Whose queen? Netflix and Egypt spar over an African Cleopatra

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Whose queen? Netflix and Egypt spar over an African Cleopatra
A family poses for photos in front of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. The museum has statues of Cleopatra at the entrance. (Heba Khamis/The New York Times)

by Vivian Yee

CAIRO.- On this much, at least, everyone can agree: Cleopatra was a formidable queen of ancient Egypt, the last of the Macedonian Greek dynasty founded by Alexander the Great, who went on to even greater posthumous fame as a seductress, immortalized by Shakespeare and Hollywood.

Beyond that, many of the details are fuzzy — which is how one of the world’s dominant streaming services ended up in an imbroglio with modern-day Egypt recently, called out by online commenters and even the Egyptian government for casting a Black actress to play Cleopatra in the Netflix docudrama series “African Queens,” which airs Wednesday.

Soon after the show’s trailer appeared last month, Netflix was forced to disable comments as they turned into a hostile and occasionally racist pile-on. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, the government agency in charge of heritage, declared the show a “falsification of Egyptian history.” A popular television host accused Netflix of trying to “take over our Egyptian culture.” An Egyptian lawyer filed a complaint demanding that the streaming service be shut down in the country.

For the show’s makers, the four episodes about Cleopatra were a chance to celebrate one of history’s most famous women as an African ruler, one they portray as Black. But for many Egyptians and historians, that portrayal is at best a misreading, and at worst a negation, of Egyptian history.

Despite her Macedonian Greek lineage, the producers of the show say question marks in her family tree leave room for the possibility that her mother was of another background: The identities of Cleopatra’s mother and grandmother are unknown, leading some experts to argue that she was at least partly Indigenous Egyptian.

“We don’t often get to see or hear stories about Black queens, and that was really important for me, as well as for my daughter, and just for my community to be able to know those stories because there are tons of them,” Jada Pinkett Smith, who produced “African Queens,” said in a Netflix-sponsored article about the show.

Cleopatra was descended from a line of Macedonian Greek kings who ruled Egypt from 323 B.C. to 30 B.C., when it was annexed by Rome, and many scholars contend that she likely had little, if any, non-Greek blood. The Ptolemies — as all the dynasty’s kings were called — tended to marry their own sisters or other relatives, leaving few openings for new blood, although there is some evidence that she had a Persian ancestor, some scholars say.

“Statues of Queen Cleopatra confirm that she had Hellenistic (Greek) features, distinguished by light skin, a drawn-out nose and thin lips,” Egypt’s government said on Twitter on April 30.

Modern battles over Cleopatra’s heritage and skin color have erupted time after time, finding fresh fuel with each new Hollywood casting, from Elizabeth Taylor, who played her in 1963, to Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga and Gal Gadot, all recent contenders to portray her in various projects.

Netflix’s casting of Adele James, a biracial British actress, is a reflection of Western arguments over Black representation in Hollywood and whether history is too dominated by white narratives that revolve around European primacy.

But it stirred up a very different debate in Egypt, where many view identity and race through another lens. For many Egyptians, the question is whether Egyptians and their ancient ancestors — geographical location notwithstanding — are African.

“Why do some people need Cleopatra to be white?” the show’s director, Tina Gharavi, wrote in a piece defending the casting in Variety last month. “Perhaps it’s not just that I’ve directed a series that portrays Cleopatra as Black, but that I have asked Egyptians to see themselves as Africans, and they are furious at me for that.”

Egypt sits on the northeast corner of Africa. Its relationship with the continent, however, is deeply ambivalent.

Today, it holds membership in the African Union and other continental groups. But in Greek and Roman times, historians say, Egypt was seen as a major player in the Mediterranean world, the gateway to Africa, rather than fully African.

Since Arabs conquered Egypt in the seventh century, bringing the Arabic language and Islam with them, Egyptians have shared more cultural, religious and linguistic ties with the predominantly Arab and Muslim Middle East and North Africa than with the rest of Africa.

