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Why Arab and Islamic representation matters in the new Dune

Contributed by
Feb 13, 2019

When you’re a person of Arab descent, you've often resigned yourself to the fact that you won’t be seeing a lot of people who look like you in mainstream cinema. Or, if you do, those people will be playing wives or cab drivers or terrorists... actually, in most cases, terrorists.

That’s why, when it was announced that Dune was being adapted for a second time, I was hyped. Frank Herbert’s sci-fi fantasy is one of the most celebrated novels of the last century and a lot of its characters, language, social theory, and religious imagery were borrowed from Arab and Islamic culture.

The story follows Paul Atreides, the heir to a noble House that has just taken over the stewardship of the desert planet Arrakis, home to the most valuable substance in the galaxy, melange — or, as it’s commonly referred to, spice. “He who controls the spice controls the universe,” and so the House Atreides becomes the target of political rivals and must look to Arrakis’ native Fremen people for help. They believe that Paul is a Prophet who will lead a revolution against the feudal chokehold on their land.

Dune-1984

Copyright: Universal Pictures/Dino De Laurentiis Corporation.

Putting aside the obvious similarities between the struggle over crude oil in the Middle East in the '60s and the fictional power struggle over spice in the book, it is through the nomadic Fremen that the Arab and Islamic influence is most felt. Their features are dark and tanned like Arabs and their language is made up of Arabic words. Paul’s messianic name is Muad'Dib (“ mu'adibs ” means “teacher” in Arabic), they call the sandworms Shai-Hulud (Shai meaning “Thing" and "Hulud" meaning "Immortality”), and Paul’s death commando bodyguard, the Fedaykin, derives its name from the Arabic Fedayeen, a term used to describe military groups willing to sacrifice themselves. 

Even their collective name is a nod to the Berbers of North Africa, from whom Herbert heavily borrowed their nomadic, desert-dwelling lifestyle. As Mira Z. Amiras writes in Religion, Politics, and Globalization: Anthropological Approaches, “in addition to spicing up his fictional vernacular with a smattering of Tamazight dialect, Herbert also named his alien heroes ‘Fremen’ — free men — a literal translation of the term ‘Amazigh’ — the name Berbers call themselves.”

Then there’s religion; the Fremen were descendants of Zensunni Warriors which is another nod to the Berbers and the Sunni Muslims, though Herbert does borrow from Sufism (Islamic Mysticism) too. Sufis believe Islamic knowledge should be passed down through teachers and Muad’Dib is that teacher, their Muhammad-like prophet, who they believe is destined to lead a Jihad against their feudal oppressors.

The Fremen ideology, strength, and sense of community were also inspired by the writings of 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. In Muqqadimah, Khaldun describes the concept of Asabiyyah (“social solidarity with an emphasis on group consciousness, cohesiveness, and unity”) and those who dwell in harsher environments have more of it than urban settlers, which characterizes the Fremen accurately. Even their survival handbook takes its name from another of the historian’s books, Kitab al-Ibar.

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A Fremem as seen on the cover of Frank Herbert's Eye

I could go into further detail but what’s abundantly clear is this: Dune and the subsequent books in the series would be nothing without the influence of the Arab and Islamic world. So to learn that no Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) actor has been announced in the cast to play any of the leading Fremen characters is a let-down. Instead, it’s been reported that Zendaya, a biracial Black actress, is in talks to play warrior Chani and Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor, might be taking on the role of Fremen leader Stilgar.

These two are both talented actors, of course, but to erase the Arab identity from the characters that they play is the equivalent to whitewashing. It is on par with Scarlett Johansson playing Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell or Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson in the series Urban Myths, and both those casting decisions were met with far more outrage than these Dune ones.

This is probably because, certainly in the case of Zendaya, people are just happy that a woman of color is playing the role and are unaware of the Arab and Islamic influence on Herbert’s original text. The movie and TV series contributed to this erasure because they were completely white-washed too. However, there are some people, like Zaina Ujayli, who recognize the problem with this one-ethnicity-fits-all casting.

 “Herbert relies on the fact that you don’t know Arab Islamic history to lend the story exoticism and fantasy,” Ujayli argued in a Twitter thread. “Just because you see brown faces on the cast list, you shouldn’t applaud because clearly all minorities aren’t created equal in the eyes of Hollywood.

Zendaya

Photo by AxelleBauer-Griffin/FilmMagic (Getty Images)

“Arabs and Arab-allies, Muslims and Muslim-allies, need to stand up and make a fuss about this movie. They need to demand to see Arab faces. Or else Dune will just join the list of movies that, if not being outright racist with Arab Islamic history, work to erase it.”

Dune isn’t the only science fiction property to take from Arab culture and fail to cast any MENA performers in significant roles; Star Wars is the most obvious culprit. Rather, the recent films have ticked the franchise’s box for diversity for non-white actors of Black, Latin and Asian heritage — and a lot of these stars like John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran weren’t offering the star power that is so often used as an excuse for not making diverse hiring decisions.

Daisy Ridley’s first ever movie was Star Wars and she played the lead role of Rey, so I can’t understand why the same couldn’t be done with an Arab actress and actor for Chani and Stilgar, especially when there are more than enough roles to be filled by white actors in Dune to keep Legendary executives happy.

There are plenty of MENA stars out there too who are toiling away in the sidelines of film and TV. Aiysha Hart, Azita Ghanizada, Kayvan Novak, Saïd Taghmaoui, Tahar Rahim and Souheila Yacoub are just a few names that spring to mind, but there are more lesser-known stars who deserve the chance to step into the spotlight. And we, the millions of cinema-goers of Arab and Islamic heritage, deserve to see positive representations of ourselves too. 

Dune is one of the few mainstream movies that could make that happen.

Please don’t erase us.

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