Cairo Time Commentary

Cairo Time (2009) is writer-director Ruba Nadda’s exploration of a turning point in the life of a woman “of a certain age.” Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) is the editor of a popular magazine for women, wife of an officer of the UN and mother of two children who have grown up and no longer need her. She arrives in Cairo only to find that her husband can’t meet her; he’s had to attend to a political flare-up in Gaza. In his stead, he has sent his former employee and friend, Tareq (Alexander Siddig) to drive her around and show her the sights. For Juliette, Cairo is swathed in the light of possibility. She has stepped outside her family life for a few days. She has stepped away from her job and outside her own culture. In effect, she is in limbo. In this state, anything can happen.

What does happen to Juliette is that she has been given a rare opportunity to find herself once again. Such moments happen all too seldom in anyone’s life. Writer-director Ruba Nadda and Director of Photography, Luc Montpellier, use Cairo as the golden-tinged, safe zone for this exploration of self. Alone and with Tareq, Juliette wanders the streets of Cairo experiencing both its pleasures and its discomforts. They go for drives, take a Nile cruise, discover fountains and quiet gardens, and wander through an outdoor market. Juliette is captivated by the singing voice of Umm Kulthum on the car radio. On the other hand, they negotiate the noise and pollution of Cairo’s traffic-snarled streets, the throngs of beggars, and the grim reality of sweatshop labour. As Juliette observes Cairo, she gradually comes to love it. She doesn’t travel through Cairo so much as she progresses through the idea of Cairo in a dream-like haze.

Juliette’s first realization of cultural difference occurs one day when she is alone on the streets. Her bare head, arms and exposed cleavage attract such a large crowd of male followers that she is obliged to run into a shop to escape them. She contacts Tareq and, from that point on, has a guide if she wishes to. He is gracious and diffident, but clearly in love with the city he chose to return to after his many years with the UN. Juliette is entranced with the life of Tareq’s coffee shop, where she is the only woman present. At first, she is treated as an intruder. But, on the day that she beats Tareq at chess, men surround her once more; this time, they are laughing and applauding. She is struck by the generosity of spirit that she encounters on this and other occasions. Gradually, Juliette makes her own accommodation to the life she has found in Cairo: she learns to smoke a hookah, and she begins to cover her head on the days when she is out walking.


This languid time-out is complicated by a growing attraction between Tareq and Juliette. As each day passes, her daily assurances of love and longing by phone to her husband seems less convincing. Does she still love her husband? Or does this turning point mean that she will turn in Tareq’s direction? It is by no means clear to Juliette or the audience. Beautifully under-stated performances by Clarkson and Siddig accentuate the unspoken feelings of their characters far more effectively than any overt physical display. Juliette and Tareq are mature and principled; each understands what could be lost with a single misstep.


Two moments serve to remind Juliette of danger. She has lunch one day with a married friend who has had an affair with an Egyptian. The woman describes him as a wonderful lover, but too possessive. “They’re all like that,” she says. Juliette is at a time in her life when she wants more freedom, not less. She purposely avoids Tareq for a few days after this conversation. A second event serves to remind Juliette that, outside the safe zone, lies real life. She decides to travel by bus to visit her husband in Gaza. Sitting beside her is a young girl who begs her to take a letter to her lover back in Cairo. The girl has had to drop out of university because she is pregnant; she wants her lover to know. Outside the city, they are stopped by soldiers, who remove Juliette from the bus, telling her that she can’t go to Gaza. Left alone in the dust by the roadside, she is forced to call Tareq. He is unamused and drives her back to Cairo in silence. But he does agree to take her the next day to the rug-making factory where the young man works. There, Juliette is appalled by the working conditions for the young weavers. “What about school?” she complains to Tareq. He shrugs and says that she is like all westerners, trying to save the Middle East from itself. Clearly she does not understand this new culture at all.


However, Juliette does understand herself. Despite her attraction to Tareq, she is a woman of discretion. On their last magical afternoon together, she takes a critical decision; and, immediately, her husband appears out of thin air. The spell is broken. Dreamtime in Cairo is over. Juliette resumes her own life in real time.


Cairo Time won the 2010 Directors Guild of Canada Team Award, and Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009. It was nominated for a Genie award for Best Achievement in Costume Design (Brenda Broer) in 2010 and a Chlotrudis Award in 2011 for Best Actor (Alexander Siddig).


Evelyn Ellerman