Why Gadot’s Cleopatra sparked debate on race, ethnicity and history in Egypt

It's not just a question on modern relations or insensitive Hollywood casting as much as it is about Egypt's complex history with its own very long past

G2NM15 Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in the 1963 epic drama film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
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When Israeli actress Gal Gadot announced she was set to play Queen Cleopatra in a new Hollywood film, the news touched a raw nerve in Egypt, where many saw the casting as insensitive.

The announcement by the star of “Wonder Woman” was made last weekend, when she wrote on Twitter that she was teaming up with the 2017 blockbuster’s director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Laeta Kalogridis to bring the queen who ruled Egypt in late antiquity to the silver screen “in a way she’s never been seen before".

She was excited "to tell her story for the first time through women's eyes, both behind and in front of the camera," Gadot continued. “Cleopatra is a story I wanted to tell for a very long time."

While there were questions over whether Hollywood was again casting white actors in roles of non-European characters, for Egyptians selecting Gadot to play perhaps the nation’s most cherished female historical figure was a much bigger deal.

RESIZED. NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 01:  Gal Gadot attends Gal Gadot and Meher Tatna in Conversation with Carla Sosenko at 92nd Street Y on October 1, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images)
Gal Gadot announced that she is set to play Cleopatra in an upcoming movie, sparking anger in Egypt. Getty Images

To many Egyptians, the casting of an Israeli as the revered and admired Queen Of the Nile was just the latest perceived act of cultural piracy after some Israelis controversially attempted to claim felafel and hummus as their own.

“It is a very insensitive choice because Cleopatra is an iconic figure from Egyptian history,” said Yasmine El Dorghamy, editor and publisher of Al Rawi, an Egyptian history and heritage periodical.

“I am sure there could have been other politically neutral choices who also make good commercial sense, as she undoubtedly does … It seems like Hollywood is progressive and sensitive when it comes to everyone except the Arabs."

But to film critic Mahmoud Qassim, Gadot’s casting was also testimony to Egypt’s inability to turn events and important figures from its rich and long history into international blockbusters.

The news also kicked off a social media storm not only questioning the casting decision but also about the ethnicity of Cleopatra – the last monarch of a Macedonian-Greek dynasty – as well as the extent to which she ever actually interacted or related to her Egyptian subjects.

It is more than 40 years since Egypt became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel but bonds between the two neighbours that fought four full-fledged wars before the 1979 "cold peace," are still terse.

Inter-government relations have been close, largely over shared security concerns and co-operation, but interactions between the two peoples are minimal. A grassroots movement set up to resist normalisation with Israel still has considerable appeal today among many Egyptians.

“So, they could not find a single Egyptian or Greek actress [to play the role] and were left with no choice but the Israeli actress Gal Gadot to play Cleopatra?” read one Tweet.

The anger is explained, in part, by the fact that the Macedonian-Greek Ptolemaic age (305-30 BC) is viewed favourably. That contrasts with the disdain many reserve for, say, the Romans or Ottoman eras that are associated – in many people’s minds – with the exploitation of Egypt’s resources.

Five Arab actresses who could play Cleopatra

The Ptolemaic kings are, moreover, generally viewed more as Egyptian than Greek-speaking rulers. Their association with Alexandria, a beacon of culture and science only rivalled by Rome during late antiquity, deepened the respect accorded to the Ptolemaic era by historians in Egypt and elsewhere.

“Cleopatra is a figure that we and the Greeks proudly share,” said Ms El Dorghamy. “She is definitely as Egyptian as Mohammed Ali,” she said, alluding to the Albanian-Ottoman general who founded Egypt’s last monarchy in the early years of the 19th century and ruled until the 1950s.

A Hellenistic state founded by Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s senior generals, the kingdom was based in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. Nearly 200 years later, Cleopatra’s mother is widely thought to be of Egyptian heritage, but that has never been unequivocally proven.

Gadot would not be the first non-Egyptian or Greek Hollywood star to play Cleopatra on the big screen. She was preceded in that role by Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor, whose 1963 film is by far the most memorable on the life of the Egyptian queen.

No Egyptian actress has played Cleopatra in a major Hollywood film, but there was a little-known 1943 Egyptian film starring the late Amina Rizq as Cleopatra.

Earlier in the 20th century, Egypt’s poet laureate Ahmed Shawki (1870-1932) wrote “The Death of Cleopatra,” a little-known play in verse.

Also, in the last century, Cleopatra was the main character in the satirical novel “Cleopatra in Khan Al Khalili” by Mahmoud Taymour.

“To the West, Cleopatra represented the idea of competing with Rome, as part of Rome’s civil war at the time or as a playful and seductive woman,” said London-based author Shady Lewis Botros.

“Ahmed Shawki tried to respond to all this in his play by casting her as someone who struggled against Roman occupation,” said Mr Botros who also disputes the relevance of Cleopatra holding a special place in the hearts and minds of modern-day Egyptians.

“The bond between Egyptians and the Ptolemaic era is tenuous,” he said.

“To most Egyptians, her name is more associated with the local cigarettes by the same name,” he said, alluding to Egypt’s most popular cigarettes brand, which is maligned in endless jokes for its modest quality.