Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt’s Outrage Against Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra: What’s Water Got to Do With it?

Netflix’s Cleopatra divided Egyptians and Westerners on the portrayal, with claims of cultural appropriation and erasure of Egyptian history.

Netflix’s Queen Cleopatra
An alabaster statue of Cleopatra is shown to the press at the temple of Tasposiris Magna near Borg al-Arab, 50 kms (30 miles) west of Alexandria. CRIS BOURONCLE / AFP

Dana Hourany

Known as the last Pharaoh of Egypt, her name has gone down in history as a legendary icon. Many believe that this famous leader ended her life by allowing a venomous cobra to bite her chest.

In the centuries since Cleopatra’s death, conversations surrounding her have centered on race and representation. The woman who famously had powerful love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony has become a figurehead for modern-day debates on these issues.

Today, Cleopatra is the subject of a new controversy that involves her skin tone and lineage.

In late April, the trailer for a new Netflix documentary series about her was released, provoking strong reactions from Egyptians and Westerners alike. The two-minute clip showed the Queen of Egypt with African features, including a darker complexion than is typically associated with previous depictions of the ancient Egyptian queen. This documentary was produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, the spouse of renowned Hollywood star Will Smith.

Adele James, the British-African actress who plays the leading role, was the subject of a massive backlash from Egyptian scholars and audiences alike. The outrage was directed at Netflix’s choice to cast someone of a darker skin tone since they believe Cleopatra had lighter skin and Hellenistic features, citing historical facts as references.

“This isn’t about discrimination against a particular race, but about preserving a history we feel too protective of and cannot let anyone tamper with,” Karim El-Gammal, literature expert and social observer, told Fanack.

The controversy

Upon its release, the trailer was met with immediate debate on social media platforms; comments on YouTube have been disabled by Netflix. Hashtags and petitions were created, which sparked action from Egyptian lawyer Amr Abdel Salam, who formally complained to the public prosecutor concerning the matter.

The lawsuit mandates that the Egyptian authorities are duty-bound to utilize a variety of methods in order to safeguard their cultural heritage, as outlined in Article 50 of the Constitution. This includes seeking diplomatic assistance and engaging with various international organizations devoted to heritage preservation. Moreover, they must take both international and regional measures to combat any ongoing “attacks on Egypt’s culture,” while actively trying to identify those responsible.

The lawyer also demanded financial compensation from Netflix and the filmmakers be given to Egypt in a bid to address the country’s material and moral damages incurred from the documentary.

Another point of contention in the trailer was one of the talking heads saying, “I remember my grandmother saying to me, ‘I don’t care what they tell you in school, Cleopatra was black’.”

Egyptian audiences were quick to respond, saying that this “falsified Egyptian history” and “promotes Afrocentrism.” The latter is a movement that has been pushing for recognition of African culture and its influences on Western civilization. The proponents of the movement have suggested that in ancient Egypt, the rulers and people were predominantly black, yet this information has since been revised or removed from mainstream history teachings throughout the world.

In the early 1990s, an African American professor at Temple University made headlines by claiming Cleopatra was black (not Greek Macedonian) and that the Greeks robbed Egypt of its heritage. However, the dominant narrative about her lineage adopted by many scholars suggests that the Pharaonic leader was a descendant of the Ptolemy dynasty of Greek Macedonian rule, with several inter-family marriages.

In regards to Cleopatra’s bloodline, there is an ongoing mystery regarding the origins of her mother and paternal grandmother, which some suggest may have been black, but no evidence supporting this claim has been found. Nevertheless, much speculation exists on this matter among experts in this field.

The aftermath

On their end, the Egyptian antiquities ministry released a statement pointing out historical accounts from Roman conquerors of Egypt that confirm Cleopatra had fair skin. Furthermore, it is indicated in statues depicting her that she had distinct Caucasian features, likely due to her ancestry.

Additionally, Egyptian documentary channel, “al-Wathaeqya,” announced it had undertaken an ambitious project to produce a documentary that will rival Netflix’s in shedding light on Queen Cleopatra. Work sessions are currently being conducted with a number of specialists in history, archeology, and anthropology.

Egyptian youth began a powerful campaign under the slogan #مصر_للمصريين (Egypt for the Egyptians). Numerous young people have taken to social media to share pictures with half featuring their own face, and the other half showing that of illustrious figures from the ancient past. Through these images they seek to demonstrate the shared heritage between today’s Egyptians and those of antiquity.

Among the most popular responses to the documentary was Egyptian comedian and media critic Bassem Youssef, who appeared with Piers Morgan on TalkTV.

“I’m sorry, your ancestors had their own wonderful civilization in West Africa,” said Youssef in response to the claims that Cleopatra was of African descent. “They are culturally appropriating my culture calling the people of Egypt today as invaders, as intruders. We are being erased from our own history.”

More than 2.5 million people have viewed the video on YouTube at the time of writing.

El-Gammal notes that in recent years, there have been growing claims saying that modern Egyptians are not related to the ancient Egyptian civilization, which is why Netflix’s docuseries can be translated as a personal attack.

