The accelerating pace of mid-twentieth-century culture is evident everywhere in Cairo Station, and its impact on women is dramatic. A cleric and his follower watch appalled as a line of young men and women jive through the station concourse: the imam exclaims, ‘It’s new! All that is new leads straight to Hell!’ Hanouma is delighted with her trade among the crowd attending a feminist demonstration, where the president of the Association of Women’s Rights (dressed in what seems to be a distinctly ‘manly’ way) denounces the life of slavery endured by rural Egyptian women. A young girl waiting desperately to make an assignation with her lover, who is leaving for Europe, is harassed by the porters on the station steps; as she paces to and fro they call her ‘Sputnik’ and ‘little Laika’ (the name of the dog sent into orbit by the Soviets in 1957, and from which it could not return).
Hanouma and the other ‘cola’-girls are unlicensed vendors, hounded by the official refreshment seller with his hygienic modern trolley, and by the police. They carry re-filled Coke bottles in garishly painted buckets of water, and dice with death as they are chased through freight yards by the ineffectual police. Hanouma captivates an entire carriage in a self-reflexive parody of the ‘song-anddance’ routines for which conventional Egyptian films were enjoyed, but the routine is presented critically, in several ways; she rewards her audience by selling more iced lemonade. Kenaoui watches her obsessively from below on the track beside the carriage. Hanouma takes pity on him, caught in the power of her own seductive performance, and proffers a penile, Cola-shaped bottle to his lips.
In a confrontation with her enraged lover, who also witnessed her performance, she sprays him with the contents of a bottle as she desperately tries to channel his aggression into desire. Kenaoui listens fixated, outside the warehouse, to Hanouma’s screams; in one shot, on a wall poster behind him, is a voluptuous figure and the fragmentary words ‘rilyn Monroe, Niagar…’, advertising Henry Hathaway’s Niagara (1953). As he hears the couple begin to make love, in fact a violent attack by Abu Seri on Hanouma, the camera pans in to Kenaoui’s stunned face, and we see that he is still gripping the re-filled Coca-Cola bottle that Hanouma gave him. As the lovers leave, apparently reconciled, he smashes the bottle against the wall, and goes in search of a knife.
Chahine’s Bab al-Hadid anticipates the disturbing sexual violence explored in contemporary American and European films such as Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1961), like them making explicit connection between (male) voyeurism, the performance of the ‘feminine’, and sadistic-erotic compulsion. Kenaoui’s fingers are stained with his blood after he has been chased away from a disused carriage where he has spied on Hanouma changing her clothes; he stares at ‘glamour’ pictures scattered at his feet as he rubs his bloody fingers. In the abandoned workshop where he lives, he pins up centre-folds from the bundle of papers and magazines that he is supposed to be selling, and on the arm of a smiling blonde he pathetically sketches a bucket containing a bottle.
The only scene in which the protagonists manage to escape from the confines of Bab al-Hadid is when Kenaoui attempts to win Hanouma’s love with his hopeless proposal of marriage and the gift of a gold necklace that belonged to his mother. Kenaoui’s pathetic insignificance is emphasised in a tilt-up shot of his head and shoulders, dominated by a monumental statue of the ‘great pharaoh’, Ramesses II, the only image of ‘Heritage Egypt’ in the entire film. The pitiful mid-twentieth-century urban fellah remains as insignificant as any of his ancestors in pharaonic Egypt three millennia before him. Hanouma mocks and rejects his desire for a return to peasant life, which she knows would be for her an inescapable round of child rearing and animal husbandry.
Kenaoui is finally tricked by his compassionate but substitute father, Madboui, who invites him to dress in his wedding robe for marriage to Hanouma that evening, but the proffered robe is a strait jacket. The final, poignant image of Bab alHadid is the face of the nameless young woman as she gazes in the direction of the train that carried off her lover to Europe.
Chahine would surely have celebrated the uprisings and revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011. Hosni Mubarak’s Emergency Act, which had suppressed critical opinion in Egypt for over two decades, was a continual target of Chahine’s outrage. In a comment made in 2006 that applies perfectly to the achievement of Bab al-Hadid, he said, responding to a question about ‘the role of the artist in the contemporary political situation’: ‘You must participate. You can’t be an artist if you don’t know the social, political, and the economic context. 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 are doing’ (Murphy and Williams 2007: 37).
1. Grateful thanks to Dr Walid Abdul Hamid for material and advice.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Egypt. Production Company: Gabriel Talhami Productions. Director: Youssef Chahine. Screenwriters: Youssef Chahine and Abdel Hay Adib. Cinematographer: Alvise Orfanelli. Editor: Kamal Abu al-Ela. Music: Fouad al-Zahri. Cast: Youssef Chahine (Kenaoui), Hind Rostom (Hanouma), Farid Chaouqi (Abu Seri).]
Ibrahim Fawal, Youssef Chahine, BFI World Directors Series, London, BFI, 2001.
Terri Ginsberg and Chris Lippard, Historical Dictionary of Middle Eastern Cinema, Lanham MA, Scarecrow Press, 2010.
Lina Khatib, ‘Bab El-Hadid/Cairo Station’, in Gönül Dönmez-Colin (ed.), The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East, New York, Wallflower Press, 2007, pp. 23–31.
Malek Khouri, The Arab National Project in Youssef Chahine’s Cinema, Cairo, The American University in Cairo Press, 2010.
David Murphy and Patrick Williams, Postcolonial African Cinema: Ten Directors, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2007.
‘The Birth of the Seventh Art in Alexandria’, www. bibalex.org/alexcinema/index.html (accessed 12 November 2012).
‘The Official Website of Youssef Chahine’, www.- youssefchahine.us/index2.html (accessed 12 November 2012).
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.