In Bed Together: Coexistence in Togo Mizrahi’s Alexandria Films

By Deborah Starr
Submitted to Session P3431 (Who Was/Is Egyptian?: Screen Shots from an 'Old' Social Contract, 2013 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The camera pans across the rooftops in a popular district of Alexandria. The image cuts to chickens feeding on one of the rooftops, then fades to the interior of the adjacent one-room apartment. An alarm clock rings, waking Chalom, a seller of lottery tickets. He quiets the alarm, leans over, and wakens his bedmate, `Abdu, a butcher’s assistant. Thus opens al-`Izz Bahdala [Mistreated By Affluence (1937)], a film written, directed, and produced by Togo Mizrahi (1901-1986), an Alexandrian Jew with Italian nationality.

This image of a Jew and a Muslim in bed together functions as a point of departure for this talk’s analysis of the construction of coexistence in Togo Mizrahi’s films produced in his studio in Alexandria. Studio Mizrahi was the single most productive studio in Egypt from 1929 until 1946, turning out many popular and successful Egyptian films; all but three of the thirty-six films produced at the studio were directed by Togo Mizrahi.

In this talk I focus particularly on the Arabic sound films Mizrahi wrote, produced, and directed in Alexandria between 1934 and 1939, prior to the opening of his Cairo studio. My analysis centers on these films’ portrayal of Alexandria as a cosmopolitan space. I explore the interplay between the films’ construction and representation public spaces and private spaces, and also unpack the underpinning gender and sexuality discourses of same-sex couples sharing a bed. This trope of “in bed together” is sometimes underplayed, like in Mistreated by Affluence, and other times played as a gag, as in al-Duktur Farhat [Doctor Farhat (1935)]. The distinct queering of the private space, specifically the bed, in these films, I argue carries over into their construction of fluid communal, civic, and national identities. In other words, I approach the phrase “in bed together” as not just a metaphor of coexistence, but as a key to unlocking the films’ projection of notions of sameness and difference, self and other, in 1930s Alexandria.