This column is an excerpt from the cover story of Unwinnable Monthly #102. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.
The first thing I do after downloading the new “Discovery Mode” for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which lets you non-violently explore the culture, people and architecture of Ptolemaic Egypt, is head directly south in search of Nubia. Contemporary Western recollection of Egypt remains myopically centered on its massive pyramids and god-like Pharaohs while Nubia, home to the Kushites, who would today be considered black Egyptians, rarely show up in films, literature or artwork about Egypt, despite sharing a closely interrelated history with greater Egypt – even ruling over it for nearly a century.
The bounds of Origins’ Discovery Mode do not encompass the rocky hills and valleys of Nubia, as it turns out. They terminate, instead, at the edges of the Desheret Desert, just south of the verdant Fayum Oasis. To the south, sun bleached mountains cascade infinitely into the shimmering horizon; a world beyond the one I am allowed to play in. At least geographically, Origins doesn’t give me much to go on when it comes to the Nubians, focusing instead on the Nile Delta and the Ptolemaic period of rule (the series of rulers descended from the prolific Macedonian conqueror, Alexander).
While I find this narrowness in scope disappointing, Origins is still one of the few contemporary stories about Egypt that pays any lip service to Egypt’s historical character as an African nation, with a diverse population reflective of the constant trade and emigration to which it has always played host. During my time with Origins, I come across Egyptians, Nubians, Greeks, Romans and even Libyans; I get to play as an umber-skinned Saharan man from the far-flung western desert oasis of Siwa, Bayek, who is voiced by the Kenyan-British actor, Abubakar Salim.
Having grown up watching whitewashed movies about Egypt like Stargate and The Mummy – with white actors leading bands of plausibly brown-looking extras as they conduct their orientalist adventures in a backlotted version of the motherland – seeing this minimum bar of diversity being met in Origins has a natural impact. By recognizing and doing the legwork of depicting the multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of Egypt’s populace, Origins challenges traditional (and modern) visions of what ancient Egypt looked like and, as a result, challenges the way Egypt and the rest of North Africa are often remembered – to the extent that some have even complained that it is “blackwashing Egypt.”
Playing Origins, picturing Salim as he voices Bayek’s lines, registering the appearance (if frequent ill treatment) of Nubian characters in the game’s narrative, I can’t help but consider my own contradictory hereditary roots. I was born to a Tunisian mother and an African-American father. As a result, I’ve received a cultural education from two very different spheres of African history. One aligned with the Arab and North African world, which often sees itself as distinct, even superior to the rest of Africa, and one aligned with a vague “Africaness” born from the trauma of the Middle Passage and its resulting diaspora. Perhaps for this reason, I see Egypt’s Nubians – strangers in their own land, caught between their blackness and their Egyptianess – as kinfolk of a kind. Like these Nubians, who once conquered Egypt primarily to preserve its cultural hegemony against foreign invaders, I feel stuck in the irreconcilable position of being proud of Egypt and the Arab world’s accomplishments, while at the same time recognizing the subjugation and ill-treatment of Sub-Saharan Africans by both…
Yussef Cole is a writer and visual artist from the Bronx, NY. His specialty is graphic design for television but he also enjoys thinking and writing about games.