When people ask me how I ended up writing a master’s thesis on the Egyptian remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show I’m never sure where to start. Even last year, I certainly didn’t expect I’d be writing about horror, let alone this bizarre movie, for my thesis. Since I’m primarily interested in film’s relationship with nationalism, I wanted to explore what Egyptian movies had to say about Egyptian nationalism. After a few semesters of grad school and growing frustrated at how little scholarship there was to work with on Egyptian cinema, I decided I’d look at the relationship between that industry and Hollywood. That shift was bound to happen eventually.
Looking at how American film has shaped its Egyptian counterpart is inevitable for anyone seriously invested in the history of Egyptian cinema. The impact is so obvious that Egyptian cinema is often dubbed “Hollywood on the Nile”, a term that depending on the usage can either be celebratory, highlighting the scope of the industry’s achievements; or derogatory, arguing that Egyptian films are but a pale imitation of the American films they’ve poached. Personally, I’m not fond of the moniker in general, but I hope it’s obvious I’m not particularly fond of the latter connotation.
The idea for “Nightmares on the Nile” came when, during my research for my thesis, I quickly noticed that writing on Egyptian horror was exceptionally abysmal. I’ve only come across one academic article, notably titled “A Cinema without Horror?”, and the listicles I found across the internet were even more frustrating, rarely willing to sincerely engage with the richness and diversity of Egyptian film. It’s my hope that this space will do what little it can to correct that. Egyptian horror has been around for decades and it’s about time it gets some sustained attention.
“Egyptian horror has been around for decades and it’s about time it gets some sustained attention.”
My general interest in horror is relatively recent since I only really came to the genre late in my college years. Safe to say, I grew up with a tenuous relationship to horror media. This is partially due to how little exposure I got to Egyptian horror. This was different than other (primarily) American genres I was exposed to, and liked, as a kid. Sure, there weren’t really Egyptian superhero films, but there were action films and that made the connection close enough. No one around me seemed particularly interested in Egyptian horror and I only ever heard that it was “boring” and “uninteresting”, two descriptions I find utterly baffling now.
The other side of my disengagement in horror was my hyperactive imagination. Watching a horror film, well into my early 20s, meant nightmares for––at least––days. The first Egyptian horror film I have any kind of memory with is Mohamed Radi’s Humans & Jinn (1985), which chronicles a woman’s disturbing encounters with a jinn. I didn’t even see the whole thing, just a trailer on TV, but still I couldn’t sleep that night. There was a dramatic clip of a cat hissing that I still haven’t been able to get out of my mind.
The most illustrative example of my troubles with horror as a kid is that unfortunate time when I was about 8 or 9 and stumbled on Friday the 13th Part III while channel surfing on vacation. My parents weren’t really paying attention so I watched half the thing and, even though I was constantly on the verge of crying, just could not look away until after Jason shot an arrow through a woman’s eye and I got noticeably upset and my mom told me to go to bed. I had nightmares for 3 months. A few years later, when I hadn’t thought about Friday the 13th for a while, I was in a lakeside summer camp and the first Friday I spent there happened to be the 13th of the month. I did not realize until the day of and I got so anxious that I threw up my dinner and could not sleep because I was utterly convinced that, at any moment, Jason Voorhees would show up and murder me with a machete.
I didn’t think much about horror again until college when my friends and I started writing and sharing lists of our favorite movies of the year and I quickly realized that I was annually missing out on slates upon slates of excellent films because I would not watch horror. I started easing into it by watching hybrid-horror films, especially horror-sci-fi like Alien and The Thing (1982), and it wasn’t long (a couple of years) until horror had become such a normalized part of my media consumption that I went back and watched every one of the Friday the 13th films and did not have a single nightmare about Jason Voorhees.
Thanks to my thesis, I found myself really coming to Egyptian horror in grad school. Since very little had been written about the subject, I had to start at the beginning. Though horror has by no means been as prominent in Egyptian cinema as it has been in Hollywood (or even some other comparable cinemas like Turkey’s), it arguably has been around, in some shape or form, since the earliest days of the industry. The earliest Egyptian horror film is commonly cited as Youssef Wahbi’s Ambassador of Hell (1945), a Faustian tale about the devil’s manifestation as a rich man before a poor family in order to seduce them into sin. But I don’t want to go back that far just yet.
Part of seriously looking at Egyptian horror means reexamining what we have understood to be the role of horror in Egyptian cinema. Therefore, and even though it is certainly the first film to be recognized as horror in the mainstream, I don’t want to begin with Ambassador of Hell, but with something a little out of left field; Youssef Chahine’s 1958 The Iron Gate (also known as Cairo Station).
“Part of seriously looking at Egyptian horror means reexamining what we have understood to be the role of horror in Egyptian cinema.”
Without a hint of hyperbole, it is safe to say that The Iron Gate is one of the most celebrated Egyptian films of all time. Though it was initially criticized for its violence and tone, it eventually became one of the benchmarks for stylistic auteurist Egyptian filmmaking and is routinely listed as one of the best films in the industry’s history. Relative to other similarly notable Egyptian films, it’s also done fairly well abroad. As a general rule of thumb, if Americans are familiar at all with Egyptian cinema, they probably know who Youssef Chahine is and if they know who Youssef Chahine is then they probably, at least, know the basic shtick of The Iron Gate. It’s especially accrued heightened interest this year after Netflix added a restored version of the classic among a slate that includes most of Chahine’s best work.
