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Taimour and Shafi'aa (2007, Egypt)

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April 22, 2009

On the plane ride home from Cairo, I watched an Egyptian film, Taimour Wa Shafi’aa (2007); the title is the names of the two main characters, as in "Romeo and Juliet."  A boy and girl grow up in apartments down the hall from one another.  They come to love each other and expect to marry one day, but first they are going through educational programs, he in a police academy to become a bodyguard for government ministers, she at university.  He is jealous and tries to control her.  They argue frequently and bitterly.  She keeps giving in to his demands, then one time, when he has forbidden her to go on vacation when he must cancel his own in order to guard a minister on vacation, she sneaks off with her friends.  By accident, he encounters her while he is walking the young son of the minister.  He accosts her and denounces her for lying to him.  She is intimidated and apologetic but also insists she was going to tell him the truth.  Suddenly he looks up and sees his young charge being kidnapped.  He foils the attempt and blames her for having made him nearly fail in his job.

Finally there comes a point when she refuses to do something he demands, and he tells her they will now be only brother and sister.  He will still protect her but they will never be lovers.  Both, of course, suffer during the next seven years as his career flourishes while she finishes a Ph.D. in environmental studies and, though precociously young, soon after becomes the government minister for the environment.  His boss assigns him to be her bodyguard.

Now she has the upper hand and makes the most of it.  After brief resistance, he stiffly plays the correct bodyguard.  The scenes now become romantic comedy as they spar with each other.  Following her mother’s advice, she manipulates him into re-declaring his love, as she does hers.  At an international conference, they have a day or two of bliss, and he informs her they will marry—but she must resign her government position or it will be too awkward for them both and especially him.  (What role will he play, for example--bodyguard or husband--when he is bodyguard to a different minister who is at a conference with her?)  She refuses to give up her career, and they are again estranged.  (The fractured English subtitles keep having her say, in response to his efforts to suppress her independence, that he is “ruining my personality.”)

At the next meeting of ministers at this conference, however, she and some other ministers are kidnapped, apparently by Russians who negotiate for the release of their boss, a drug kingpin.  Of course they have no intention of leaving the ministers alive.  But our hero, now a James Bond figure who cannot be stopped no matter how bloody and exhausted he gets, saves everyone.  Nearly dying himself, we see him recovering in an ambulance while she weeps over him.  They talk, and she says she will give up her ministry (I doubt the pun works in Arabic)—her love for him is more important.  Cut to them leaving their wedding ceremony and within minutes having a new, loud argument as he tells her she won’t work and she, insisting she will, reminds him that he promised she could.  The end.

Like all fiction, part of the film's subtext is propaganda. The movie normalizes and implicitly praises the Egyptian government (Mubarak’s photo is in at least one office but in the background) as filled with educated and dignified leaders, always dressed in the nattiest Western suits, who must constantly be protected from potential harm by anonymous malcontents.  The protagonists are solidly middle class and beautiful: having lost their fathers in childhood, they continue as adults to live with their mothers (still down the hall from each other) in comfortable but not lavish homes.  By dint of beauty, hard work and charismatic personality, they have both moved to the tops of their professions.  Their mothers are stereotypes from every nation’s depictions of mothers with grown children, a little spacy, a little overweight, fussing and cooking meals that pleases their children—but wise in the ways of the world.

Other than a couple of relatively chaste kisses and the slightly revealing nature of western women’s clothing, there is no hint of sex in the film.  Neither is there any hint of religion or tension between the religious and the secular—for example, we never see our hero performing one of the daily Muslim prayers, and we never see a mosque or religious figure of any kind.  The stand-ins for terrorists are linked to criminal evil-doing, not Islam or even an Islamic country.  And incidentally, by having a drug lord as the focus of the “terrorist” attack, the film supports a notion that Egypt is on the same international ethics page as all responsible nations.

By Muslim standards, the film is surely enlightened towards women and surely would call down the most outraged invectives from the pious.  We see no women, including the mothers, in anything but western dress and hairstyles.  We see many women attending a co-ed university with our heroine.  As a westerner I wasn’t sure what to make of her feisty acquiescence to him in the first half of the film—whether we were supposed to be happy about it.  But once she gains the upper hand with him as her bodyguard, the film is clearly asking us to enjoy the turnabout.  In the end, however, our male hero succeeds by brilliant macho behavior and she, even if she intends to do some other work, yields her plum position with the government.  Their argument (� la Hepburn-Tracy) as the film ends of course reminds us that not much has changed, though we know they will live more or less happily ever after.  But the ultimate tone is that when push comes to shove, a physically threatened (and cowering) woman needs a man’s protection (that other kidnapped ministers are men is beside the point here), and the man’s need should dominate, however slightly.

Subtly, the film also seems to tell the viewer that you can (and maybe should) be an independent woman (relatively speaking, at least) only if you are in our heroine’s class and with her values.  We get no hint that independence is possible or even desirable for women who dress in religious garb or are uneducated—it is as if such women don’t even exist in this society.  Westernization is the paramount goal.

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