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Erasing Arabs from “Dune”

When is a gift not a gift? 

Words: Khaldoun Khelil
Pictures: Wolfgang Hasselmann

First off, let me say I love “Dune.”

I’ve read Frank Herbert’s books repeatedly over the past 30 years. I first read “Dune” simultaneously with “The Prize” by Daniel Yergin, the most complete real world historical account of the political economy of oil. These are books that shaped me and led me to my current career as a Security and Energy scholar. They’ve also influenced my work as an author of fiction and games. I even had the honor to write for the “Dune” roleplaying game with many other accomplished game authors. My academic and professional background, as well as my Palestinian-Algerian heritage, were assets to the work and noted by a few publications in the gaming industry. My inclusion enriched the game and was well received by the community — not as a sensitivity reader, but as an author and a creator.

Needless to say, I was very excited to see the new “Dune” movie adaptation despite hearing that it had near zero Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) representation on screen or behind the scenes. I was not disappointed in the movie itself. It was beautiful and well conceived, with booming music, political intrigue, and epic wide shots of a scale that put many other science fiction franchises to shame. Without reservation, I recommend that people watch this movie in the loudest and biggest theater they can safely attend.

The sophisticated visualization of the novel’s often inscrutable characters show that director Denis Villeneuve and his team know that their predominantly American audience are often immune to subtlety and subtext. But by erasing Arabs from “Dune,” they threaten to undo all of that hard work by undermining the anti-colonial message at the story’s heart.

— Stilgar: “You are Outworlders. You come here for the Spice, you take it, giving nothing in return.” 

— Paul: “That’s true.”

“Dune” is Arab and Muslim and Middle Eastern to its bones.

Clearly inspired by the culture of the Amazigh people of Algeria and Morocco, even taking their name from their language, the Fremen are just a small part of the deep MENA roots of the “Dune” universe. The entire setting uses Islamic concepts and several Arabic sayings are common throughout the Imperium. The Quran is referenced as one of the settings’ foundational religious texts and even European coded characters, such as Gurney Halleck (played by Josh Brolin), are shown to be religious. In the book and the movie, he quotes from this quasi-Islamic/Christian scripture repeatedly and the Islamic concept of a Mahdi or religious savior is universally seeded by the Bene Gesserit. Herbert himself often referenced how Islam and Arab culture influenced his work, and Spice is a not-so-subtle substitute for oil. The occupation of Iraq for oil turns to the occupation of Arrakis to control Spice by changing just a few vowels.

In fact, one of the most famous lines from the 1984 movie adaptation is Paul’s rally cry of “Long live the fighters!” In the book, it is heard in the Fremen’s Arabic inspired language of Chakobsa as “YA HYA CHOUHADA.” The phrase comes directly from the Algerian war of Independence against the French. Just years before the first “Dune” book was published, Arab and Amazigh freedom fighters returned to Algiers from exile, having won their freedom after 130 years of brutal occupation. Several newspapers reported the Algerian leaders were greeted in the streets with the deafening chant, which is more correctly translated as “long live the martyrs” in Arabic. Herbert clearly took note and included it in his book.

Although the recent “Dune” adaptation is a deeply American film, as an Algerian, I find something very French about director Denis Villeneuve making a movie soaked in our culture and imagery but devoid of Arabs. Perhaps Rami Malek was too busy on the Bond film for a cameo? That there are zero Arabs in this film with a speaking role seems almost unreal, but not if it’s understood as a conscious decision.

Lady Jessica: “These people have waited for centuries for the Lisan al-Gaib. They see you, they see the signs.”

— Paul: “They see what they’ve been told to see.”

Arabs are political.

We do not choose to be political, but our existence is troubling in white controlled media and entertainment. Instead of reckoning with the decades-long exploitation, colonization, and militarization of the Middle East by Western powers, it’s simpler to just make us the bad guys — fanatics with unreasonable demands and a strange religion.

In “Dune,” despite so much of the setting being steeped in our culture, Arabs can’t be heroes so we must be erased. Arab has become such an easy shorthand for villains in film, that even a “visionary director” could not imagine us as anything more.

Arab has become such an easy shorthand for villains in film, that even a “visionary director” could not imagine us as anything more.

As for the other people of color in the film cast in major parts (spoiler alert), they almost all die to benefit Paul and his mother. Duncan Idaho. Dr. Yueh. Shadout Mapes. Liet Kynes. Jamis. Multicultural pawns sacrificed for the queen and her son, the future king. Strangely this aligns very well with Frank Herbert’s authorial intent. The Atreides are colonizers at heart. Despite their more urbane and civilized demeanor, they’re really no different than their Harkonnen cousins. Just as the Spice is a resource the Atreides wish to exploit, so are the Fremen. Power, wealth, and control trump all considerations of respect and freedom to the colonizer. The only meaningful difference between Harkonnen and Atreides is that the latter also wants to control how they are perceived. They wish to loot, but they also wish to be loved. We see this today when the occupier demands gratitude from those they occupy, claiming they’re bringing education or human rights to benighted lands when all they want is more power.

— Baron Harkonnen:  “Arrakis Is Arrakis, And The Desert Takes The Weak. My Desert. My Arrakis. My Dune.”

Why does this matter?

After all, Javier Bardem is perhaps one of my favorite actors and I’m sure he’ll play an exceptional Stilgar in the “Dune” sequel. And maybe Denis will read this essay and cast one or two Arabs in speaking roles. Academy Award winner Rami Malek would make an excellent Feyd-Rautha, not to mention F. Murray Abraham would kill it as the Emperor. Perhaps BAFTA and Golden Globe nominee Tahar Rahim as the Fedaykin Otheym. With a second and perhaps a third movie on the way, there’s a lot of room to cast these incredible actors and more importantly hire Arabs and MENA people behind the screen as well. An Arab speaker in the writing room or on set would have likely prevented many of the mangled lines of Arabic that made it into the final product, not to mention enriched the movie overall. So why even bother to mention that Arabs were erased from the first installment?

As I mentioned before, critical media analysis is not an appreciated skill in much of America. It’s not a bug, but a feature of our culture. In the US, reading between the lines, teasing out nuance, or finding the deeper meaning in media is seen as snobby and insincere. This is something the filmmakers seem to understand given how much effort they put into translating “Dune” from a dense cerebral text into an emotive and visual experience.

But this lack of understanding of subtext means we’re vulnerable to reactionary and retrograde elements in our society. Right wing fascists and libertarians in America misinterpret satire and critique as sincerity with almost comical regularity. Even “Dune” has a following among fascists today, despite the property’s message of colonial evil and cautionary tale of how charismatic leaders often lead their followers to disaster in pursuit of their own glory. For those fascists, they see depictions of conquering tyrants and galactic genocide as not only good, but necessary for their supremacist ideals. They don’t want Arabs or anyone else of color in their “Dune,” though their limited inclusion as sacrificial pawns would likely be seen as a positive element to them. Removing the Arabs from “Dune” presents fascists with an uncomplicated narrative, which caters to their preference instead of outrightly rejecting it.

The hard questions of how we can admire “Dune” on screen when there are no Arabs in its Arab images cannot be ignored. Without Arabs, the movie’s Arab-ness becomes just another stolen resource to enrich the European-coded noble houses. Instead of a critique of the damage done to humanity and our environment by rapacious colonialists grasping for power and hegemony, the story is more easily turned on its head and co-opted by the very forces it was meant to shame and indict.

Khaldoun Khelil is an energy and international security scholar at the Middle East Institute. He writes fiction and games as a hobby. 

Khaldoun Khelil

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