The story takes place in the underbelly of Cairo’s central train station. Like many an Egyptian film of the period––particularly Chahine’s––the drama centers on a loving couple caught in a conflict with wide-reaching sociopolitical implications. The lovers are Abu Sari’ and Hannuma, played respectively by Farid Shawki and Hind Rostom, two of the biggest starts of the decade––and of Egyptian cinema more broadly. Abu Sari’ works as a luggage porter while Hannuma sells soda (without a permit) on the trains before they depart the station. Tired of the precarity of his work, and the constant harassment his fiancé faces from the station’s police, Abu Sari’ begins organizing his coworkers so that they may start a union, much to the dismay of their bosses.
In a decade where Chahine and others routinely made social dramas about the struggles of blue collar workers and farmers against exploitation, this setup wouldn’t have been remotely out of place––if it weren’t for the third main character, a sexually obsessive and violently deranged man named Kennawi who attempts to stab Hannuma and another woman to death.
Played by none other than Chahine himself, Kennawi is one of the most notable characters in the history of Egyptian cinema yet has never been (to the best of my knowledge) considered as a prototype of a slasher villain. In addition to his violence, which is notably only directed against women, his movement around the station, and unceasing surveillance of Hannuma, foreshadows the stalking nature of slasher killers. Furthermore, as is common in slashers, Kennawi is arguably the true protagonist of the film. He is the first character we are introduced to and the story ends when his attempt to murder Hannuma is thwarted.
As grounded as the film is in the tropes of neorealist-inspired social dramas of the Egyptian 50s, its proto-slasher elements are undeniable. Since Egyptian cinema has never really made it into the hegemonic canon of “world cinema”, mainstream conversations around Egyptian cinema, sadly both domestically and abroad, rarely (if ever) put Egyptian films into conversation with whatever else is going in the so-called world cinema landscape. This is particularly bizarre in The Iron Gate’s case which, beyond its parallels with proto-slashers in general, shares a significant thing or two with the work of one Alfred Hitchcock.
Released about a year before North by Northwest and two before Psycho, The Iron Gate does two very Hitchcock things before Hitchcock. The first involves using the suggestive power of editing to communicate via train that two people have had sex. Whereas the infamous final shot of North by Northwest cuts from the couple kissing to the image of their train entering a tunnel, The Iron Gate, midway through the film, cuts from the warehouse in which Abu Sari’ and Hannuma have stopped horse playing and are now staring intensely at each other, to the image of a train screeching as it leaves the station.
“Kennawi is one of the most notable characters in the history of Egyptian cinema yet has never been […] considered as a prototype of a slasher villain.”
Whereas Hitchcock’s use of the train to suggest sex serves a clear-cut happy ending, Chahine’s has a double purpose. In addition to the obvious indication of an orgasm, the moment is also one of suspense, for Kennawi so happens to be spying on the couple from outside the warehouse and the camera cuts between him and the screeching train, voicing the screams of his own mind upon witnessing the woman he’s obsessed with having sex with another man.
As for its relationship to Psycho, Iron Gate shares its fixation with the psychoanalytic state of the (would-be) murderer. Much like Hitchcock, Chahine locates Kennawi’s violence in the combination of his compromised masculinity and obsession with women. The latter is more pronounced in The Iron Gate since we see the creepy walls of cut-up pin-up photos that make Kennawi’s little shack before we even see him. He is a man thoroughly obsessed with women and the viewer can spot his inevitable turn to violence from the get-go. Furthermore, the final scenes of both films are dedicated to highlighting the fragility of either man’s mental state. Similarly to how Norman’s violence is framed as the product of a diagnosable psychosis that is explained by a psychiatrist, Kennawi’s capture at the end of the film is at the hands of asylum orderlies who put him into a straitjacket and lead him away from the train station.
The overlap between Kennawi and Norman Bates is tangible in the performances as well. As Anthony Perkins would later do, Chahine plays Kennawi with a soft, effeminate demeanor that sharply contrasts with the more normative masculine hero who foils him at the end. In fact, the contrast between Kennawi and Abu Sari’ is even sharper than that between Norman and John Gavis’ dashing Sam Loomis. This is, in no small part, due to the burly and imposing stature of Shawki, one of the defining features of his illustrious career.
Beyond Psycho’s much more straight-forward adhesion to the tropes of horror, the main difference between the two films with regards to their slashers lies in the level of sympathy we’re expected to have for them. Kennawi is ultimately portrayed as a tragic figure, less a purely malicious force, and more a product of a cruel and unkind society. This is particularly emphasized in the film’s unsettling fixation on Kennawi’s mental and physical health, the former through constant references to him as an “idiot” in the outdated medical sense and the latter through the limp Chahine gives the character.
If it wasn’t obvious by now, Iron Gate’s overlap with American proto-slashers is by no means all peachy. For starters, as would eventually become normalized in the genre, the film mimics Kennawi’s obsession with conventionally attractive women’s bodies; their ostensible fragility and destructibility. Moreover, and in tandem with Psycho and other early slashers, The Iron Gate is also obsessed with pathologizing its killer, rooting his violence first and foremost in a divergent mental “condition” that is medically classifiable (and punishable) by the state.
“Any serious reevaluation of horror’s place in Egyptian cinema has to begin with the expansion of how we think of horror in the history of Egyptian cinema.”
Horror, or even just the application of horror elements to a movie, can be messy. In figuring out what makes us scared, we often fall back on toxic tropes that are far more harmful to the marginalized members of our communities than they are productive or even entertaining. I didn’t want to look at The Iron Gate because it’s a bona fide horror film (it’s not), rather to say that putting a hitherto under-discussed film (in terms of genre, anyway) in conversation and lineage with horror means highlighting the best and worst aspects of it. Any serious reevaluation of horror’s place in the history of Egyptian cinema has to begin with the expansion of how we think of horror in the history of Egyptian cinema. I hope this is just the start.
Do you have a favourite Egyptian horror movie? Have you seen The Iron Gate (aka Cairo Station)? Share your thoughts and recommendations with us over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!