The ancestors of today’s Egyptians include not only Arabs and native Egyptians but also Nubians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Circassians, Albanians, Western Europeans and other conquerors, traders, slaves and immigrants who landed in Egypt at various points over the ages.

For all its diversity, Egyptian society often prizes light skin and looks down on darker-skinned Egyptians. But many Egyptians and historians say the racist slurs hurled online at James, while abhorrent, distract from the real issue. The show is dragging an ancient queen into the middle of contemporary Western debates in which she has no real place, they argue.

“How can someone who’s not even from my country claim my heritage just because of their skin color?” said Yasmin El Shazly, an Egyptologist and the deputy director for research and programs at the American Research Center in Egypt.

Ancient Egypt and its wonders have long been a trophy in Western culture wars. In 1987, Martin Bernal’s book “Black Athena” argued that European historians had erased Egyptian contributions to ancient Greek culture. Although many scholars agree that much of the evidence it cited was flawed at best, the book became one of the canonical texts of Afrocentrism, a cultural and political movement that, among other things, seeks to counter ingrained ideas about the supposed inferiority of African civilizations.

According to some Afrocentrists, ancient Egypt was the Black African civilization that birthed not only African history and culture but also world civilization until Europeans plundered its technologies, ideas and culture. The pyramids and the pharaohs became sources of pride for these Afrocentrists — and Cleopatra, for all her Greek blood, a potential hero of the movement.

“Cleopatra reacted to the phenomena of oppression and exploitation as a Black woman would,” according to Hamilton College classicist Shelley Haley, a professor of Africana and an expert on Cleopatra who consulted on the Netflix show. She argued that Cleopatra’s potentially mixed background made her a person of color: “Hence we embrace her as sister.”

This kind of thinking frustrates many Egyptians, historians and Egyptologists. Egyptians, too, are fiercely proud of the pyramids and the pharaohs, even if they are two millenniums removed, and they would like Afrocentrists who hold such views to back off.

For many Egyptians, the pharaohs — whose skin color and ancestry are still a matter of scientific debate — were Egyptian, not African. Black American comedian Kevin Hart was forced to cancel a planned show in Egypt in February after an uproar over his past comments that the pharaohs were Black Africans.

It does not help that some Afrocentrists hold that modern-day Egyptians descend from Arab invaders who displaced the Black Africans of ancient Egypt, a theory that many Egyptians consider both offensive and inaccurate.

“An African American who’s never been to Egypt saying that ‘this is our heritage, and modern Egyptians are these Arab invaders’ is very insulting,” El Shazly said.

Some historians say the modern fixation on whether Cleopatra looked more like Taylor or James would have felt alien to the ancients.

In Cleopatra’s time, Alexandria, the capital of her kingdom, was a cosmopolitan port city bustling with Greeks, Jews, ethnic Egyptians and people from all over who, Cambridge University historian David Abulafia said, largely saw themselves as part of the Hellenistic world. They identified by culture and religion, he said, not by skin color.

“Race is a modern construct of identity politics that’s been imposed on our past,” said Monica Hanna, an Egyptian Egyptologist. “This use and abuse of the past for modern agendas will just hurt everyone, because it’ll give a distorted image of the past.”

Although Egyptian critics of the show have denied any racist motives, some Egyptian commentators say their society’s internalized racism and inferiority complexes turned up the volume of the Cleopatra outcry.

Unable to take pride in modern-day Egypt’s political repression and cratering economy, some Egyptians “link their identities to ancient glories” or attempt to signal their superiority to the rest of Africa by emphasizing their European roots, said Egyptian writer Abdelrahman ElGendy.

Seizing the chance to whip up Egyptian pride, government-owned media dedicated airtime on three different evening talk shows recently to slamming “African Queens.”

The same day, a government-owned media conglomerate announced that it would produce its own Cleopatra documentary. Its film, it pointedly noted, would be based on the “utmost levels” of research and accuracy.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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