Cairo Station “Bab el Hadid” (1958)

Youssef Chahine is the most important director in Egyptian film history. Egyptians know what they are in for when they choose to watch one of Chahines’ movies, for his pictures never fail to shock. Any Chahine directed film is controversial and ahead of its time. Now regarded as a genius and the father of Egyptian cinema, Chahine started making movies in the late 40’s. He continued shocking Egyptians in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s 90’s and 00’s. However, he could never measure up to his crowning achievement and defining masterpiece, ‘Cairo Station’.

 The movie takes place on a train station in the course of a single day. The camera introduces us to the three main characters: Qinawi (Youssef Chahine) is the poor, perverted newspaper vendor, Hanuma (Hind Rostom), the beautiful woman constantly chased by security for selling soft drinks illegally, and Abu Serib (Faris Shawqi), Hanuma’s soon to be husband who desperately tries to form a union.  Qinawi spends his days fantasizing about women. Pin up models make up the walls of his dirty little shed as he spends his time staring at the pictures with his piercing black eyes. While at work, he does not attempt to sell any newspaper. Instead, he continues his habit, desperately trying to catch any glimpse of cleavage. Like a predator, women and sex is all that interests him. He is a sick and disturbed individual who rarely utters a word. Everybody knows Qinawi but no one knows of his sickness, no one but the audience.

Hanuma being a tease draws his attention and so Qinawi starts obsessing about her.  It does not take him long to propose to the already engaged Hanuma. Abu Serib is doing well financially. All Qinawi has to offer is a gold necklace that once belonged to his mother.  Naturally, Hanuma turn him down. She does not take Qinawi seriously often teasing and making fun of the troubled man. However, Qinawi does not give up. Like a predator stalking his wounded prey, his eyes stay fixed on her. He follows her around studying her curves and peeking into her privacy.  

At one point in the film, Qinawi takes a marker and draws a bucket full of soft drinks onto the arm of one his pin up models to make it look like Hanuma. He then covers the window with some clothing, sits in a dark corner and the screen fades to black. We know what happens next.

The main character is a pervert. He is both unlikable and disturbing. The subject is one we would rather not study, but we have no choice. Soon the plot takes us to places we wish we would not bear witness to as murder, violence, and chaos follows.

Chahines’ haunting performance is as powerful as his groundbreaking directing. He is in total control behind the camera taking us into the mind of a sexually repressed man slipping into insanity. His performance ranks with the best in film history with facial expressions and body language done to a freighting perfection. Hind Rostom, the Marilyn Monroe of Egypt is impressive as the trouble making femme fatal. Every character in this movie feels real.

 The dirty and torn costumes and on location filming, contribute to the gritty realism of this dark picture. Italian Neorealism influenced the great Egyptian director who dared to force the public to deal with reality. The screenplay is pitch-perfect and, Alfred Hitchcock would have snatched it in a second. Prior to ‘Cairo Station’ Egyptian films were mostly feel good pictures, simply there to entertain. They were an escape for the everyday man, so when ‘Cairo Station’ premiered, everyone was shocked. Here was this young director judging an entire culture with a film that breaks every norm of Egyptian cinema. Shock waves followed its initial release.

 The censorship banned it by public demand. Critics praised the masterpiece, but the public despised it. After a screening of the film, a man walked up to Chahine, spat on his face, and said, “You have given Egypt a bleak image.”

 After 20 years under a strict ban, Egyptians rediscovered it. It was screened at film festivals worldwide   and ever since the rebirth of ‘Cairo Station’ in 1978, Egyptians have recognized it as the work of a master. The reputation of the film only grew and now it is the considered the ‘Citizen Kane’ of Egyptian cinema.

The train station is clearly an embodiment of a city. “This is Cairo Station”, the narrator says in the beautifully shot opening scene, “the heart of the capital. Every minute one train departs…and every minute another one arrives. Thousands of people meet and bid farewell…people from North and South, natives and foreigners, people with and without jobs.” The film is a study of an entire city and an individual. Chahine is judging an entire system by forcing us to see that city through the eyes of a psychopath. It is extremely difficult for a director to handle a picture from both a macro and micro perspective but Chahine manages to pull it off beautifully. His film is about a country that needs a union and the sexual repression of a culture.  ‘Cairo Station’ is what you would get if you put Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ in a mixer.  