In 2017, researchers from the University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany acquired full genome sequences of Ancient Egyptians and had quite an unexpected find. Contrary to expectations, they found that Ancient Egyptians were more closely related to Europeans living today and people living in the Near East than modern day Egyptians.

In response to the scientists’ claims, several Egyptologists disputed their proposal; they claimed there had been many occasions in the past of dubious attempts to separate ancient Egyptians and modern-day inhabitants. They argued that genetic analysis could not be used as a definitive support for such widespread claims.

“There seems to be an ongoing attack against us, which makes us feel as though we aren’t worthy of the ancient Pharaonic heritage, but other cultures are,” the observer said.

Preserving one’s heritage

Although dark-skinned Egyptians are frequently subjected to prejudice, El-Gammal insists that the outrage is not one-dimensional.

“As a documentary is intended to portray reality, the casting cannot be considered an artistic choice since Egyptian history contains a number of black royalty figures,” he said.

Kerma, located south of the Third Cataract of the Nile, was once the capital city of a powerful ancient black African civilization known as Nubia or its Egyptian name “Kush.” Nubia’s black pharaohs ruled Egypt for 100 years.

The director of the Museum of antiquities in the Alexandria library Dr. Hussein Bassir told Fanack that developing a narrative that differs from what has been established by archeological findings about the story of Cleopatra could adversely affect future generations.

“We understand the power of social media and the moving image, which could cause confusion among audiences and cause people to completely disregard the scientifically proven version in favor of Netflix’s version,” the director said.

Fears and facts

A concern that Bassir has for the future is that Western audiences influenced by Netflix’s Cleopatra may become more aggressive towards modern Egyptians, believing they are stealing Black heritage. Bassir and El-Gammal agree that such a perception could cause modern Egyptians to be further separated from their heritage.

“What happens if mass audiences cease to believe or hear what we have to say?” Bassir said. “Netflix has a large audience and could easily turn us into enemies of the truth.”

To counter this, the director points out that the country must continue to produce educational materials on ancient Egyptian civilization in order to ensure that future generations will be aware of its importance and preserve it.

“The information we possess is very fascinating, and it should be invested in as a national treasure. In order for the world to not always be drawn to Western productions and to see that we exist and are here to protect our history, Egyptians should be able to tell the stories of their country’s history from their own perspective and with the help of local experts,” he added.

In the case of Cleopatra herself, Bassir emphasizes that she was aggressive and defied the submissive role women were expected to play in politics at the time. In order to achieve her goals and protect Egypt, Cleopatra did everything in her power.

“This is a perfect example of how important the role of women was back in the day. Therefore, we should emphasize the importance of portraying this fact in such a manner that no detail is edited or altered. We would have reacted the same way if Netflix had cast her with blue eyes and blonde hair,” Bassir stated.

Fight over identity

In April 2021, Egypt organized an eye-catching parade to celebrate the transfer of 22 ancient royal mummies through the capital, Cairo, to their new home, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization.

The extravagant event was part of Egypt’s efforts to promote its ancient relics and attract foreign tourists.

The tourism industry in the country has been unstable following the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, and more recently with the coronavirus pandemic that hit the world in March 2020.

The mummies included those of kings Ramses II, Seti I, Seqenenre, and Tuthmosis III, in addition to four queens: Ahmose-Nefertari, Tiye, Meritamun and Hatshepsut.

“This majestic scene is evidence of the greatness of the Egyptian people; the guardians of this unique civilization extending deep into the depths of history,” Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Sisi posted on his official Twitter account at the time.

“I invite all Egyptians and the whole world to follow this unique event, inspired by the spirit of the great ancestors, who preserved the nation and created a civilization in which all humankind are proud, to continue our path that we started: The path of construction and humanity,” Sisi continued.

El-Gammal believes the attachment of the Egyptians to the ancient civilization and their refusal of appropriation could also have political implications. One of them is the fight over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a non-consumptive hydropower project being built by Ethiopia on the Nile.

GERD construction began in 2011 and sparked a dispute with Cairo, which argued that the project would threaten Egyptian and regional stability, and specifically Egyptian water security. Egyptian media has also repeatedly voiced suspicions over Israel’s role in Ethiopia and the construction of GERD particularly. According to Ethiopia, GERD is merely for developmental reasons and does not serve any political or security objectives. Israel too has denied accusations of its involvement.

The Nile River has always been integral to Egypt’s identity. Therefore, developments related to the project could lead Egypt to “redefine its national identity,” according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Ethiopians have largely been blamed for inflaming anti-black sentiment in Egypt,” El-Gammal said.

“Egyptians and Muslims both regard the Nile as sacred, so the anger towards dark-skinned people went beyond Cleopatra and included GERD, which long angered Egyptians,” he added.

Egypt is also experiencing a conflict of identity due to the war in Sudan, El-Gammal notes. A rise in tensions between the two countries was exacerbated by the influx of refugees following the outbreak of violence led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Force (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo.

“The Cleopatra controversy occurred at a time when anger over the refugee crisis was rising, which stoked more prejudice towards dark-skinned groups than had already been lit by Ethiopia and Afrocentrism in recent years,” he said.

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