• "Donning the serpent headed crown in 1963, [Elizabeth] Taylor cemented herself in the public imagination with the name of the Egyptian queen." (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Mixed heritage is a common reality for modern day Egyptians, who are as ethnically complex as our ancestor, Cleopatra. Yet, like the fabled Queen, we claim and celebrate our Egyptian identity.
By
Daniel Nour

22 Oct 2020 - 11:09 AM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2021 - 9:10 AM

Opinion

Growing up in Australia as the son of Egyptian migrants, I longed to see Egyptians in mainstream television productions. The nearest I came was stories about criminals and ex-criminals. These Arabs were involved in dangerous underground violence and drug-use in shows such as East West 101 and Underbelly: The Golden Mile.

On the silver screen, Egyptian stories were more plentiful but these too were problematic: played by non-Egyptians in bronze face. In relatively recent films such as The Mummy (1999) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), the heroes were always played by white actors like Brendan Fraser and Christian Bale.

Actual Egyptians, and Arabs more broadly, usually performed the roles of a bumbling sideshow act in these movies: stealing treasures from ancient tombs or summoning evil spirits with the help of the occult; typifying the very worst stereotypes of Orientalist fantasy.

Within this context, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the recent announcement that actress Gal Gadot, who is of European Jewish heritage, has been chosen to play Cleopatra in a production led by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

 I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the recent announcement that actress Gal Gadot, who is of European Jewish heritage, has been chosen to play Cleopatra in a production led by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins.

I’ve read all the excuses for this decision, including the argument that Cleopatra was part Maltese and Greek, and therefore not ‘Egyptian’ enough to require a woman of North African decent to play her. 

There’s no doubt that we are Egyptian enough to play terrorists, criminals and grave robbers. Yet the moment we have a chance at royalty, our ethnicity becomes ‘too complicated’ for just an Egyptian to play.

To me, this raises the question: ‘What is an Egyptian?’

Yet the moment we have a chance at royalty, our ethnicity becomes ‘too complicated’ for just an Egyptian to play. To me, this raises the question: ‘What is an Egyptian?’

Mixed heritage is a common reality for modern day Egyptians, who are as ethnically complex as our ancestor, Cleopatra. Yet, like the fabled Queen, we claim and celebrate our Egyptian identity. In my own case, although I identify as Egyptian, my Ancestry.com results tell me that I have West African and broader Middle Eastern heritage, including Lebanese, Syrian and Iraqi descent. To put it simply, our diversity doesn’t make us less Egyptian, our diversity is Egyptian. 

Perhaps the most iconic portrayal of Cleopatra to date was performed by Elizabeth Taylor. Donning the serpent headed crown in 1963, Taylor cemented herself in the public imagination with the name of the Egyptian queen. With her chipped trans-Atlantic accent and WASPy features, a more inauthentic portrayal of the Mediterranean royal there could not have been. But this certainly wasn’t the last time we saw the Queen of the Nile on the silver screen: Leonor Varela played Cleopatra 1999, Monica Bellucci played her in 2002 and Virginia Madsen played her in 2005. Sadly, all of these actresses have one curious and vital trait missing from their portrayal of an Egyptian Pharaoh: None of them are Egyptian.

Is there a shortage of talent in the Egyptian community? Perhaps there are simply no Egyptian actors out there?

In the last few years there have been tremendous achievements coming out of the Egyptian community in Hollywood. The critically acclaimed and award-winning series Ramy, centred around a modern Egyptian-American family, features a full Egyptian and Arab cast, and is created by Egyptian-American comedian Ramy Youssef. The Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Masoud was cast in the lead role of Disney’s live action adaptation of Aladdin, and most impressively of all, Egyptian-American actor, Rami Malek won Best Actor at the 2019 Academy Awards for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

Whilst there is great pride in our community for the achievements of these men, it is disappointing to realise that the amazing women in our community are still being deprived of the platform to represent themselves on the world stage. I can think of three Egyptian actresses just off the top of my head, with skin tones from fair to dark, who could do an outstanding job as Cleopatra: Mena Shalaby, who won the coveted Murex D’or Award for acting and prizes at the festival circuit in Granada and Dubai. Mona Zaki, an Egyptian screen icon who has won accolades at the Paris Biennal of Arab Cinema and the Damascus Film Festival. And Yasmine Sabri, a young Egyptian actress who has appeared in programs such as Devil’s Steps (2013) and El Helal Mountain (2014).

All of these women are strong English speakers, immensely talented and most crucially, while their looks and ancestry might vary, they are already Egyptian queens in our eyes.

All of these women are strong English speakers, immensely talented and most crucially, while their looks and ancestry might vary, they are already Egyptian queens in our eyes.

For Egyptian women, such as my mother, sisters and nieces, the choice to cast an Egyptian woman in a role like Cleopatra can be incredibly empowering. Egyptian feminist Nawaal El Saadawi speaks of the role of the ancient Egyptian woman, especially iconic female rulers such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, as historical demonstrations of the matriarchal power structures held by North-African women. Seeing such a commanding portrayal of an Egyptian woman provides a counter-point to the prejudiced notion that all Arab women are oppressed. 

Hollywood is clearly averse to casting Arab actors and actresses in lead roles, even when there’s no shortage of talent. This insistence on circumventing the easiest and most obvious options is becoming patently ridiculous. In the 2014 film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, director Ridley Scott brown-faced the White-Australian actor Joel Edgerton so he could play the role of Egypt’s King Ramses. Sigourney Weaver was chosen to play his mother. A number of bloggers and critics called for a boycott of the 2014 film on the basis of ‘white-washing’. 

In defence of his decision, director Ridley Scott told Variety: “I can’t mount a film of this budget … and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.”

Such arguments have been debunked time and time again. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, it makes just as good economic sense as it does ethical sense to cast authentically. While Exodus: Gods and Kings aired to poor reviews and even worse box office sales, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther all showed that films which centre actors of colour playing characters of colour can achieve critical and commercial success. 

This year, the Academy Awards introduced a quota system that would eliminate awards being given to films without adequate ‘diversity representation.’ Under the new rules, an Oscar will only be given to a film that includes non-white actors, including Middle Eastern and North African actors, in a ‘lead or significant supporting’ role. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to understand what Hollywood has to lose when it comes to authentically casting one of the most iconic women to have ever lived. 

The historical persona of Cleopatra is not some imaginary idea which can be re-created according to people’s whims and wishes. She is a Queen of Egyptian history and it is the right of the Egyptian people to have a say in her portrayal. As the son of Egyptians, who is proud of his eclectic heritage, his people and his culture, I say, boldly and defiantly: I am Cleopatra.


This article has been published in partnership with 
Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.