It would be fascinating to make a study of films that have rendered their makers persona non grata in certain countries. Cairo Conspiracy would certainly do the trick for Swedish-born filmmaker, Tarik Saleh, whose father was Egyptian. A ban, however, would be superfluous, because Saleh has been barred from returning to Egypt since 2017, when he offended authorities with his movie about the Arab Spring, The Nile Hilton Incident.
It may not take much to upset the authoritarian regime of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, but Cairo Conspiracy doesn’t stop there, extending its reach to Al-Azhar university, the most important school of Islamic education for Sunnis. This prestigious academy is portrayed as being rife with hypocrisy, corruption, power plays and political intrigue – just like every other university!
The movie is set in Cairo but had to be shot in Istanbul, where the Suleymaniye mosque plays the role of Al-Azhar. The story and the characters are fictional, but the portrayal of the internal security bureau and the country’s most powerful religious leaders is nothing short of inflammatory. More disturbingly, it has the ring of truth.
The story is a two-hander, with a naïve new student being used as a spy by a shrewd old intelligence agent. Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) hails from a small coastal town called Manzala, where fishing seems to be the only means of subsistence. Whenever Adam tells anybody he’s from Manzala they immediately reply: “Fisherman!”
It’s his intellectual abilties that offer Adam a path out of this life. When he secures a scholarship to Al-Azhar, his father tells him: “God gave you a brain that thinks more than necessary.” This trait will become at first a liability, then a means of survival.
Upon arriving at the university, which often seems more like a prison or an army barracks, Adam is befriended by an older student, Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), who shows him the local nightlife, and assures him that an energy drink is “halal”. Later we’ll hear that McDonald’s is also “halal”. What Adam doesn’t know is that Zizo is an informant working for Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) of the security forces.
When the Grand Imam – the virtual Pope of Islam – is taken ill while addressing the students, and quickly dies, a train of secret machinations is set in motion. The shaggy-haired Ibrahim, experienced, jaded and cynical, is given the task of ensuring that the new Grand Imam is a man whose views align with the government. Their choice falls on one Sheikh Beblawi (Jalal Altawil), but to get their man over the line, Ibrahim needs to disqualify two more likely candidates: a blind sage, Sheikh Negam (Makram Khoury), and the militant Sheikh Durhani (Ramzi Choukair).
Zizo, who is Sheikh Negm’s assistant, wants out, but Ibrahim tells him he must find another “angel” to be his replacement. He chooses Adam and begins to groom him for the job by undermining the young man’s ideas about the school. “Your soul is still pure,” he tells him, “but every second in this place will corrupt it.”
No sooner has Zizo made this pronouncement than he is murdered. Adam is seized upon by Ibrahim and coerced by classic carrot-and-stick methods into being his new inside man. His first task is to inflitrate a cell of extremists, a process that will lead him into a web of deceit and betrayal, as the stakes get progressively higher.
In many ways, Cairo Conspiracy, also known as The Boy From Heaven, is a conventional espionage thriller which starts slowly and becomes more suspenseful with each new wrinkle added to the plot. Saleh’s innovation has been to set the story within the highest echelons of Islamic learning, an inconceivable feat for directors based in most middle eastern countries.
Both Adam and Colonel Ibrahim are stock characters brought to life by accomplished performances from Tawfeek Barhom and Fares Fares. The latter is especially good in his portrayal of a world-weary operative forced to take orders from his ambitious young boss, Sobhy (Moe Ayoub), who has all the traits of a psychopath. Where Ibrahim knows when it’s better to take a softly-softly approach, his fanatical superior follows a policy of “no loose ends”.
The film also benefits from an excellent script that won the prize for Best Screenplay at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. The dialogue is sprinkled with well-chosen epigrams and references. We might expect the Qur’an to be an obvious source of wisdom, but it’s a shock for both us and the students when Sheikh Negm begins a lecture on freedom with a quotation from “the Jewish philosopher, Karl Marx.”
For Sheikh Negm this maxim: “Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious and freedom is a necessity of consciousness,” is not mere rhetoric but a blueprint for action. He is the only one of the major Imams whose integrity is not suspect, which makes him a danger to a government for whom truth is a sworn enemy.
Saleh would probably argue that through Sheikh Negm he shows us Islam itself is not the target of his criticism, only those flawed beings who mouth the words of the Prophet while secretly breaking His laws. There will be many who refuse to recognise this distinction, viewing any negative portrayal of the Imams as an insult to the faith.
If we take a broader view, it’s clear that tensions between Church and State are not peculiar to Islam. Neither are we short of examples of religious groups being corrupted by politics, as one sees in the world’s most fundamentalist country, the United States, where evangelicals rallied behind the ungodly Donald Trump. Politics will always have its zealots, and religion its politicians. It’s when these worlds are in perfect accord that we need to be worried.
Written & directed by Tarik Saleh
Starring: Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares, Makram Khoury, Mohammad Bakri, Mehdi Dehbi, Moe Ayoub, Sherwan Haji, Ramzi Choukair, Jalal Altawil, Ahmed Lassaoui
Sweden/France/Finland/Denmark/Italy, M, 121 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 13 May, 2023