Qinawi, the anti-hero of Youssef Chahine’s international breakthrough, is introduced into the main narrative by indirection. First, the ‘lame’ newspaper seller at Cairo Central Station is presented through the mockery of others, oblivious to his concealed presence. Then his disabled leg is shown, followed by his eyes, distorted by thick glass. A link is immediately made between Qinawi as voyeur, ‘cripple’ and social outcast.
Qinawi is ‘present in absence’ throughout the film, whether adapting the camera’s – or a cat’s – point-of-view as he espies his inamorata, the water seller Hannuma (Hind Rostom), undressing in a railway carriage after being drenched with water, or startling a female passenger seated by some boxes when one of them begins to unaccountably move. The latter scenario leads to Qinawi being beaten up by the woman’s husband for ‘staring’.
The sequence with the leg and eyes is not the first time Qinawi appears in the film, however. In the prologue, a fast montage introducing the milieu of Cairo Station, the narrator Madbouli (Hassan el Baroudi), elderly Muslim proprietor of a newspaper stall, recalls coming across Qinawi, lost in the station, a country youth stunned by the noisy metropolis. Qinawi is mentally, it would seem, as well as physically impaired. A kind of Good Samaritan figure – Chahine was born into a Christian family, and his work is loaded with Christian imagery – Madbouli offers Qinawi a job. One day searching for his employee, he discovers his hovel, which is covered wall-to-wall in pin-ups torn from popular magazines. The narrator thinks he now understands Qinawi’s social awkwardness, which he diagnoses as sexual repression.
Madbouli’s sympathetic account nevertheless positions Qinawi as a pervert, someone so physically and spiritually repulsive he must be either mocked, mauled or ostracised. In Stephen Dwoskin’s 1992 essay film Face of our fear, the disabled experimental filmmaker critiqued the history of Hollywood and European films that depicted the physically disabled as moral monsters. Qinawi is certainly seen as such a monster within the world of the film, but does the film itself adopt the same attitude? It is tempting to read Cairo Station against the grain, in the way Fassbinder did the work of Douglas Sirk, and suggest that lonely misfit Qinawi, with his sincere if obsessive and inconvenient passion, is preferred by the film to the so-called ‘normal’ figures, such as the ‘earthy’ lovers whose sex-play accommodates patriarchal violence, the monopolists who want to destroy the livelihood of the illegal workers who flourish around the station, or the upper-class eloping youngsters who seem to belong to a different film altogether. It should not be overlooked that Qinawi is played by Chahine himself – a later major role as an actor would be as a version of himself in the autobiographical An Egyptian Story (حدوتة مصرية, 1982). Qinawi is the film’s figure of the artist – appropriating found objects, drawing on or cutting them, creating photomontages, arranging them on his walls. Chahine would often later, and not always convincingly, position himself as an outsider artist in Egyptian cinema. Despite Qinawi’s heterosexual gaze, the fact of his reviled ‘deviance’ aligns him with queer sexuality, and his character may be one means by which Chahine addressed his bisexuality at this early stage of his career.
Cairo Station was acclaimed on its release and subsequently as a classic of neo-realism, but this is a very inadequate description of Chahine’s achievement. If it is neo-realism, it is neo-realism allied to the Marxist erotics of Bitter Rice (Riso Amaro, 1950, Giuseppe de Santis) and the underclass fantasy of Raj Kapoor. It owes a great deal to Luis Buñuel, whose notorious subversion of neo-realism Los Olvidados (1951), like many of his films, equated transgressive sexuality with disability. As the first part of his autobiographical tetralogy Alexandria …Why? (إسكندرية ليه, 1979) explicitly demonstrates, Chahine was a devotee of Hollywood cinema; far closer to Cairo Station spiritually and thematically than neo-realism is Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), with its disabled hero defined by photography, its MacGuffin of female dismemberment, and its themes of voyeurism and sexual violence. Cairo Station, with its abject masculinity, objectification of women, and self-reflexive approach to the theme of ‘visual pleasure and narrative cinema’ (to appropriate Laura Mulvey’s famous 1975 essay on the structural misogyny embedded in the act of film viewing), is more usefully associated with a very different stream of modern cinema, and films such as Psycho (1960, Hitchcock), Peeping Tom (1960, Michael Powell), and indeed, the work of Dwoskin himself, such as Dyn Amo (1972).
What Chahine does share with a neo-realist filmmaker like Rossellini (in a work such as Voyage to Italy) is his sense of the contemporary urban experience as sedimented, embedded in historical time. There is a continuous dialectic between the imperial glories of ancient Egypt – literally, with the giant statue of a pharaoh outside the station, more ironically with the allusions to ancient goddesses and funerary practices with the figure of the cat and the ‘mummification’ of the murder victim – and the apparent lowlife that comprise the film’s subject, often presented in huge close-ups that celebrate their ferocious, ungovernable, vital humanity. Cairo may not be such a melting-pot as Chahine’s beloved Alexandria, but we are still invited to contrast post-Independence Egypt with the lingering effects of Western colonialism, modes of dress and behaviour, age and class, technology and tradition. The workers, whose fight for union recognition is the film’s major sub-plot, maintain a hierarchy as elaborate and impenetrable as anything devised by the pharaohs and their officials. Chahine collides and collapses modes such as the musical, the advertisement, the crime thriller, the romance, the melodrama, and the horror film to release these divergent energies.
Madbouli makes it seem as if Qinawi is alone in his erotic obsessions, but Chahine is careful to present Cairo itself as a libidinal pressure cooker. Its central station is the most resonant of his films’ transport hubs, with its trains noisily entering and departing, crowds converging and dispersing. The omnipresent tyranny of the clock, the unbearable heat, and the dramatic observance of the classical unities of time and place, all serve to create an atmosphere of tension that can only find a release in violence. Qinawi is not the only male ogling and pestering women in this world, while the women themselves articulate and demonstrate their desires with rare freedom. Qinawi’s crime is not his sexuality, but his disabled body which his society refuses to see as sexual. In fact, the observance of the unities, the anti-hero’s tragic ‘flaw’, and the choral function of the supporting players, ultimately give this film about a creepy weirdo the grandeur of Greek tragedy.
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Cairo Station (1958 Egypt 74 mins)
Prod. Co: Gabriel Talhami Prod: Gabriel Talhami Dir: Youssef Chahine Scr: Mohamed Abu Youssef & Abdel Hay Adib Phot: Alevise Orfanelli Ed: Kamal Abul Ela Art Dir: Gabriel Karraze Mus: Fouad El Zahiri
Cast: Farid Chawki, Hind Rustum, Youssef Chahine, H. el Baroudi