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Unrecognized 1958 classic finally gets its due

Grace Myers | Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Best described as a classic psychological thriller, “Cairo Station” examines the lives of the poverty-stricken workers in Cairo’s main railroad station in 1958. Although underappreciated upon its release, also in 1958, “Cairo Station” has proven to be the beautiful preeminent classic of the Egyptian screen, receiving much international attention and esteem.

This film brilliantly and concisely encompasses all of Egyptian society in the world of this railway station. The entire nation is pulled together through the discarded timetables and black-and-white newspaper print littering the station’s floor, while time is told only through the station’s central clock. “Cairo Station” highlights Egypt’s invisible citizens – the soda vendors, luggage carriers and newspaper salesmen. These poverty-stricken men and women sleep in abandoned railcars and peddle to the crowds of daytime travelers, fighting to survive. They struggle to maintain a sense of community and guard their personal security while living in a world that constantly shifts around them.

Kinawi, played by the film’s director Youssef Chahine, is a crippled newspaper salesman, given the job when found sleeping in one of the station’s tunnels. While working there, he observes thousands of beautiful women every day, witnessing the frequent and passionate scenes of lovers’ separations on the station’s platforms. He quickly falls in love with the beautiful and vivacious Hanuma, a soda vendor, determined to make a life for herself and be respected by all those around her. She is indifferent to Kinawi’s advances, as she is already engaged to the handsome and ambitious luggage carrier, Abu Sir’.

Kinawi is the most marginalized character of the movie, forced to deal with his poverty and his physical handicap, but he proves to be physiologically inept at dealing with his disadvantages. He becomes more and more obsessed with women, fearing for his future and the possibility of a life without a wife. He begins frantically collecting cut-out pictures of female models scattered throughout the newsstand and the station. All the while, the head newspaper salesman and Kinawi’s father-figure in this confusing environment updates him daily on current events throughout the city, including the bizarre serial killings of women at another train station in Egypt where the victims are stabbed to death, packed into luggage and boarded onto trains.

Kinawi, growing increasingly desperate after Hanuma immediately rejects his marriage proposal and inspired by the current serial killings, plots to kill her and place her body in the trunk she will use for her wedding. Hanuma’s best friend mistakenly walks into Kinawi’s trap and is stabbed. Although shocked by his actions, he continues the pursuit of Hanuma. In a passionate and violent final scene, Hanuma is saved by Abu Sir’ and the head newspaper salesman and Kinawi is taken to an asylum.

The film’s greatest strength is the stark contrast between the impermanency of Kinawi’s world with his universal feelings of sexual desire, repression, passion and madness. Chahine embraces the black-and-white world, using light, shadows and sunlight to unite faces and the bleak scenery, while grease and diesel steam mark out the film’s backgrounds, reminding viewers of film noir. The film’s close following of Kinawi’s psychological developments pays great attention to his facial reactions and eyes, is highly powerful and disturbing. His eventual downfall and destruction of those around him are painfully clear. “Cairo Station” is a wonderful achievement of the director and a masterpiece of classic film.