As an Egyptian American, I am Embarrassed

By Maha Elgenaidi, Founder & Executive Director (bio)

May 17, 2023

Cleopatra on Netflix (Photo Courtesy: Netflix)

A new Netflix documentary Queen Cleopatra featuring the Black British actress Adele James as the legendary queen has ignited an uproar in Egypt partly because of the race of the actress who plays her.  Academics and other Egyptians have responded to the casting of a Black actor to play Cleopatra with the argument that while she was born in Egypt and was a prominent ruler of Egypt, she was of Greek origin and therefore could not have been Black. Apparently, the government owned Al Wathaeqya channel has gone so far as to announce their own production about Cleopatra which they claim will be based on the “‘utmost levels’ of research and accuracy.”

As an Egyptian American reading about this, my first reaction was deep embarrassment. I watched the entire series and found it to be quite entertaining as docudramas are meant to be. Cleopatra is depicted as an intelligent, scholarly trained, strategic, and decisive leader who survived incursions by the Roman Empire for nearly twenty years, all for the protection and security of her Egyptian people.

This topic is also of particular concern to me based on the work I do countering bigotry against Muslims and other targeted groups, especially at a time when racism is on the rise both here in the United States as well as globally. White supremacy is today a transnational ideology fostered by “online communities over the last 20 years (which) has made it easier to find, join, and become radicalized into white supremacist groups.” This movement continues to gain followers, often resulting in hate crimes and even horrific mass killings such as the murders of seventy-seven people by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in 2011, eleven Jewish worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, six Muslims in a Quebec City mosque in 2017, nice Black Christian parishioners in a church in Charleston in 2015, fifty-one Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand in March, 2019, and twenty-three people in a Texas Walmart a few months later, as well as countless other attacks against Black churches, synagogues, mosques, and Sikh temples here in the United States. FBI hate crimes data consistently shows that the majority of hate crimes, including 63% in 2021 were motivated by bias toward race, with the highest number (31%) against Blacks.

What is particularly ironic is that Egyptians themselves are an extremely mixed population made up of diverse colors and races, including Black Africans. While I might appear white/tan in color to many people, I myself am 18% Black African according to a DNA service, which is not unusual for many if not most Egyptians. Additionally, the racial/ethnic identity of ancient Egyptians is unknown.

There have been other criticisms about the production that hold validity, such as the critique that the West has too long separated “modern Egyptians from their ancient heritage—whether in the name of imperialist notions of Western civilization or Afrocentrism.” As Egyptian journalist and doctoral candidate Sara Khorshid points out in an article where she critiques the show, “many Westerners—talked about modern Egyptians’ links to antiquity as if they were too inferior to be related to a great civilization. This racist and colonialist attitude has manifested itself widely over the years, whether in tangible form, such as the continued possession of Egyptian cultural artifacts that were seized during the era of colonialism or in subtler ways, including through Egyptomania, the fascination with Pharaonic civilization that has existed for centuries, peaking during waves of Western imperialist expansion.”

This critique is important but doesn’t detract from the widespread Egyptian reaction that was based on the skin color of Adele James. There was/is certainly no similar outrage over Elizabeth Taylor being cast as the queen in the 1963 Hollywood movie.

We are often quick to point out that race is a construction of European colonialism and that as Muslims we are never supposed to judge people by their race or skin color, or other physical attributes. Islamic teachings are very clear in condemning such attitudes. The Qur’an states, “O humankind! We have made you…into nations and tribes, so that you may get to know one another. The noblest of you in God’s sight is the one who is most righteous.” (49:13) and specifically talks about the diversity of skin colors: “And one of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your languages and colors. Surely in this are signs for those of knowledge. (30:22) This issue was so important that the Prophet Muhammad (p) emphasized it in his last sermon in which he famously said, “There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”

But racism is not just limited to some white people. People of color are also embracing racist ideologies as we have all become victims of racialization in which we judge others by the color of their skin. This is a problem in both Western and non-white countries. It is unfortunate that today many Egyptians, Arabs, and Muslims have internalized Western ideals of beauty after decades of Western colonialism followed by post-colonial cultural domination in which popular culture promotes standards of beauty and status which holds those who are fairer skinned to be more beautiful. Muslims not only suffer from racism and colorism in Western countries but use these same standards to judge each other.

Additionally, in light of the fact that Muslims and Arabs have long been demonized and stereotyped in Hollywood as villains and terrorists, it is ironic that people from a Muslim and Arab nation are criticizing a Western film production for casting a Black woman which continue an inclusionary trend that has become popular in recent years in productions like Hamilton and Bridgerton.

We can’t fight racism when we’re both perpetrators and victims of it. We need to be bold enough to challenge our own internalized racism and say enough is enough. This has to stop. It can end with each of us challenging our own subconscious biases and pledging to work to counter them.