Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 2, 2010

Cairo Station

Filed under: Film,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

With the raw energy of a stampeding bull, Youssef Chahine’s 1958 “Cairo Station” (Bab el hadid)—now available from Netflix—is a good introduction to one of Egypt’s great directors hitherto unknown to me. In his compassion for the lower classes, Chahine would remind one of his contemporary Naguib Mahfouz, who also ran afoul of government repression and religious fundamentalism over a long career. Indeed, the two men collaborated in 1963 to make “Saladin”, a movie that implicitly likened the 12th century defender of Arab sovereignty to President Nasser, a hero to the two progressive-minded nationalists and defenders of Egyptian culture.

Youssef Chahine: a great director

Set on location in Cairo’s main railway station, the movie tells the story of the lower depths of Egyptian society: the soft-drink vendors, luggage porters and newsboys who are in a struggle for survival. One of the newsboys, a grown man actually, is Qinawi, played by the director. When sleeping on the street as a young arrival from the countryside, he is discovered by an older man who runs a refreshment stand in the station and who then sets him up in a shack and with a job selling papers. The older man, not religious by any means, is shocked to discover one day that Qinawi has covered the walls of the shack with pictures of scantily-clad women—what we used to call cheesecake in the 1950s.

Qinawi walks with a limp and is generally shunned by the other denizens of the station who sense that he is off, particularly Hanuma (Hind Rostom), a soft drink seller who resists his sweaty advances. In general, she treats him as the butt of her cruel jokes even as she enjoys his flattery. She is engaged to Abou Seri (Farid Shawqi), a brawny porter with a striking resemblance not only to Anthony Quinn but to the blustering macho figure that Quinn often played. The love triangle of these three figures will not only evoke “Pagliacci” but Todd Browning’s “Freaks”.

If the primary focus of the movie is on the tortured psyche of Qinawi, who is eventually driven to homicidal actions, it is also a remarkable study of Egypt at a particular time and place. In one scene that evokes Fellini, Hanuma has run into a group of musicians playing rock and roll with a guitar and an accordion in a railway car where she is peddling lemonade. As she proceeds to dance with open sexual energy, you immediately understand why Chahine rubbed Egypt’s clerical bosses the wrong way. The entire movie, in fact, is a study in hormone energy—you almost expect a young Elvis to come swaggering through the station.

Rock and Roll in “Cairo Station”

Qinawi professes his love for Hanuma

The movie also points to the deep changes taking place in Egyptian society at the time as a group of feminists rally outside a railway car where a spokeswoman for the cause dressed in what looks like a man’s suit is delivering a speech. A major subplot of the movie involves Hanuma’s fiancée, the porter Abou Seri, trying to organize the porters into a union with the help of a government agency. Apparently, Nasser had some interest in winning working class support even though he never would stand for working class independence.

Although the story in itself would be sufficient to engage any movie-lover, there are stylistic aspects to “Cairo Station” that elevate it to the top ranks of movie-making. Using the palette of neorealism, Chahine draws out as much poetry from the streets of Cairo as Vittorio De Sica did from the streets of Rome. If the movie is Italian opera of the 19th century dramatically, it is austere neorealism of the post-WWII era in visual terms.

Chahine lived from 1925 to 1988. In 1947 his parents allowed him to study acting in Pasadena, California where he obviously became exposed to Hollywood movie-making techniques. In an example of globalization at its best, he wedded Hollywood conventions to the story-telling traditions of his homeland. Describing his work, he once said, “I make my films first for myself. Then for my family. Then for Alexandria. Then for Egypt. If the Arab world likes them, ahlan wa sahlan (welcome). If the foreign audience likes them, they are doubly welcome.”

(The quote is from the excellent wiki article on Chahine.)

A July 28, 2008 NY Times obituary for Chahine provided more information:

Youssef Chahine (pronounced Sha-HEEN) was born into a Christian family in Alexandria on Jan. 25, 1926. His mother was of Greek descent, his father Lebanese, a mixed heritage representative of the city’s long history as a Mediterranean melting pot where various faiths and languages mingled and flourished. Alexandria was the subject of four films Mr. Chahine made from 1979 to 2004: ”Alexandria … Why?,” ”An Egyptian Story,” ”Alexandria Again and Again” and ”Alexandria … New York” — a tetralogy that many critics regard as his finest work.

Mr. Chahine attended Victoria College for a year and then left Egypt for California, where he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse and acquired a taste for American movie musicals. Returning to Egypt, he began a period of prolific cinematic activity and accelerating success. In 1951, he was invited to the Cannes Film Festival to show ”Nile Boy,” the beginning of a long relationship that would culminate in 1997, when he received a special award commemorating the festival’s 50th anniversary. He is widely credited with discovering Omar Sharif, who played the lead in Mr. Chahine’s 1954 film, ”The Blazing Sun.” The director’s own artistic breakthrough came a few years later with ”Cairo Station,” a complex drama notable at the time for its frank exploration of sexual behavior and psychology.

It is also a hard film to categorize, and thus typical of Mr. Chahine’s oeuvre. The critic Elliott Stein described ”Cairo Station” as ”an idiosyncratic mixture of neorealist social commentary, grotesque horror, and lighthearted comedy.” ”Idiosyncratic mixture” is an apt summary of the director’s mature style, which also incorporated musical numbers, sudden changes of tone and, when the mood struck and the technology allowed, computer-generated special effects.

Running through this eclecticism were a consistent engagement with the realities of Egyptian life and an often impatient sense of the nation’s resistance to progress. ”You can’t be an artist if you don’t know the social, the political and the economical context,” he said in a 2006 interview with a German Web site. ”If you talk about the Egyptian people, you must know about their problems. Either you are with modernity or you don’t know what the hell you’re doing.’

Finally, a word should be said about the excellent Typecast Production Company that is responsible for making this great movie available as a dvd with a terrific extra short featuring Youssef Chahine taking you on a tour of Cairo. This is the same company that has released the documentary on Norman Finkelstein that I will be reviewing soon. Good work, Typecast!

Youssef Chahine website


  1. Wow, this looks like an amazing film. Who knows what other gems are out there that we’ve never heard of?

    Comment by John B. — February 3, 2010 @ 11:28 am

  2. We saw “Cairo Station” last night. It is indeed a very complex film that leaves a lot to think about. Thanks for your thoughtful review which helped pull a lot of pieces together.
    Two important things worthy of mention are that Qinawi, the paper “boy’s” sponsor ran the newsstand at the station (not the refreshment stand) which was operated by another vendor in frustrated competition with Hanuma and constantly reporting her to the police. It was Qinawi’s sponsor who ran the newsstand that read the story to him about the unsolved crime in Rashid involving a woman found murdered in a trunk that captured the news for weeks. This inspired Qinawi’s murderous action against Hanuma who had teased him and refused his marriage proposal. Also the aspect of Qinawi’s wish to marry Hanuma and take her back to his country village (and her derisive and hurtful reply to him) seen alongside the brief scene at the station where feminists are speaking out about rights for women from the countryside, exposes the many layers of social and political comment that make this movie one of the great ones. We will definitely look for Chahine’s other films and your excellent reviews!

    Comment by Debra — April 3, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

  3. Film reminded me of Psycho on a couple of occasions, and I thought, hey what a rip off, but then I find out it was made 2 years before Psycho! This film is superbly directed from start to finish.

    Comment by Phillip Wand — October 14, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

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