In Cairo Time, Juliette means to care, but she seems rather unfit for it.
"I haven't had a cigarette since I was a teenager." As soon as Juliette (Patricia Clarkson) rejects the offer of a smoke from her handsome new acquaintance, you know where this trope is headed. Alone in a foreign land, she has time to look back on her life and choices, her loss of youthful adventures. And yes, she'll have regrets, as well as a yearning for cigarettes.
At the start of Cairo Time, Juliette's just arrived in Cairo from New York to meet her husband Mark (Tom McCamus), a dedicated UN official. He's detained in Gaza, where he's in charge of a refugee camp now affected by fighting, and so she's picked up at the airport by Tareq (Alexander Siddig). The men, she knows, used to work together, but Tareq has since left the international service corps and taken up his father's coffee shop, which explains why he's in town and has enough time to look after his old friend's wife. "I've heard so much about you," Juliette says politely and probably truthfully. Tareq answers in kind.
The fact that they do know at least a little bit about each other hints at the sort of experiences Mark has led with each, and he looms unseen between the two, a presence off-screen when he makes a phone call to Juliette's hotel room, or "sends word" to Tareq, who immediately shows up in her lobby. Mark's absence -- and how they talk about him -- also tells you something Asked why this is her first visit to the area where her husband has essentially spent a lifetime, Juliette is vague. She had kids and work. She edits a magazine called Vous. When she mentions she might write an article on Egyptian street children, Tareq, a close observer who can't have missed that her every outfit is expensive and lovely, wonders how such a story might interest her readers. "We deal with social issues, women's issues," she explains. "These children are left to fend for themselves and no one seems to care."
Juliette means to care, but she seems rather unfit for it. This makes her at once an exotic object for Tareq and a familiar subject for the film's Western viewers, out of place and, at least in her own mind, open to "exploring," As she looks on Tareq, she misses what he might reflect of her, except as he appreciates and comes to want her. As he fulfills her desires and resembles the other life, the one she missed when she gave up cigarettes, she doesn't quite have to see him for who he is, much less the stunning landscapes or teeming marketplaces -- which are gorgeous, certainly, but also too metaphorical here.
Some of these meaningful sites directly manifest Juliette's insularity, and yes, her rather abject Americanness. Determined to get out of the hotel room on her own, she wanders through the city streets, only to find that men leer at her and bump up against her and follow her like a pack, the camera close on their bright eyes. At last, the soundtrack music having achieved a crescendo along with the accumulating images of men and more men, the sequence pauses. She finds refuge inside a shop and the elderly clerk, his face weary and kind, shoos the pack away as she sits to catch her breath. Juliette's surprise makes her seem both naïve and forgivable. Because she's earnest in her ignorance and because, really, she didn’t harbor this stereotype of Arab men that the film presents as if she "should have" known.
She learns another lesson from Kathryn (Elena Anaya), a younger women whose boyfriend also works for the UN. They share a laugh over other women who imitate a belly dancer at an embassy event (Juliette calls them "petroleum wives," so you know their affluence is different from hers). During an afternoon in the White Desert, the landscape provides a sensational backdrop to Kathryn's confession that she almost left her man for an "Arab lover." As Juliette looks loyal and forlorn, the younger woman smiles, "You’ve been happy, that's all that matters."
But of course, Juliette's less and less sure that she's "been happy," or that she quite understands what that means. She spends more time with Tareq, learning to smoke a water pipe (more mysterious than cigarettes, anyway). He takes her on the Nile Ride ("Once you've tasted the Nile," he offers as if he's an actor in a tourism commercial, "You always come back") and to a carpet-weaving factory, where children work for hours on end to support their families. Juliette laments their lack of education and opportunity.
Juliette's concern is earnest but still, hers. It's "different" in Egypt, she keeps seeing, but that's all she sees. Her story has her rethinking her past, and beginning to imagine herself in another way, with alternatives instead of foregone conclusions. She also sees this possibility in Tareq (who has his own regrets, involving a broken heart long ago), but that doesn't make them a romantic match, despite their gazing into one another's eyes. It only means she sees herself again and again, wherever she looks.