, a UN official, she finds herself confined to her hotel when her spouse is detained indefinitely in his work in Gaza.
The film’s early scenes effectively evoke the displacement and palpable sense of the unreal that results from isolation in an utterly foreign country which one is only allowed to experience through the magnificent window views from a hotel room or an official UN party with its canned presentation of Egyptian culture. But bold Juliette is not to be contained so easily. The editor of a Cosmo-style magazine, this Fun Fearless Female brashly wanders the streets of Cairo with no head covering, thus inspiring the congregation of a sinister swarm of men whose lascivious designs are as aggressively forthright as the group that plagued Monica Vitti in L’Avventura. Soon after, she obliviously wanders into a males-only café. Then, later, she boards a bus to Gaza to visit her absentee husband, the only white woman among a bus filled with Arab men—and the only one allowed off the bus when it’s detained at an Israeli checkpoint.
All of which would be fine—after all, the sexual politics of Muslim countries are certainly ripe for critique—except that Juliette comes off as so hopelessly naïve that the characterization grates in its lack of credibility. This allegedly intelligent, supposedly international woman—and there’s every indication that writer-director Nadda regards her as such—is granted all the worldly sophistication of a insolent teenager. And worse, the film provides an easily graspable outsider’s perspective for the Western viewer to identify with, so that he or she can comfortably regard Egyptian culture as something hopelessly “other,” even if Nadda later attempts (unsuccessfully) to undercut this perspective. So when Juliette begins spending time, and eventually falling in love, with her husband’s Egyptian friend Tareq (Alexander Siddig), their easy exchange is repeatedly tainted by her naïve outbursts.
As the pair wanders the city, skirting around, but never quite giving into, their obvious mutual attraction, Juliette is always ready with an irritating outburst, as when, shocked to discover young girls hard at work in a textile factory, she asks Tareq, “Don’t they go to school?” “School costs money,” he tells her, opening her eyes to the fact that things ain’t quite like they are in North America. Later, Nadda creditably complicates the picture by revealing the well-to-do Tareq’s class prejudices. As he extols the high-life enjoyed by Egyptians, Juliette uses the young girls as a counter-example. “That’s different,” Tareq replies, inadvertently granting a rare rhetorical victory to his companion. “They’re not educated.” But for the most part, the romance—delicately underplayed by the two leads—is undercut by Juliette’s aggressive naïveté, even if she remains far more admirable a figure than some of the other UN wives, who, content to stay at the country club, enjoy complaining about the city’s filth.
But this is the city that Juliette comes to love, or so she says. Even though Nadda would have us accept that through her exposure to the “real” Egypt (and a real Egyptian), she comes to some sort of expanded consciousness, there’s little sign of the change in her character. Of course, consciousness is a tricky concept here, since the director can’t have it lead to a blind acceptance of the gender inequalities of Egypt, only an informed understanding of the differences. But even this level of knowledge isn’t clearly articulated, a state of affairs mirrored in the film’s own cursory exploration of the city. Nadda devotes plenty of screen time to location footage of Cairo, but with a few exceptions (the café that Tareq operates, the textile mill) it feels more like a pretty background to the central romance. Even when Nadda introduces a traditional Egyptian wedding, it plays like an unnecessary bit of local color that confirms rather than challenges our view of the nation’s culture. (Those Egyptians sure like to dance!) Similarly, ground-level shots of crowded streets may disclose a measure of danger, but mostly they’re just hopelessly picturesque.
For Cairo Time, Egypt is necessary as a barometer by which to test Juliette’s attitude toward a different culture: her lack of comprehension, coupled with a love of its beautiful sites. But what Nadda actually gives us of the city remains little more than a tourist’s travelogue, epitomized by payoff glamour shots of the pyramids set off against meditative strings on the soundtrack. Early on in the film, at a UN party, the young girlfriend of a diplomat looks at a belly dancer, the fete’s sole signifier of Egypt, and remarks to Juliette, “I’ve been here six months and I’ve yet to see the real thing.” By the end of the film, Juliette may rest content with the knowledge that she has, in fact, experienced the real Egypt, but, after 89 minutes spent with Cairo Time, the viewer may be far more likely to share the other woman’s sentiment.