In the opening scene of the 1937 Egyptian comedy film Mistreated by Affluence, the camera pans the rooftops of Alexandria and enters an apartment where two men, a Muslim and a Jew, wake up in bed together. “They share a bed because they’re poor,” says Deborah A. Starr, Near Eastern Studies, but it’s also symbolic.
“It’s the opening to a coexistence film,” she explains. “It’s about two families, Muslim and Jewish, who live side by side, who picnic together, consult one another, and share the same concerns. They’re depicted as being part of the same landscape.”
The film, directed by Togo Mizrahi, an Egyptian Jew, reflects the diversity of Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s and may also have been a statement against the divisiveness on the horizon. Soon, Starr says, the rise of Arab nationalism would trigger the mass emigration of Jews and other minority communities.
“When you see the continued factionalism in that region today, it’s all the more important to understand that there was this coexistence,” Starr says, “and that the kind of sectarianism we have now was not inevitable.”
In her research, Starr resurrects and reconstructs these stories of coexistence and inclusivity—its advocates and myths, its triumphs and defeats.
Togo Mizrahi’s Films: Egypt, from Inclusion to Exclusion
From the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, people from all over the Middle East and North Africa immigrated to Egypt for economic opportunity. European powers were also trying to gain footholds in the region. As a result, Egypt grew diverse and cosmopolitan.
The nostalgia for that time in Egypt’s history, as expressed in contemporary Middle Eastern literature, was the subject of Starr’s first book, Remembering Cosmopolitan Egypt: Literature, Culture, and Empire (Routledge, 2009). When she finished that project, Starr wanted to travel back to study the cultural production within the period itself.
The film industry, she found, was where members of minority communities were actively collaborating. Interestingly, film was also entering its heyday in Egypt and had an integral role in defining national identity. “The members of these foreign minority communities are producing films that are supposedly crystallizing everyone’s notion of national identity, and then, as the politics change around them, those communities become excluded from it,” Starr says.
The director Togo Mizrahi, born in 1901, has become a central figure in Starr’s research, partly because his trajectory tells this story—of inclusion to exclusion. His parents were Egyptian-born Jewish aristocrats, wealthy cotton traders. They sent Togo to France and Italy to study commerce—instead he spent his time hanging around film studios.
In 1929, he returned to Egypt, set up his own studio, and produced his first film in 1930, says Starr. “What’s interesting about him is that even though he’s from an aristocratic background, he’s very sympathetic to the lower classes, and he works with a group of actors who represent a real range of notions of Egyptian identity. It’s a very broad conception of what it means to be a local subject.”
Mizrahi’s ensemble of actors included Leon Angel, a Jewish actor playing a Jewish character; Ali al-Kassar, playing a Nubian from rural Upper Egypt; and Fawzi al-Jazayirli, playing a lower class Alexandrian. Many other minority groups were also represented: Greeks, Lebanese, French, and more. Fittingly, Starr says, one of Mizrahi’s favorite themes in his early work was mistaken identity.
As Mizrahi wrote and directed his films, moving his studio from Alexandria to Cairo, political shifts around the region and at home were unsettling the possibility of continued coexistence. “There’s Greek irredentism, the rise of fascism in Italy, Zionism and the conflict in Palestine,” says Starr. “Then you have all of these minorities in Egypt and elsewhere who have European nationalities being seen as a part of the colonial, exploiting classes. In Egypt, you have the beginnings of both Arab and Islamic nationalism, so there are these movements towards a self-identity that’s excluding others.”
Starr continues, “I think that’s some of what Mizrahi is reacting against in 1937, with this buddy film between a Muslim and a Jew. He’s putting forward this idea of what he wants Egypt to look like.”
Mizrahi’s ideal didn’t hold. Leading up to the Free Officers’ Revolt in 1952, when the British-controlled monarchy was overthrown, minority communities felt less welcome and less sure of continued citizenship. “There’s this long history of coexistence that unravels due to the decolonization process, the rise of local forms of nationalism, and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” says Starr. “And later the coexistence stories of this period are overshadowed by stories of nation-building.”
What happens to Mizrahi? “He stops making and producing films altogether by 1946,” Starr says. “He leaves for Italy and disappears from the film industry. The arc of his narrative reflects these transformations.”
Jacqueline Kahanoff’s Writing: Remaking of Levantinism
Before film, Starr’s research revolved around Middle Eastern writers, particularly those who wrote about or embodied the integration of cultures. One such figure was Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, an Egyptian Jew born 1917, whose mother’s family was from Tunisia and whose father’s family was from Iraq. Kahanoff lived in Egypt, the United States, and Paris before settling in Israel. Using her experience in cosmopolitan Egypt as a kind of social model, she wrote in English about the benefits of what she called Levantinism.
“She’s saying that this culture of coexistence isn’t just about these discrete units that exist side by side,” Starr says, “but that they are absolutely enriched by their integration.”
“It was a word with a very negative connotation among Israeli elites at the time, signifying a kind of shady, shape-shifting character,” Starr says. “But Kahanoff turned it around, saying that this kind of social hybridity is a good thing—internally, in terms of creating a new Israeli culture and in terms of making connections across borders.”
The Israeli elite, mostly from non-Arab backgrounds, didn’t agree. Because of the unpopularity of her ideas, Kahanoff was somewhat marginalized during her lifetime and forgotten after her death, Starr says. The efforts of scholars and writers have recently resurrected her work, prizing its relevance to today. Starr, along with her mentor, Sasson Somekh (Tel Aviv University), played a big role, editing and publishing a collection of Kahanoff’s work in its original English, Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (Stanford University Press, 2011).
In her essays, Kahanoff writes of the cross-cultural experiences that have enriched her life: how her family gathered in Cairo to read letters from relatives in Tunisia and Paris; how her mother, still living in Cairo, formed relationships with young revolutionaries from Tunisia and Algeria, despite her cultural ties to France. “The pictures of this world that Kahanoff paints and these relationships—it’s hard for us to imagine how they existed or that they existed,” Starr says. “Yet it shows the limitations of our imaginations, not the limitations of their world.”
Coexistence in the Classroom
Starr brings the ethic of inclusivity directly into the classroom. One of Starr’s courses, initiated by student interest, centers around texts in their original Arabic and Hebrew—the cultural production of Palestinians in Israel. “It’s been really rewarding, and it’s not done anywhere else in the country,” she says. “Sometimes Middle Eastern studies departments reflect the political divisions of the region, but we haven’t experienced that at Cornell. As a result, students who might be on opposite sides of political divides all sit in classes together, too.”
The course embodies Kahanoff’s message: “She’s saying that this culture of coexistence isn’t just about these discrete units that exist side by side,” Starr says, “but that they are absolutely enriched by their integration.”