*An edited and more polished version of this article was originally published at NewslinesMag under the title “Was Cleopatra a Black African Queen?”, which you can find here*
Egyptian social media went into a state of meltdown yesterday over a newly released trailer for the new season of the Jada-Pinkett-Smith produced Netflix series African Queens, reportedly focusing on the life of Queen Cleopatra. The “historical docu-drama” had raised the ire of Egyptians due to its portrayal of Cleopatra, who was of Greek descent, as a black African woman, and having a black female expert in the trailer insisting that “Cleopatra was black. Don’t let anyone tell you differently”.
While some are enraged by what they (rightly) view as a gross historical inaccuracy, the majority of the voices view it as “Afro-centric” propaganda, asserting Afro-centrist views that the rulers of ancient Egypt were black, and had no connection to modern day Egyptians, who are in their view the descendent of racist Arab/Islamic colonizers erasing Egypt’s true Black identity. For Egyptians, not only are such views “historical and cultural appropriation” of Egyptian history, but they also alienate modern Egyptians from their heritage and history.
For those unfamiliar of the concept of “Afro-centrism”, it is a belief founded and propagated by African-American leaders- such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan- during the american civil-rights movement era, that “African Americans suffer from a “stolen legacy” of cultural riches, of which white European racists have conspired over the centuries to keep them unaware”, chief of which is the blackness of Egypt’s Pharaohs.
In their view, the lack of historical evidence to their claims is due to that white conspiracy and thus should be ignored, with Afro-centrist proponents calling up until the 90’s for an “African-based view of world history” to help “bolster black self-esteem” and “foster black political unity”, mostly in the USA. In short, this narrative is a clear reaction to centuries of chattel slavery treatment and dehumanizing racist practices by American whites against African Americans: A rejection of the “uncivilized savages” historical identity projected on them by white slavers, and an attempt to form a proud historical identity as the descendants of Black African Kings “who built the pyramids” and “kick-started civilization”. This included the belief that Queen Cleopatra was black and not of Greek origin, and those who disagreed are either racist liars or victims of white euro-centric propaganda and brainwashing.
Such afro-centrist historical narratives were debunked by historians all the way back in the 90’s, so seeing not only a resurgence of those beliefs thirty years later, but to also have it adopted by “Hollywood” and packaged as black empowerment, especially in the case of Cleopatra, is both fascinating and funny. Judging by the social media timelines however, Egyptian nationalists are not amused.
For modern Egyptians, this is just another attempt by westerners and their media to deny their link to their ancient predecessors and their accomplishments in order to deprive them of their glorious heritage. First it was the Jews who built the pyramids, then it was Aliens, therefore adding black Africans to the “who built the pyramids” club is merely the latest frustrating and disrespectful attempt by Hollywood to deny Egyptians their history, cast them as historical frauds and destroy their national pride. The Egyptian nationalists’ attribution to malice to what could be explained by good old American ignorance was fueled by last year’s rumored casting choices of who should play Cleopatra in a new Hollywood movie, with the two names presented being Zendaya (who is half-white and half-Nigerian), and Gal Gadot (who is Israeli and Jewish). You know, the kind of Sophie’s choice in casting that would make Egyptian nationalists’ heads explode.
The Egyptian nationalist views, however, are not representative of the views of all Egyptians, with those opposing them pointing out that Egypt is an African country with black people and culture, and accusing the nationalists of being motivated by racism and colorism, both of which are prevalent in Egyptian society. It doesn’t help that the current (and arguably future) state of Egyptian affairs has been so bleak under the rule of Egyptian Dictator Abdelfattah Alsisi, that the one point of national pride the Egyptian people collectively felt in the past 9 years was the “Pharaohs Golden Parade” in April 2021, an Egyptian regime nationally televised high-end production of moving 22 mummies from the Museum of Antiquities to the new Grand Egyptian Museum. When your history is the only thing you have going for you at the moment, any attempt at revisioning it feels like an existential attack.
