Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 September 2010
Issue No. 1016
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

From legend to drama queen

Cleopatra's reputation has been tarnished by a TV production that portrays her as weak and feckless, says Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: Cleopatra's death as portrayed by the 1875's artist Jean André Rixens; liz and Rex Harrison in the 1963 Cleopatra ; Fawakhergui and Fathi Abdel-Wahab in the Ramadan serial, a black granite statue of Queen Cleopatra VII

Think of an Egyptian woman and you think of Cleopatra, the archetypal Egyptian queen and heroine. The most renowned of all the female rulers and consorts of ancient Egypt, she has captured the world's imagination for more than 2,000 years. Her story combines all the elements of a successful legend: it features love, power, wealth, seduction and dramatic death.

The personal power Cleopatra exercised was very rare for a woman. Not only was she the last queen and the last Pharaoh of Egypt, but she also possessed great intellectual ability and was well-educated, being the first of her line as well as the last to be able to converse with her subjects in their native language.

It is not easy to condense the story of one of history's most remarkable lives in a few lines, but truth is the better part of fiction and it needs to be told. Cleopatra VII was descended from the first Ptolemy, titled Ptolemy I Soter, a satrap of Alexander the Great who had been granted the rule of Egypt by Alexander on his deathbed. The Ptolemaic dynasty had ruled Egypt for 270 years when the 17-year-old Cleopatra came to the throne upon the death of her father Ptolemy XII in 51 BC. She jointly ruled with her younger brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV marrying the latter in the Pharaonic tradition.

By the time of Ptolemy XIV's death -- which she helped engineer -- Cleopatra's personal life had become deeply entwined with that of Julius Caesar. Cleopatra now shared the throne with Ptolemy XV Caesarion, her young son by Caesar. Effectively she was the sole ruler of Egypt, but Caesar's military assistance had left her heavily indebted to Rome. Upon the assassination of her patron she swiftly moved camp and aligned herself with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar's legal heir, Augustus. After losing the power struggle with Augustus, Antony committed suicide. Cleopatra, the mother of four of Antony's children, also killed herself. It was 30 BC, and Egypt now became a Roman province.

With a life as dramatic as that, why bother to change it? Yet many have. Numerous artists have elaborated on this theme, drawing inspiration from Pharaonic models popularised by film and fiction and often situating the scenes in an imaginary Orient. Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture. Her legacy has survived in two great tragedies; the film starring Elizabeth Taylor (whose only similarity was her predisposition for serial marriage) and no less than 32 operas. Works abound in literature, advertising and even a brand of cigarettes, all exploiting a mythical figure. The best known are William Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra ; Jules Massenet's opera Cléopatra ; and the 1963 Hollywood blockbuster directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz with Taylor portraying Queen Cleopatra and Richard Burton as her lover Mark Antony.

This year it has been the turn of Egyptian TV. During the holy month of Ramadan the first Arab- produced TV serial relating the myth of this legendary queen was screened with Syrian actress Sulaf Fawakhargui in the role of Cleopatra.

The serial began with the reign of Cleopatra's older sister Berenice and the latter's attempt to overthrow her father and co-ruler Ptolemy XVII, played by the Egyptian actor Youssef Shaaban. The early episodes of the serial centred on Cleopatra's love affair with Julius Caesar, played by Egyptian actor Mohi Ismail, and her love story with Mark Antony, played by the serial's Syrian director Wael Ramadan who, in a twist of the Taylor-Burton story, is also the husband of Fawakhargui. The drama also had Cleopatra embroiled in a love affair with an Egyptian thief played by Egyptian actor Fathi Abdel-Wahab before she reached her final dramatic death scene.

Lamentably this long-awaited serial has given rise to a debate over historic truth and theatrical fiction. The show's producer, Tarek Siam, sees the serial not as a presentation of Cleopatra's history but a visualised image of Cleopatra's personality, Archaeologists and art critics, however, say it is a diminution of Cleopatra's legendary reign. "I am really very sad to see such a serial, which shows the famous queen Cleopatra as a weak ruler who does not reign the country with efficiency and doesn't even know how to run the affairs of its capital at the time, Alexandria," Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary-General Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This serial is viewed by a large number of audiences in Egypt and Arab countries, which makes me afraid that they will have a wrong image of one of the greatest and most important queens of the ancient world."

