The American culture war has washed up on the shores of the Nile. It comes in the form of a new historically illiterate Netflix series on ancient Egypt, and it bugs me to no end.
I am a Coptic Christian, one of Egypt’s 15 million indigenous people. All told, there are more than 110 million Egyptians, of which a few hundred thousand live in Canada and the United States. Our country is a fertile oasis — the gem of every empire that marched through her deserts and drank from her Nile. Our history stretches back to the fourth millennium B.C.
Every civilization lucky enough to discover Egypt has envied its monuments. Plundered by Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamluks, and Turks, it took the adventurous spirit of Europeans — who were in Egypt on similar colonial missions — to help us rediscover the grandeur of our civilization.
Before being discovered by an officer working for Napolean, the Rosetta Stone was a foundation stone for a fortress wall. It kicked off an entire academic discipline that tries to keep up with the taxonomy of discoveries found in our sand-swept tombs.
I love when people fawn over my culture. Mimicry is the highest form of flattery, so go ahead. Dance like an Egyptian. Buy that Pharaoh costume for next Halloween. But for Osiris’ sake, do not appropriate our history.
Much to my chagrin and that of thousands of other Egyptians, the new Netflix series “Queen Cleopatra” does just that. Not only did Netflix fail to cast a single Egyptian, based on my read of the cast on the website, but it did not even pretend it tried.
The furor on Twitter centers around the casting of Adele James to portray the ethnic Greco-Macedonian queen. One tweet celebrating the choice got devastatingly ratioed, meaning more people commented their disapproval than liked or retweeted the post. Critics quickly pointed out that Cleopatra’s family tree — with its Macedonian, Greek, Persian, and Egyptian lines — gives no reason to expect her to be dark-skinned.
The idea that ancient Egyptians were black has been thoroughly debunked. Evidence from ancient Egyptian mummies shows they are genetically similar to modern-day Egyptians.
Contrary to Afrocentric pseudo-historians, ancient Egyptians “contain almost no DNA from sub-Saharan Africa,” while “some 15% to 20% of modern Egyptians’ mitochondrial DNA reflects sub-Saharan ancestry.” The introduction of sub-Saharan people into North African populations dates to “about 750 years ago into Egypt” and may reflect “the patterns of the trans-Saharan slave trade that occurred during this period.”
In fairness, today’s Egyptians — like our ancestors — come in nearly all shades. Skin hues in my family range from pale white to brown. I am regularly mistaken as Indian. A stroll through any museum’s Egyptian collection corroborates my microcosm of a family: Ancient Egypt was skin-tone diverse. Neither white nor black captures the essence of being an Egyptian.
The discussion about the lead actress of “Queen Cleopatra” being black frankly distracts from two more significant problems with the series.
First: Where are the Egyptians in the show? The shamelessly leftist entertainment industry has effectively shut the door on female Egyptian immigrants. Not a single one could break into the industry in the one series that would most evidently need them. How many young Egyptian female actresses had their hopes crushed after learning they were passed up for a role for the likely reason that they did not fit the industry’s mental model of an African queen?
Truthfully, I would have felt indifferent to the casting of a black lead if it were not for the reveal that comes about a minute and 30 seconds into the trailer. It comes when one of the interviewees claims she does not “care what they told you in school. Cleopatra was black.”
Then it hit me. The Netflix series does not care to faithfully retell Egyptian history. It has ulterior motives. It is a Trojan horse to sneak in yet another commentary on a distinctly American social issue that has nothing to do with Egypt, ancient or modern.
Second: “Queen Cleopatra” will almost certainly mythologize parts of her story. It will probably start with some paradisical past state where the African queen peacefully rules her subjects in fairness and justice. Then, because of the devious plots of (white) Romans, conflict will ensue, and she will have to sacrifice her life to save her kingdom from being shorn by evil, invading Europeans. This storytelling appropriates Egyptian history to push a contrived narrative.
Bad writers torturously reinterpret history to legitimize the concerns of African Americans in the 21st century. They conflate the black American experience with that of a first-century B.C. Egyptian queen.
To the educated elites, the series might seem like a timely counter-narrative to the Eurocentric orientalism that has characterized modern Egyptology. But even if that were true, it would still miss an obvious fact: Egyptians were not racially conscious as we are today. Race as such did not affect Egyptian politics — and certainly not in the way it does in America today.
Like their sub-Saharan counterparts, Egyptians bought and sold enslaved people. Afrocentric historians ignore these facts to construct their own version of Eden: a glorious past that must be reclaimed from The White Man™. I suppose we all need some form of religion.
The narrative seduces for good reason. America is reckoning with its racial identity, conscious of yesterday’s historical injustices and today’s pervasive disparities. Achieving an egalitarian utopia seems unreachable unless race is recognized and brought into every discussion. Getting creative with Netflix documentaries helps Americans cope with the drama that seems to be a feature of the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter feed.
The African American plight is mildly similar to that of the Copts in Egypt. Like blacks, Copts are minorities that have experienced and continue to face barriers to fully participating in institutional life — from the Roman conquest to the present day. Copts in Egypt still face overt discrimination, though religious relations have recently improved.
Our community has historically doubled down on things we could control, like starting our own businesses or going into white-collar professions, the paths less dependent on the goodwill of strangers and more on the support of strong families and the immediate community.
Despite our relative success, Copts in their Orthodox liturgies remind each other of the dark past by retelling the biographies of saints who endured persecution. We tell ourselves these stories, and therein lies a critical difference between blacks and Copts.
In America, the victim-industrial complex enriches itself by fanning racial strain. The entertainment industry infantilizes African Americans by engineering myths that heighten racial discord while ignoring legitimate black success stories. The kingdom of Cush, the Songhai, the Aksumites, and the list goes on. Why not tell those stories?
Maybe it is because those civilizations are less conducive to the narrative pitting whites against blacks and, therefore, less likely to draw the attention of storytellers with an a priori commitment to divide the nation along racial lines.
The irony is that if we need to learn one thing from ancient Egypt, it is how its civility and prosperity came only after uniting upper Egypt — consisting of dark-skinned Nubians — and lower Egypt, consisting of fairer-skinned peoples. America, take note.