Tuesday, November 28, 2006

“Rockers, Feminists and Homosexuals: Diversionary Scenes in Chahine’s 'Bab al-Hadid'”

I attended the Middle East Studies Association meetings, November 18-21, in Boston, where I presented a paper on Youssef Chahine's classic 1958 film Cairo Station (Bab al-Hadid). The entire panel was devoted to the film, and also featured papers by my UA History Department colleague Joel Gordon and by Elliott Colla (Comp Lit, Brown). It was a great panel, an all-too-rare occasion to focus attention on a single work. I offer below the opening paragraph of the paper; if anyone is interested in the whole thing, they can write me.

I propose today to concentrate our attention away from Bab al-Hadid’s main plotline, the gradual descent of Qinawi into madness and attempted homicide, and toward on three scenes which, according to conventional analyses of the film, serve as entertaining “distractions” from the story’s forward momentum. Film critic Viola Shafik, for instance, describes such scenes, of which there are several, as “inserts” that function as “observations made by Qinawi” and “allow the audience to participate in his voyeurism” (2001: 78). Shafik claims as well that Bab al-Hadid represents a “successful mélange of social criticism and entertainment” (Ibid). Her assertion that these scenes are Qinawi’s observations, however, is problematic because he is not always present, and where he is, the scene is often not shot from his point of view. In addition, Shafik trivializes such scenes by naming them as “inserts” and posing them as “entertainment” in contrast to the ostensibly more serious scenes of “social criticism.” My analysis by contrast foregrounds such scenes and suggests that the film’s pleasures derive as much from the “inserts,” the excesses, as they do from the unfolding tension of the main plot. Rather than viewing them as “mere” entertainment, I want to argue that they both reflect as well as comment on Egypt’s social conditions in significant ways. In addition, attention to such scenes can help us to deepen our appreciation of depicted in Bab al-Hadid as a sight of remarkable social dynamics and interactions, as a crossroads, as the narrator Madbouli states at the film’s opening, where a very heterogeneous variety of social classes and types interact: “northerners and southerners (bahri wa ‘ibli), foreigners and locals, the rich and poor, the employed and those out of work.” These include encounters between travelers of all sorts and the relatively fixed population of workers like Qinawi the newspaper peddler (Youssef Chahine), Hanuma the soda pop vendor (Hind Rustum), and Abu Siri‘ the porter (Farid Shauqi), who provide services to those coming and going, but who are also, in a sense, travelers themselves, as part of Cairo’s burgeoning population of rural-to-urban migrants (Gauthier 1985: 57).

I proceeded to examine three scenes that I call the rock ‘n’ roll, the feminist, and the gay pickup scenes.

The photo shows Hanuma (played by Hind Rustum) on the train with the rock 'n' rollers.

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