Early on in the promotion stage, Hawass told the Weekly, the producers sent him a copy of the scenario of the serial, but they never contacted him to ask his opinion and left no telephone number or e- mail address where they could be reached. While reading the scenario, Hawass said, he realised that the author had tried hard to stick to the historical facts but that he had nevertheless inserted his own dramatic vision. Hawass insists that he is not against a fantasy being inserted into the scenario, but he believes that while the author and director felt they needed to spice their production with thrilling incidents that sometimes did not match the original story, they should have worked out how to do this without distorting the history. They should also state in the serial's preamble that it is an "adaptation" of the Cleopatra myth. "This is what happens in Hollywood productions such as The Mummy's Return, where it was written that it was an adaptation of ancient Egyptian history and did not match any historical evidence," he said.

"This does not mean that they can have a free hand in such productions," Hawass pointed out. He explained that producers should stick to the authentic architectural style of the period, as well as costumes, street design and hieroglyphic texts. This was not the case in the production of the Syrian serial, Hawass said. They did not show the beauty of Alexandria at that time with its splendid palaces, gardens, streets and its imposing lighthouse. Even the clothes by no means; matched those worn at the time.

Hawass points out that Cleopatra was clever, an intellectual and had a rational mind. She studied art, philosophy and science. Her Greek tutor Demetrios described her as a woman with a unique and strong personality, knowledgeable beyond her years. Other contemporary historians wrote about her intelligence, which is in total contradiction to her personality as presented in the serial which showed her as a queen with a weak personality governed by her instincts and love, even love for one of her own subjects. "This does not mean that I am against the role of the Egyptian thief played by Abdel-Wahab," Hawass said. "On the contrary, I am only opposed to the presentation of Cleopatra's personality, which was totally different from reality.

"I had hoped that the director might ask for help with costumes and décor from [set design] experts such as Anas Abu Seif, Salah Marei or Mahmoud Mabrouk so as to give a real and good quality effect," he told the Weekly.

Hawass pointed to the example of the Egyptian priest in the serial, who was depicted with a long beard. This contradicts the historical evidence that priests shaved their heads and beards. The makers even used the jackal-headed Anubis as the chief god of the time rather than Osiris. The sets were almost permanent and did not change through the episodes, which helped make the serial even more boring, Hawass said.

"The serial does not by any means look good for a great ancient Egyptian queen," Hawass concluded.

Cinema critic Tarek El-Shennawi goes even further, describing the production as "an offence against art".

"If we decide to offer a historical production we must produce it with much more credibility," he says. El-Shennawi says the serial failed to present the glory of an era when Alexandria could boast splendid palaces, streets and gardens and luxurious costumes. It was much more modest than expected, he says, and he does not end there but piles on the criticism. The serial did not present any historical signals or even make a link between the historical events and recent actuality in the way Al-Rahbaniya did in their play Petra, which depicted the fall of the Nabatean capital under Roman occupation and allowed viewers to make a connection between what happened then and today.

El-Shennawi says the serial did not provide Arab viewers with the impressive and enjoyable sequences they might have expected. "This is a result of the easy going tide in terms of writing and directing as well as acting performance, which did not come up to standard," he says. "This way of working indicates that the director Wael Ramadan either did not have the intellectual wealth or did not have enough time. This made a poor production with only fantasy and visual imagination on the vision level, not historic events." As for the performance of the actors, El-Shennawi says that actor Youssef Shaaban in the role of Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII was theatrical in the extreme in several situations, both in his dialogue with other actors or with himself. Neither did Fawakhargui appear at her best in terms of performance and fitness, and her movements were heavy and slow. According to El-Shennawi, the invented character of the Egyptian thief played by Fathi Abdel-Wahab was the best in the show.

And the final cut? Cleopatra VII may have possessed one of the most charismatic and beguiling personalities in history, but she was no Elizabeth Taylor. Along with many other truths, the great queen's lack

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