Saturday, 6 August 2016

Cairo Station (Bab el Hadid) (1958)

Cairo Station
How much do you really know about Egypt? In my case it is not much and watching this entry on the List, Cairo Station, made me realize how little I actually know. That is sad, really. It is only two hour’s drive from where I live to Egypt, but I know absolutely nothing about what is going on there. “Cairo Station” is from 1958 so that means that this is the Nasser period and some sort of nationalistic post-colonial awakening is going on with the nationalization of the Suez Canal and a war where Israel kicked their butt, but France and Britain got humiliated.  But those are just headlines. What was the realities on the ground?

Frankly Egypt and Egyptian movies never really interested me and “Cairo Station” does little to chance that. The overall impression from this movie is an all-round bad taste in the mouth. This may well be intentional and it does not make it a bad movie, but if you are looking for an optimistic feel good movie you better look somewhere else.

Clearly “Cairo Station” is inspired at least in part by Italian neorealism. The attempt at filming life at the bottom of society is remarkably successful. It is gritty, dirty and crowded. And completely chaotic. In fact the first hour of this movie feels completely unstructured. I had an hour in no idea where this movie was going. That can be a good and modern way to tell a non-story, but in this case it was just plain confusing and messy.

There was something about a retarded man called Qinawa (Youssef Chahine), who has a disturbing obsession with pin-up girls. He sells newspapers on Cairo Station. There are a group of girls who, illegally, sell soft drinks to passengers while dodging the law. The most notable of these women is Hannuma (Hind Rostom). Then there are the porters who are in the middle of a labor conflict with Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi) trying to organize the porters into a union to the chagrin of the local boss and his henchmen. There is a story about a girl who is saying goodbye to her lover, but secretly, as his family is not supposed to know.

Throughout this montage of life on Caíro Station there is an undercurrent of youth culture trying to embrace modernity symbolized by Coca Cola. In fact those Coca Cola bottles play so central a role in this first hour of the movie that it feels like one, extended Coca Cola commercial. I do hope the producers got a lot of money from product placement, because this movie must have boosted sales in Egypt and wherever else this movie was shown. The youth culture is a far cry from the typical view of veiled women and bearded religious men and very guarded socialization that we are used to in the west from Middle Eastern countries and goes to show how little I knew about life in Egypt. While this strikes an optimistic note in the movie the Indian class level of crowded poverty is a decidedly pessimistic note. Especially when you consider that population pressure in Egypt in 58 was nothing compared to what it is today. As an advertisement for Egypt this movie does a very poor job.

Then about an hour into the movie a storyline coalesces from the many threads. Hannuma and Abu Siri are supposed to get married and Qinawi develops a crush on Hannuma who may be reminding him of his pinups. When Qinawa proposes to Hannuma and she brushes him off with a laugh he develops a cunning plan to kill her and blame Abu Siri, based on a story in the newspaper about a murdered body found in a crate. This storyline actually gains momentum and so the film moves from a drag to a decent level of tension up to a last minute resolution.

I mentioned the multiple levels of bad taste I get from this movie. Besides the abject poverty and dismal lives of these people there is the very sad story of Qinawa. Yes, he is dangerous, but he is also a mentally ill person left to rot and somehow his retardedness makes okay to betray him multiple times. But then again, everybody deserves a better life than what they a living on Cairo Station and that may well be the message of the movie.

I did not like this movie very much and I do not consider it a particularly good movie. It did show me a world I knew nothing about, but it is not a world that has much attraction for me. Sadly the only feeling the movie got from me was one of general pity for these people and that may be as much a matter of cultural difference as a fault of the movie.


  1. We'll disagree on this one. I agree that pity is a feeling that comes from it, but I think in many ways it's a meditation on obsession and madness and the link between. You'll see similar in films like Peeping Tom and Repulsion soon enough.

    1. I think if Qinawa had been a more ordinary person to begin with I would have agreed with you. As it is he is a sad creature who should never have been on the tran station in the third place. Already in the opening we see that he is retarded and obsessing.
      The second part where a real drama is unfolding is reasonably strong and the Qinawa character is a large part of it. The first part however is more like a tapestry and Qinawa is just a minor part of this melange.