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.
Read more about her work on Cornell Research.