You can joke with Egyptians about almost anything, except when it comes to their history and culture. Indeed, the most humorous and easygoing people of the Arab world will definitely draw the line if you dare insult, belittle, or misrepresent their icons and monuments; some of them pre-date the birth of Christ by over 3,000 years.
This is why the ongoing controversy over the recent Netflix series, Queen Cleopatra, might fly over the heads of many Americans. After all, their country is only 247 years old. This includes the series’ executive producer, Jada Pinkett Smith. She cited her motivation for the series by rightly pointing out that stories about black queens are underrepresented.
As noble as her cause is — and as much as Smith may be knowledgeable or interested in ancient Egyptian civilization — the topic will never mean to her or any American as much as it does to the average Egyptian. Indeed, Egyptians are taught from a young age that it is almost a patriotic duty to be proud of their culture and rich history.
The only issue is that Netflix labeled the series as a “docudrama”. This by default means viewers expect it to be as factually accurate as possible
Faisal J. Abbas
For those who have missed the cause of this heated discussion — here is a summary: The show casts Adele James, a brilliant Black British actress, in the role of the historic Egyptian queen.
So, what is the problem? Well, had the series been fictional, I would say absolutely nothing — as I mentioned, Adele James is a brilliant actress (and although I am no film critic, I would say she played the role extremely well).
The only issue is that Netflix labeled the series as a “docudrama”. This by default means viewers expect it to be as factually accurate as possible. Given that all we know of Cleopatra suggest she was of Macedonian-Greek origins, she would have more accurately been played by a white actress. (So, not even an Arab would have been the most accurate for the role).
This by the way is not my personal view, but it is the informed opinion of Dr. Zahi Hawass, a world’s leading expert on Egyptology. He recently penned a column for Arab News summarizing all the historic evidence that Cleopatra was, in fact, of European — not African — origin.
“Cleopatra was many things, and well deserving of having her story told to modern audiences, but one thing she most definitely was not was black,” he said.
As a critical reader, when I am presented with a renowned expert on the subject who cites his own excavations — which uncovered ancient statues and coins — to prove his point, I am inclined to believe him. And this is exactly what Dr. Hawass did in his column in this newspaper a few days ago. His argument was much more convincing than that of actress James who argued rather simply, “If you don’t like the casting, don’t watch the show.”
Needless to say, the nature of the discussion — given the current heated racial politics of the US — has resulted in ugly, insulting and completely unnecessary racist comments online. There is no question that this should be condemned, and had there been more adults in the (chat) rooms, the debate would never have been allowed to go so far.
We Arabs — and Egyptians specifically — are not part of the US’s racial politics nor do we want anything to do with them.
Faisal J. Abbas
In fact, I remember experiencing this myself last September when I was in New York around the time of the UN General Assembly. Then, the big story was the release of the trailer of Disney’s new Little Mermaid film, which cast black actress Halle Lynn Bailey in the role of Ariel the Mermaid.
I could not believe the fuss and anger I saw online at the time, and more importantly how an innocent cartoon character can turn political and bring out so much hate. Again, I am not American, so my position is still the same: She is a cartoon character, so what if she is portrayed as black?
In fact, I thought it was a wise decision by Disney, who like many other big producers in Hollywood have historically scored low on inclusion. Marvel also experimented with a black Spiderman, and more importantly — for us in this region — we are finally seeing Arabs and Muslims being cast as heroes as opposed to villains.
However, the issue here is very clear and very different: Queen Cleopatra is not the Little Mermaid. The first was a real, historical figure who is thousands of years old, the latter is a work of imagination which dates back to 1837. Furthermore, we Arabs — and Egyptians specifically — are not part of America’s racial politics nor do we want anything to do with them. Neither I nor the many Egyptian journalists and artists I spoke to imagine Queen Cleopatra would have raised eyebrows had the series been simply dubbed as a work of fiction.
If you bring Cleopatra into the 21st century, then it no longer is a docudrama, but a parody and you might as well have her wearing jeans and s paid of sneakers!
Faisal J. Abbas
The problem — at least from our perspective — seems to be an intentional attempt to drag a glorified, historical Egyptian icon into the muddy waters of current US divisions. This is not an accusation as much as it is what the series’ British-American director, Tina Gharavi, insinuated in a column for Variety magazine two days ago confessing that the casting was indeed political.
“Doing the research, I realized what a political act it would be to see Cleopatra portrayed by a black actress,” she wrote.
“The hunt was on to find the right performer to bring Cleopatra into the 21st century,” she added.
Excuse me? Cleopatra is believed to have reigned over Egypt between 51 BC and 30 BC — that is where she belongs. If you bring her into the 21st century, then it no longer is a docudrama, but a parody and you might as well have her wearing jeans and a pair of sneakers!
It wouldn’t be accurate to produce a documentary on Joan of Arc which cast her as a man, nor a biopic about President Barack Obama and cast him as a Cuban or Chinese-American. Queen Cleopatra should have been no different.
• Faisal J. Abbas is the editor in chief of Arab News.