In light of the monumental tumult in Egypt that culminated last Friday with the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign, the classic Egyptian film Cairo Station looks like a prescient stew of mistrust and class inequality issues that have never gone away. In the past weeks protesters in Tahrir Square grabbed the world’s attention, demanding that Mubarak step down after they discovered that he and several other government officials have hoarded billions of dollars while many citizens continue to live in poverty. In 1958, director Youssef Chahine drew attention to the working class’s mistrust of upward mobility with Cairo Station, one of the first Egyptian films to compete for the coveted Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.
Chahine stages his social drama around the actions of Qinawi (played by Chahine himself), a disturbed cripple that lives in the main train station in Cairo. Qinawi is a pitiable figure that is introduced to us as one of any number of “Young men who come to Cairo seeking fortune and happiness,” according to Qinawi’s mentor Madbouli. As a waif that barely gets by thanks to the little money he makes selling newspapers, Qinawi looks on enviously at Abu-Serih, a successful, strapping young rival that is engaged to the flirtatious Hanouma (Hind Rostom).
Though Abu-Serih has trouble getting local labor boss Abu Gaber to agree to the creation of a union for the train station’s employees, he is clearly on his way to bigger and better things. The fact that the mercurial Hanouma, who seems to work now not because she has to but because it pleases her to earn more money for her wedding, is so attached to him proves that. But where does that leave the lovesick Qinawi?
The main thrill of Cairo Station, which is something of a slow-burn psychological thriller, is watching in horror as Qinawi becomes dominated by his obsession with Hanouma. Madbouli introduces him to us as a deviant, showing us that Qinawi has plastered the walls of his otherwise bare shack with pin-ups of scantily-clad white women. He covets Hanouma and tries to entice her with a necklace that his mother gave him for his bride, thinking it might catch Hanouma’s eye. But his token gesture does not get him the result he wants. In one devastating scene, he stares hungrily at Hanouma as she gayly dances for a trainful of passengers. When she winks at him, Qinawi knows on some level that her actions mean nothing so he returns the favor, dancing in the street to show that her actions have no effect on him.
But as Cairo Station goes on, it becomes obvious that Qinawi needs to possess Hanouma in ways that will ultimately lead to the film’s tragic and unsettling conclusion. The film is a jagged collection of collective, class-based terrors. It’s telling that while Abu-Serih is for all intents and purposes a local hero, succeeding in uniting the local workers against Abu Gaber, he is not the film’s hero.
Cairo Station does not have a clean resolution and neither will the current class-based warfare in Egypt that has so far claimed an estimated 300 lives. When Qinawi is taken away at the film’s end, we look on him with a mix of fear and sympathy. Mubarak has made his exit with little sympathy. But the fears for lasting stability, peace and prosperity for Egypt’s people remain.
Simon Abrams is a NY-based film, tv and comics critic for various outlets, including the Village Voice, the Onion’s A.V. Club and Wide Screen. He collects his writing on film at Extended Cut.