The Arab Era

All it takes is one minute to score a misleading political point about Israel—and ruin a perfectly good movie.

It's actually a good movie—watchable, well-acted, well-filmed, almost moving. But there's a worm at the heart of the apple—mango?—which is Cairo Time.

Everything is moving along smoothly—the ubiquitous foreign culture, the flirtation, the distant spouse, and, at the end, the unconsummated love (a bit like Lost in Translation, really)—and then comes the Israeli minute, no more. But quite enough.

Juliette Grant (Patricia Clarkson) was to have met her husband for a fling in Cairo but he's stuck in Gaza, administering a refugee camp for the UN, or something. She waits and swelters amid the pyramids and the oggling eyes of passing Arabs, and then, just before succumbing to the charms of her Egyptian friend/guide, she boards a bus and makes a dash for Gaza.

But just before crossing from Sinai into the Strip—would you believe it?—an olive green jeep is planted astride the road, a blue-and-white Israeli flag painted on its bodywork, and thuggish soldiers clamber on board. The pretty Egyptian girl sitting beside the American frantically shoves a letter into Juliette's bag, stricken with fear lest the Israelis lay their hands on it. They won't check a blonde UN wife's.

A list of Hamas operatives? Instructions for making a suicide vest? No. In fact, it emerges later, it's just a letter to her boyfriend announcing an unwanted pregnancy. So why the fear that the Israelis will get hold of it?

Actually, none at all. Except to signal to the spectator that the Israeli troops are to be feared; indeed, veritable monsters. To drive home the message, the soldiers, without explanation, then order Juliette off the bus and back to Cairo. Not a smile passes their lips, not an emotion. Nothing. As Juliette gets off, we catch a glimpse of other Israeli soldiers roughly questioning an Arab about his identity card or destination; there's just a whiff of violence, no more. But it's enough.

Ruba Nadda, the director—a Canadian woman born to a Palestinian mother and Syrian father—is making her point, however irrelevant and gratuitous: the Israelis are thugs. And all it takes is a minute.

And it's all false, from the jackboots to the webbed helmets. These aren't Israeli uniforms; those aren't the colors of Israeli military vehicles; that's not how Israeli troops behave toward blonde American UN wives. And that's not what the flat, dune-covered Sinai-Gaza border looks like.

And the mendacity runs deeper. What are Israeli soldiers, in fact, doing on the Sinai-Gaza border? Israel evacuated that border (and the Gaza Strip) five years ago. Since summer 2005, the border has been controlled and patrolled only by Egyptian border police on the one side and Hamas border police on the other. No Israelis. Nada. Nadda's injection of Israelis into the landscape is pure flummery. Of course, she didn't want to anger her Egyptian hosts (the movie is shot in Cairo) or to rile her people. So why not let the Israelis take the rap? Two birds with one stone: explain why Juliette doesn't reach her husband and blacken Israel.

And, given the current anti-Israeli climate in the West, why should the movie's producers—or the audience—raise an eyebrow? If this can pass without comment in American movie houses, we truly have reached the Arab Age. "Cairo Time" is right.