Women And Relationships In Ruba Nadda’s CAIRO TIME
Cairo Time is a romantic drama from 2009 set in Egypt that focuses on different women and their perception about relationships and life.
Can women from vastly different cultural backgrounds teach each other anything about relationships? In Ruba Nadda’s 2009 film Cairo Time, the answer to that question would be a resounding yes.
Cairo Time follows the story of Juliette (Patricia Clarkson), an American visiting Cairo to meet with her husband Mark who works for the UN. When he’s unexpectedly held up in Gaza, she forms important bonds with the people around her, including Tareq (Alexander Siddig), her husband’s long-time friend. And in Mark’s absence, Juliette learns – mainly through her interactions with Tareq and other woman – that there’s a broader world than the one she can see.
While Juliette is undoubtedly the main character, all the women in the film play integral roles in helping the audience (and Juliette) understand that women can exist in more than one way. And the film uses these women’s relationships with men to push that narrative forward.
The Slate of Women in Cairo Time
Throughout the film, the audience is presented with a variety of female characters. There’s Juliette, an American who seems to hold very traditional views of women and marriage; there’s Kathryn (Elena Anaya), a Spaniard who openly discusses her sexual exploits; and finally there’s Yasmeen (Amina Annabi), a widowed Christian-Armenian woman – and former love of Tareq’s – who is never afraid to ask for or seek what she wants.
Each of these three characters exhibit varying degrees of female independence that the audience is asked to understand – and we are asked to do this with men in mind.
Do Men Really Matter?
Right from the start of Cairo Time, we understand that men are critical in the development of the film and its characters. The opening scene sees Juliette landing in Cairo and being asked to state the reason for her visit.
“I’m visiting my husband,” she says.
It’s a line that sets the tone and journey for the rest of the film. With that line in mind, we the audience see everything through the lens of her husband’s absence. So, when we’re introduced to Tareq in the very next scene, we immediately understand him as a substitute for Juliette’s husband.
Mark’s absence from Juliette’s trip to Cairo is a catalyst for everything she experiences – without him, she’s prompted to do a myriad of things she might not have if he’d been able to meet her. As the film moves forward, we continue to see Tareq as Juliette’s companion or guide, and she rarely goes anywhere without him. In essence, we understand that Juliette – who comes from a seemingly progressive American culture – is a woman who heavily relies on the presence of men to feel safe and free in her adventures.
Cairo: The City of Love and Attraction
As Juliette gets to know the city of Cairo, she also gets to know Tareq. Their daily adventures in and around the city are the perfect conduit for an attraction to form between them. Although never explicitly expressed or discussed, this mutual attraction pushes the narrative forward – it’s what keeps each character coming back for more each day.
The interesting thing about Juliette’s attraction to Tareq is that she initially seems to be waiting for permission to explore it, which she happens to get from a conversation she has with Kathryn. In befriending Kathryn and seeing Cairo through her eyes, Juliette begins to step outside her own world.
It is Kathryn who initially guides Juliette outside of her hotel and circle of Westerners. And in so doing, Kathryn shares a bit of her adventures in the city and with a lover for whom she almost left her current partner. It’s during this brief conversation that we learn Juliette has only had one lover – her husband.
“Well, you seem happy. That’s all that matters,” Kathryn says.
Although Juliette doesn’t respond, we see a moment of recognition on her face that helps us understand that, perhaps, Juliette isn’t sure how to discern happiness from security, or independence from tradition.
Is Juliette truly happy? And if she is, what exactly is she experiencing with Tareq? And why does she mourn whatever that is at the end of the film?
Turning the Tables on Tradition and Culture
Over the course of the film, we see Juliette holding firm to her sense of marital commitment and tradition despite how much she desires to connect with Tareq. She routinely dances around her attraction to him and the two become more casual, and even tactile, as the film moves forward.
But is tradition enough to hold someone back from expressing desire? In the character of Yasmeen, we find our answer.
As Tareq puts it: Yasmeen is a Christian-Armenian and he’s a Muslim, and that alone is enough to keep him and Yasmeen apart. But time and again, we see Yasmeen essentially courting Tareq. She’s straightforward about what she wants and never shies away from expressing that desire. In essence, Yasmeen is her own woman, perhaps even more so now that she’s widowed.
What makes this so interesting is that it essentially turns the tables on our perception of these women and the cultures from which they come. Shouldn’t Juliette, the free and independent American, also feel free to express her desire? And shouldn’t Yasmeen, who is ultimately defined by religion, be demure and deferential especially in the presence of men?
What’s interesting about Cairo Time and especially about the women mentioned above is how differently they all view themselves and their desires. One would think that Juliette, the American who has everything she could want or ask for, would be the first to proclaim her independence. But instead, she’s the woman who’s least likely to divert from the status quo of her marriage. Despite her obvious need for something outside of what she considers the norm – as demonstrated by her attraction and affection for Tareq – she ultimately chooses to continue as she always has.
Perhaps it’s that Juliette is a stranger in a strange land. It’s not just that she’s far removed from her home, but it’s also that her attraction to someone other than her husband is brand new territory that she’s hesitant to explore. So, although she learns very quickly how other women live, she doesn’t openly question or challenge the path that marriage has laid out for her.
What role do films like this play in teaching audiences about the broader world around us? Are there things to be learned or questioned when experiencing other cultures through fictional characters like Juliette?
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