“The Cairo Conspiracy” tells the story of the fisherman’s son Adam, who grows up in the small town of Mansala in the Nile Delta under the helpless harshness of his father. When Adam gets a scholarship to Azhar University in Cairo out of the blue, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. The university is considered the most important institution of Sunni Islam. More than a thousand years old, it is introduced in Tarik Saleh’s film as a “beacon of Islamic science”. The Swedish director stages a network of intrigues between the government, the Muslim Brotherhood and the religious leadership.
The inner courtyard of the venerable Al-Azhar University: Teachers and students in glowing red and white headgear are crowded together, the ancient walls soar into the Egyptian sky. Everything breathes history, yes, eternity. Then Raed raises his voice, Raed, who listens to Arabic rap in his free time, but now recites the holy verses of the Quran so purely, so full of joy and humility and devotion, that the audience catches its breath. Tarik Saleh’s film “The Cairo Conspiracy” is a product of many genres. Last but not least, it is a celebration of the beauty of Islam.
The director and screenwriter of the film, which is now showing in European cinemas, is Tarik Saleh, son of a Swedish mother and an Egyptian father. He is no longer allowed to shoot in Egypt since state security threw him out of the country just days before shooting for his film “The Nile Hilton Affair” began. So he and his team moved to Istanbul for the current film, refraining from using Egyptian actors so as not to endanger them, and hiring actors with roots in Palestine, Syria or Algeria.
It all starts with a scholarship that allows Adam, the son of a humble fisherman, to study at the elite university. When the village imam brings the good news, the young man accepts it with no emotion. For him as a believer, the scholarship does not mean personal success, but the will of God, which he has to submit to. After initial skepticism, the authoritarian father, who was initially opposed to Adam’s (or God’s) plans, gives his blessing. If it is God’s will, may God’s will be done.
In Cairo, however, Adam is less confronted with religious beliefs than with power-political conflicts. He had hardly arrived at the university when its head, the Grand Imam, who also held one of the highest positions in Sunni Islam, died. Bitter battles break out between the state and the heads of the university to succeed him. The country’s president wants to limit the power of Islamist forces and install a successor loyal to the state. The state security has an informer in the student body who is being eliminated under unclear circumstances. Now the responsible Colonel Ibrahim is looking for a new agent – and finds him in Adam. He’s supposed to gain the trust of a radicalized group of students and report back to the Colonel. Adam has no choice. If you don’t cooperate with the state security, you’ll get into trouble. The Egyptian secret service wants to install a suitable successor, for which it needs informants from inside the Azhar. The last informer just got caught and was spectacularly murdered. Adam, the fisherman’s son, called “Sardine” by his fellow students, is to replace him. The agent recruits him with no trouble.
Sheikhs order fast food from McDonald’s – “They say the burgers are halal” – and father illegitimate children. Maybe the college really is infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, as Ibrahim claims. Or is it just a particularly perfidious feint? Adam will sink deeper and deeper into intrigue and deceit and in the end betray everyone, his friend the Azhar, and whether in this way he can save his faith or at least his life is very much a question.
The life of the protagonist is determined by others. First he obeys the village imam and his father, then the colonel, who blackmails him with his father’s health. Driven by fear, Adam obeys orders. But over time he will grow up. Circumstances require the courage to have your own opinion, or even the courage to use your talents wisely in order to survive. Independent thinking is only tolerated in the rigid power structure if it is camouflaged in religious parables, otherwise it is quickly seen as cockiness.
We learn nothing about Adam’s feelings, tendencies, dreams. How religious is he really? In the end, he will brilliantly interpret the Quran in an interrogation cell – but is he doing it mainly to save his own skin? When he is finally asked what he learned in Cairo, he remains silent. Learned about what? About religion, politics? In any case, he learned a lot about power. It is to be wished that he goes fishing again soon.
Tarik Saleh stages impressive images in the magnificent walls. From above you can see a sea of red dots in the inner courtyard, the students’ hats, as a symbol of the conformity demanded of them. The film shows a world shaped by male authority. At home, it is the silent patriarch who whips his sons’ hands, and at the university, too, duty is paramount. The patriarchal power structures are so pronounced that women only appear in a single scene.
In fact, many of the motifs in “The Cairo Conspiracy” seem familiar, the strict choreography of the students, the ascetic dormitories, the restless shadows in the colonnades, all brilliantly photographed by French cameraman Pierre Aïm. With a little imagination, the string puller Ibrahim could also pass as a shaggy relative of George Smiley, the (anti)hero of many of the novels by the British author John le Carré.
Although the autocracy and the religious authority are united in their aversion to political Islam and any kind of religious radicalization, they are otherwise distrustful of one another. When the agent Ibrahim visits the Azhar for the first time, the scholars confidently rebuff him. Even President Nasser wanted to subdue the Azhar, they say, Sadat tried to corrupt them, Mubarak wanted to change the rules to please the women and the Americans: “What exactly is your mission?”
Of course, the film can be seen as a critical examination of the current Egyptian government. The head of the secret service openly threatens torture, and blood spills out from under the jail cell door slits. And when the students at the university discuss Palestine, Syria or Iraq, the men’s sympathy for terrorism and jihad is implied.
Nevertheless, the film can by no means be exploited for criticism of Islam, especially since the director himself grew up surrounded by anti-Muslim prejudices. In this thriller, state and religion, even in their radical forms, are primarily an expression of deep-seated patriarchal power structures. Men work in offices under the pictures of other men, even in the living rooms where the women have to wait for them, the authorities hang on the walls. Fathers rule over their sons, imams over their students, generals over their officers, officers over their agents.
These power structures become visible through Adam’s actions, or rather: through his passivity. The young man follows everyone: his father, his village imam, the teachers at the university, Colonel Ibrahim. If he tells him at a meeting in a café that he should order a cinnamon latte and a brownie with cream, that’s exactly what he orders. When he has to set a trap for a fellow student at the university in order to gain the radicals’ trust, he agrees. When asked by the leader of the Radicals to call his uncle, he obeys.
The film’s screenplay won an award at the Cannes Film Festival. Sweden submitted the film as an Oscar nominee. “The Cairo Conspiracy” will probably never make it into Egyptian cinemas, which doesn’t mean much in the streaming age. The Egyptian censors could almost lean back. Of course, “The Cairo Conspiracy” describes a very Egyptian conflict. By thriller standards, however, the secret service on the Nile isn’t much more diabolical than its sister organizations elsewhere in the cinema.
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