Meanwhile, Egyptian historians and Egyptologists have grudgingly joined the side of the Egyptian nationalists in this debate, but for a different reason. For years many of those Egyptologists have been attempting to have pharaonic antiquities returned from Western museums, claiming them as part of their national cultural heritage. They fear that the Afro-centric framing of modern-day Egyptians as nothing more than the descendants of “Arab invaders”, can be used as an argument to deny their claims by those western institutions and excuse their continued theft of Egyptian antiquities. To their credit, not a single self-respecting Egyptologist ventured into the “black cleopatra” debate, because they know that Cleopatra was not even Egyptian, let alone African.
This historical reality is what makes Egypt’s nationalist fury over the Black Cleopatra TV series so intriguing. Cleopatra governed Egypt, yet she was not Egyptian; rather, she was the last descendant of Greek colonizers. So, historical accuracy and accusations of racism/colorism aside, Egyptian nationalists protectiveness over the representation of a Greek conquering tyrant is downright cringeworthy.
At the risk of sounding reductive, Cleopatra was foreign occupier who only cared about maintaining her hold on power. She (allegedly) had sex with a brother whom she later killed, brought in Roman invading forces to Egypt to secure her throne, murdered her sister for opposing the invasion and had her dead body paraded all over Rome, and her claim to historical infamy was successfully seducing two Roman (white) Generals, causing the former to be murdered and the latter to kill himself. What is there to be proud of here? Who in the right mind would be protective of claiming such a person? Since the answer to both those questions seems to be Egyptian nationalists, this fight over Cleopatra may be indicative of something deeper: of how modern-day Egyptians process the generational trauma of their colonization.
Modern Day Egyptians are rather peculiar when it comes to their 2400 years-long history of uninterrupted colonization, and maybe because of it. Not only are those years lumped together with the rest of Egyptian History as part of post-1952 military coup nationalist narrative of “7000 years of civilization”, none of those occupiers- most of which were brutal- seem to trigger the appropriate feelings of hostility they deserve. If anything, modern day Egyptians seem to have developed a collective Stockholm syndrome-esque sense of affinity towards the foreigners who occupied and ruled us, both as rulers and as nations.
This affinity shows its face in the many Egyptian proponents of both the Pan-Islamist and Pan-Arabist identity movements, in Egyptian upper and middle-class pride in white ancestry (whether ottoman or western European in origin), and even in the outpour of social-media mourning over Queen Elizabeth when she passed away recently, the same Elizabeth whose army three years into her reign waged war on Egypt during the Suez Crisis. It may seem baffling that the subjects of brutal colonization may develop such feelings to their colonizers, but after 2400 years of multiple uninterrupted colonization’s, what is national identity?
Funnily enough, in order to get that Egyptian “occupier love “, said occupier (or their ancestors) had to have died ruling Egypt. If the occupier came and occupied us for a short time & left, they get no love. It is why Napoleon gets no respect in Egypt: He couldn’t hack it, fleeing after only 3 years. For them, he is a short King in many ways, none of which are positive. Nonetheless the French campaign’s cultural colonization of Egyptian intellectuals remains highly influential to this day, with many Egyptians proudly identifying as Francophiles.
The French are not unique in this. Despite occupying us for many years & going to war against us, the Egyptian people don’t hate the Brits at all. The Turkish Ottoman occupation’s end is bemoaned by Islamists as the time of the last Islamic Caliphate. Soviet “military influence” over Nasser’s regime in the 60’s? A time of power and unity with a sister-country that many hope would return. While this phenomenon is not unique to Egypt, and shades of it may be found in other equally long-occupied brown nations around the global south, it is more or less concentrated on one occupying power, generally the final one. Egypt is unique in its claiming of all of them.
This is what makes the rise of anti-American sentiment amongst the Egyptian population during the Mubarak years so fascinating. For decades, and until this day, to many Egyptians the example of “imperialistic power” is the USA, and that was decades before the Iraq War. This is rather puzzling since the Americans never occupied Egypt, and yet received more hate than all the countries that did. I suspect that if we can figure out this puzzle, we might just understand why Egyptians care so much about Greek occupier being portrayed as black.