‘Cairo Station’ was released on DVD in the US December  28, 2009.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. i just know this page, nice blog you have,
    i will visit this web more often and read about your post,
    i like ur topic specially about
    Cairo Station “Bab el Hadid” (1958)

    Cheers

    Reply

  2. I just saw this film and it’s certainly on a plane with the best movies. I can unhesitatingly call it a Great Movie, what with it’s merciless and lyrical social realism and the stunning cinematography. As my first Egyptian movie after the “Band’s Visit”(??), it really makes feel close to Egypt, which is in any case closer to Asia than elsewhere. Nehru and Nasser used to be very close as leaders of the non-aligned nations–but that’s all past, I rue.

    Reply

    • I agree the cinematography is stunning. “The Band’s Visit” isn’t Egyptian though. I’m so glad you liked it and consider one of the best out there. More people need to see it. Nhru and Nasser were close indeed. I’ve read a lot about their good relations. If you liked this movie, you can’t go wrong with any Chahine movie. Although ‘Cairo Station’ is in my opinion his greatest achievement. He often said it’s the movie he’s most proud of.

      Did you notice the similarities between this and Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Some shots were very similar like the stabbing scene. Hitchock did it better but this was two years before ‘Psycho’. Also I loved the cinematography in that scene where he spies on them from outside and we get shots of train wheels approaching suggesting sexual intercourse. Chahine was always smart at tricking the censorship and making sure the audience got what he was suggesting.

      Reply

      • I noticed that bit about the wheels and their connotation. Now that you mention it, I see the similarity with the bath-tub scene of Psycho, but I prefer Chahine’s more subtle handling. What really bowls me over is the idea of setting a film on a railway station, and of making such powerful social statements in a movie of a mere 75 minutes!

      • Yeah it’s amazing what he fit into 75 minutes. It maybe the greatest movie with a 75 minute runtime 🙂

  3. I have heard about Youssef Chahine several times including his obituary, but never have watched his works except short movie in “To Each His Own Cinema”. I think this movie will be good start for me.

    From Roger Ebert’s Review of “Control Room” (This was the first time I heard about Chahine)

    “The final film I saw at Cannes 2004 came from Egypt and contained a surprise. It was “Alexandrie … New York,” by the veteran director Youssef Chahine, and it told the autobiographical story of an Egyptian who comes to America in 1950 to study at the Pasadena Playhouse, and returns again in 1975 and 2000. There is a lot more to it than that, but what struck me was when the student joined his classmates in singing “God Bless America” at the graduation. I hadn’t heard that in an American film since “The Deer Hunter” in 1978.

    The character in 1950, and apparently the 78-year-old Egyptian who told his story, loved America. I thought of them as I watched “Control Room,” an enlightening documentary about how the U.S. networks and the Arab satellite news channel Al Jazeera covered the early days of the war in Iraq. If Americans are familiar with Al Jazeera at all, it is because, as Donald Rumsfeld charges in the film, it is a source of anti-American propaganda, “willing to lie to the world to make their case.”

    Reply

    • America is unlike any country I’ve ever visited. It’s one of those magical places where I get depressed once I’m on the plane back home. Amerians may not be aware of this but they stand on a beautiful country. I often think immigrants adore and appreciate the US more than most citizens.

      Reply

  4. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Reply

  5. How did I miss this post the first time? Oh well. I have heard of Cairo Station, but didn’t know what it was about before reading your enlightening review. With all these great movies still to see, I might have to do what Scorsese did before Raging Bull and cover all my windows with black construction paper so that I can have a two week (or was it three weeks?) movie marathon. 😉

    I feel the most important job that a critic has is uncovering gems that people might overlook, especially (when it comes to movies) foreign films that may not have gotten the recognition they deserve in America, so kudos to you for doing that with this film and this director.

    As for your comment about immigrants adoring and appreciating the U.S. more than its citizens, I think that’s true, mainly because we’ve had it so good for so long, we don’t know what the alternatives are, which is why it worries me whenever we restrict something in the name of “security,” and why I hate censorship in all forms, since those ideas run counter to the ideals for which America is admired.

    Reply

    • Haha Scorsese did that? If he’s doing it so will I one day 🙂

      Thank you for your kind remark about me covering underrated and overlooked films like “Cairo Station”. What triggered me to write this piece is after a conversation with an American film historian teaching classes in the American University in Cairo. I asked him about his favorite Chahine film and he looked at me like I was speaking another language. So I recommended this masterpiece and revisited it with him. He added it to his “Must Own DVDs” list shortly after.

      You’re spot on about the love for America. I always sigh on my way back home and promise myself to return to this wonderful land in the not so distant future. I remeber hesitating to go into the Planet Hollywood cinema in Orlando, Florida fearing that the film will be butchered. It was only for a brief second and then I realized I wasn’t in Cairo but in the promising country of Hollywood, a paradise for any film fan.

      Reply

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