Orientalism in Cairo Time

by | June 21, 2010
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Pop Culture

I missed seeing Cairo Time when it showed at Monday Movie Nights in New West, so I jumped at the chance to watch it when I saw it on the free Shaw on Demand video list this past weekend. After all, I figured, it’s a Canadian movie, written and directed by a woman, Ruba Nadda, so it’s the kind of thing I usually get into. I’d also seen that it won Best Canadian Feature Film at TIFF 2009.

Patricia Clarkson and Alexander Siddig

So the basic plotline is this: Patricia Clarkson plays Juliette, who’s gone to Cairo to meet her husband, who is working for the UN in Gaza. He’s kept away by work and she ends up spending a lot of time with his former colleague, Dr. Bashir from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or Tareq for the purposes of this movie. Not at all shockingly she begins to realize she’s developing a thing for him.

Unfortunately, Cairo Time really disappointed me. I was less than ten minutes in when I was started noticing the Orientalist feel of the movie, which I’ll talk about in more detail later. But the movie was also just plain bad. The plot and shots were so slow and disjointed that at times I wondered if the video stream was broken. The whole thing lacked any real dramatic tension and the static characters drove me crazy.

But it’s really the Orientalism I wanted to write about. I’m taking Said’s definition of Orientalism the defining of the Orient by Westerners through imperialist experiences and prejudices. To start, the whole atmosphere of the movie is geared towards showing Cairo as exotic and beautiful. Interviewed about the movie’s concept, Nadda talks about a family vacation to Cairo when she was 16: “It was just beautiful, it was ancient, it had so much history, it left a visual imprint on my brain, and I thought I had to set a story in this beautiful, beautiful city.” The problem is Cairo Time never gives us the history so all we get is a romanticized, exoticized representation.

In addition, Cairo Time fits Said’s description of contemporary Orientalism towards Arab cultures pretty much to a tee. Here are the stereotypes we learn from Cairo Time:

1. Egyptian men are dominant and aggressive. Early in the film Juliette ventures out of her hotel by herself and is followed by a slew of random creepy Egyptian guys acting as though they’ve never seen a white lady before. From then on she realizes she needs Tareq to take her everywhere. There’s a clip of this scene in the trailer, which I’m including here:

2. Egypt is dangerous and Egyptians hate Americans. Aside from the random creepy stalkers, Tareq also feels the need to warn Juliette that “under the facade, Cairo is still a dangerous city.” He mentions that 2 Americans were murdered outside their hotel, simply for being Americans.

Yeah, that didn’t happen. The US State Department does warn American tourists to be vigilant as some have been the victims of terrorist bombings at tourist attractions, but admits, “U.S. citizens do not appear to have been targeted in any of these incidents.” I know it’s fiction, but making up this incident really doesn’t help Western stereotypes of all Arabs as dangerous anti-Americans.

3. Americans are workaholics; Egyptians are hedonists. Tareq gets Juliette to admit to working 12-hour days and then brags about how Egyptians get off work at 3 every day and then go home to relax and prepare for the evening’s fun.

4. Egyptian women are oppressed. Now I’m not saying there’s complete gender equality in Egypt, but Cairo Time dramatically oversimplifies the issues, which ends up making invisible Western gender inequality. For example, Juliette frets over some girls she sees working rather than being in school. Tareq informs they don’t go to school because their families are saving for their weddings. While there is a significant gender gap in education and literacy in Egypt, 92% of primary-school-aged girls do attend school.

5. Egyptians don’t have a social conscience. The intrepid Juliette, who  runs a magazine on women’s and social issues, mentions to Tareq she wants to write about Egyptian street children. She elaborates, “Many of these children fend for themselves and no one seems to care.” All our hero Tareq can muster as a defense is to say it’s complicated. Yes it is, but we the audience members are just left up on our high horses with Juliette on this one.

 Now, to be fair, there are a couple points in the film where Tareq criticizes Juliette for her Orientalism. In response to her discussion of girls involved in child labour he says sarcastically, “Between you and your husband you may yet save the entire Middle East.” But it’s never a serious challenge and it’s really overwhelmed by the rest of the film’s content.

Soha Bayoumi has an excellent analysis of the other ways in which the film reinforces negative stereotypes about Arab people. I encourage you to check out her post, as she’s done a great job of documenting the film’s factual errors about Egyptian culture and Arab language.

The big problem with depictions of cultures like the one we see in Cairo Time is that, being geared to a white Western audience, the factual errors and stereotypes may be accepted as fact. All in all, I’d say don’t make time for Cairo Time.



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