Cairo Station (1958)

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Cairo Station / Bab el hadid (1958)
A Film by Youssef Chahine
DVD9 | ISO+MDS | NTSC 16:9 (720x480) | 01:16:42 | 4,59 Gb
Audio: Arabic LPCM 2.0 @ 1536 Kbps | Subs: English hardcoded
Genre: Crime, Drama | Egypt

Kinawi, a physically challenged peddler who makes his living selling newspapers in the central Cairo train station, is obsessed by Hannouma, an attractive young woman who sells drinks. While she treats Kinawi in a sympathetic way and jokes with him about a possible relationship, She is actually in love with Abu Sri', a strong and respected porter at the station who is struggling to unionize his fellow workers to combat their boss' exploitative and abusive treatment.


Also Known As: The Iron Gate

With the raw energy of a stampeding bull, Youssef Chahine’s 1958 “Cairo Station” (Bab el hadid) 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.

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.

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.”

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