A story of knowledge and the loss of innocence: In conversation with Tarik Saleh

Still from Tarek Salah's Cairo Conspiracy
6 min read
14 April, 2023

Cairo Conspiracy (2022), also known as Boy From Heaven, won the best screenplay award at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

A co-production between Sweden, France, and Finland, the long feature tells a story about the loss of innocence and the power struggle for faith and knowledge.

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Shot in Turkey, the film features Istanbul’s visually stunning Suleymaniye mosque, which doubles as Egypt’s prestigious Islamic School of Al-Azhar.

The New Arab met Tarik Saleh who wrote and directed the film to talk about Cairo Conspiracy and his endeavour as an artist and storyteller.

The Swedish filmmaker of Egyptian origin identifies himself primarily as a father of two girls and a filmmaker. “I am not a politician, I am not an activist, I am a filmmaker, I am an artist,” Tarik tells The New Arab. 

"In its exploration of the themes of power, faith, and morality, the film shows how power can corrupt and how faith can be manipulated to serve those in power"

Adam’s sacrificial loss of innocence

The film laments how the true essence of faith can be lost in the fight for power, and though entirely fictional, the characters show delicate ambivalence between good and evil. The skilfully plotted film takes us on Adam’s journey of growth and disillusionment.

Adam, whose name symbolises the sacrificial loss of innocence for knowledge is the film’s Kafkaesque protagonist — a kind-hearted fisherman’s son who is offered state sponsorship to study at the "beacon of the Islamic world," only to find himself stuck as a pawn in a grandiose quest for power.

Tarik's grandfather studied at Al-Azhar, and he always pondered upon how Al-Azhar is too big for most people to think about.

Tarik started to think about the role it plays and why no one had told a story from inside it.

Initially, he wanted to write the story as a novel inspired by Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The idea developed into a political thriller inside one of the Muslim world’s most revered schools.

Tarik understood how personal and how deep the story was to him in the sense that his whole family history is about education: “My grandfather and grandmother were the first in their villages to get an education. I always thought about the price you have to pay for getting an education when you come from a background where your parents do not even read and write.

"In a way, learning to read and write is the loss of innocence. The more you know the more responsible you are. With knowledge comes great responsibility,” he told The New Arab.

Daringly brilliant, Tarek Salah's Cairo Conspiracy humanises the Muslim World's most prestigious institution, Cairo's Al-Azhar
Daringly brilliant, Tarik Saleh's Cairo Conspiracy humanises the Muslim World's most prestigious institution, Cairo's Al-Azhar University

In its exploration of the themes of power, faith, and morality, the film shows how power can corrupt and how faith can be manipulated to serve those in power.

At its core, the film is a commentary on the state of the Muslim world and the struggle for power within it. Representing the Muslim world is undoubtedly complicated, mainly because of the vast diversity it encompasses.

“I find Islamic history misunderstood and misrepresented both in the West and the Muslim world. We either have fantastical stories that boost morale or propaganda against Islam. I think that the conversations within Sunni Islam today are very interesting," the filmmaker commented.

"For the film, I had to simplify a lot of the ideas we are discussing nowadays, but I still wanted to allude to them, so I worked hand in hand with a very knowledgeable imam.”

Tarik told The New Arab that some characters were inspired by people he met in life. “I wrote a one-dimensional character based on someone I met who was theatrical and pathetic, he wanted to use Islam for his own narcissistic benefits. Then I decided to write the whole story from his perspective. How he sees the world. And that ended up being my favourite scene of the film.”

"The film's exploration of the complex relationships between power, faith, and morality is masterfully executed"

In the scene in question, a violent radical has a dramatic soliloquy in which he ponders upon what happened to Muslims around the world. Those who are being tortured in concentration camps. The Muslims of Burma whose lives and deaths are unaccounted for. 

Tarik told The New Arab: “Of course these questions are true, they are valid, there are concentration camps for Muslims in China and Arab leaders still make deals with them, they do not boycott China. It is true that they gave to Nobel Peace Prize to people that were trying to do an ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Burma. That is true. And what I think is the best argument that Suleiman is presenting, is that it is not what the people that are not Muslims did to us, it is what we are not saying. It is the silence of the Muslim world.”

According to Tarik, the film became controversial because it asks these pertinent questions that could very easily trigger revolutions.

Al-Azhar as a microcosm for the Muslim world

“I left my political views away for the film, I tried to understand everyone including the state and the security forces,” Tarik continues.

The filmmaker opened up about his astonishment with the film’s reception in Egypt and possibly other parts of the Muslim world: “In Egypt today, you can see films where Muslims are portrayed as monsters and they are accepted, then I do a film where I allow characters to be sincere. Adam, the protagonist, is very sincere in his belief, he wants to do the right thing and they find that to be controversial!”

The film’s attention to the plausible ambivalence of most characters is interesting, with one or two overly stereotypical characterisations as an exception. The character of Zizo, for example, represents the pure essence of faith, warning Adam that every second in Al-Azhar is going to corrupt his soul. Zizo's murder is a metaphor for the death of the true essence of faith, as the struggle for power consumes people.

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Adam, the protagonist, is initially portrayed as an overly idealistic young man who believes that studying at the "beacon of the Islamic world" will help him serve his community better. However, he is quickly pulled into the murky world of power and politics, where he must navigate the complex web of relationships between the various parties competing for control.

Colonel Ibrahim, the government investigator who recruits Adam, is a complex character with a hidden agenda. His dishevelled appearance almost conceals his manipulative nature. Ibrahim represents the corrupting influence of power and the lengths to which those in power will go to maintain it. Yet even he is given a very humane dimension in the film.

The film's exploration of the complex relationships between power, faith, and morality is masterfully executed. The characters are well-developed, and the plot is engaging, keeping the viewer in an internal dialogue throughout the film.

Cairo Conspiracy is released in UK cinemas on April 14.

Ouissal Harize is a UK-based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.

Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize