During a hot day in Cairo’s main station, Kenaoui, a disabled rural migrant, is offered a job peddling papers and magazines. He becomes obsessed with Hanouma, a beautiful, vivacious woman who sells soft drinks to commuters, working without official permission. She is already committed to Abu Seri, a porter fighting to unionise the exploited workers in the station. Hanouma rejects Kenaoui’s desperate proposal of marriage, and, as night falls, he attempts to murder her in a fit of thwarted jealousy.
Gabriel Youssef Chahine (Shahine) was born 25 January 1926 in Alexandria, to a Greek mother and a Lebanese father, who worked as a lawyer. Chahine was one of three children in the nonobservant Melkite Catholic family, struggling to maintain their middle-class status. His parents made strenuous sacrifices for his education, and he attended Victoria College, a mediocre imitation of Eton, surviving from the recent period of British rule. From 1946 to 1948, and very much against his parents’ wishes, Chahine left to study ‘Method’ acting in theatre and television (but not film) at the Pasadena Playhouse, Los Angeles.
On his return to Egypt, still resisting his father’s wish that he should become an engineer, Chahine began working with cinematographer Alvise Orfanelli, a creative presence in the vigorous Alexandrian film industry, and who would be cinematographer for Cairo Station. By 1950 Chahine was already directing his first feature, Baba Amin (Daddy Amin). Early cinematic influences included American musicals and Douglas Sirk’s melodramas. Egyptian cinema did not figure for Chahine at this point, but his films quickly began to reflect the radical developments in Egyptian society and politics of the 1950s, and to draw on European modernist film conventions as well as the Hollywood paradigm. During the 1990s Chahine’s films increasingly reflected his preoccupation with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and his growing disenchantment with American ‘late capitalism’, culminating in his contribution to the multi-authored 11/09/01 (2002).
Chahine remained by choice and circumstance an outsider: a (non-believing) Christian in a predominantly Muslim society, child of an immigrant family, and a product of the complex cosmopolitan culture of pre-war Alexandria. He can also be seen as an actor manqué who came reluctantly to the role of director. Though married to Colette Favaudon for over 50 years, herself the daughter of a French immigrant family, bisexuality was also an element in Chahine’s complex character. During the development of his long, often embattled career, Chahine produced 36 feature and short films and six documentaries (Murphy and Williams 2007: 30). Acknowledged as probably the most significant ‘auteur’ in Arab cinema, he is one of the few directors to have received the Cannes Film Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement (1997). He died in Cairo, 27 July 2008.
Chahine was fortunate that the beginning of his career coincided with the transformation of his country brought about by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s overthrow of King Farouk and the establishment of the Republic of Egypt in July 1952. Nasser’s revolution encouraged the adoption of nationalist social and political agendas in film, and ‘by the early 1950s Egyptian cinema was integrating a loose adaptation of various realist cinematic trends including French poetic realism, Italian neorealism, and socialist realism’ (Khouri 2010: 10). Drawing on some of these cinematic conventions, Bab al-Hadid (Cairo Station), Chahine’s eleventh film, provoked outrage among Egyptian audiences on release, and it is not difficult to see why.
Cairo Station has an urgent pace, with striking camerawork by Chahine’s early patron, Alvise Orfanelli: the editing, sound- and image track, drive the narrative forward, in contrast to conventional Egyptian films of the time, which relied on lengthier scenes and dialogue. The casting of Cairo Station was also outrageous: Chahine himself plays the tragic central role of the disabled Kanaoui with powerful conviction, by turns ridiculous, disgusting, pathetic and murderous. Hind Rostom, the ‘Marilyn of the Arab screen’, plays Hanouma, a softdrinks seller, a part in complete contrast to her usual romantic roles, which were typecasting she fiercely resented. She recalled that working for Chahine was immensely challenging; he was ‘soft moving sands that hide a volcano’ (Fawal 2001: 19). Hanouma’s lover, Abu Seri (‘Speedy’), is played by heart-throb male lead, Farid Chaouqi, also very much against type. To cast these stars in such tragic, ‘low-life’ roles was daring, and one of the reasons for the film’s notoriety on release. Chahine had effectively created a unique fusion between neorealist convention, Egyptian melodrama and Hollywood narrative style, through which he began to portray contemporary Egypt. But this uneasy alliance of such distinctive elements also meant that Cairo Station could easily disconcert audiences.
Cairo Station can be viewed as a film made in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Suez crisis’, more accurately described as ‘the Tripartite Aggression’, as it is known in Egypt, when Britain and France joined with Israel in an abortive invasion to seize the canal zone. Chahine’s film portrays the tensions and divisions growing within Egyptian society between the emergent, consumerist urban commuter classes, who were adopting Western dress, popular culture and values, and those Egyptians still adhering to more traditional ways of life – the fellahin (rural labourers), the urban poor and the strict adherents of Islam (Chahine was prosecuted for supposedly contravening Islamic laws of representation in alMuhajir, The Emigrant, 1994). The concourse and platforms of the city transport hub provide a locale that enables Chahine effectively to represent a wide range of Egyptian society. The protagonists are the marginal groups who are confined to the station precincts in a desperate struggle to survive – street children, platform hawkers, unlicensed porters and economic migrants from the countryside.
Cairo Station observes the ‘unities’ of time, place and action, perhaps a legacy of Chahine’s first love of theatre: the action unfolds in the course of a single day, within the bounds of Bab al-Hadid (except for one significant excursion), and the narrative pursues a tragic nemesis. The first sequence, after an establishing, pre-title opening, is purely ‘New Wave’: a waist-down shot of a young woman wearing extremely tight, above-the-ankle floral slacks, which inevitably attract attention from the male commuter crowds in the station ticket queues. The presence and representation of women throughout Cairo Station is striking, and for a relatively uninformed Western audience, conditioned by mistaken assumptions about the historical ‘place of women in Islamic society’, often frankly startling.