Are there Arabs on Arakkis?

The new Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve released its trailer yesterday, and I watched it with great interest. I loved the novel, written by Frank Herbert in 1965. Herbert was inspired in part by Islam, by the life and principles of the Prophet Mohammed, and by the Bedouin and Berber tribes of Arabia and North Africa. The novel is littered with references to those cultures, Paul has an Arabic word, “Usul”, which means base or foundation, as his Messianic name. He’s also known as the “Mahdi” which signifies the Messiah in Islam. There is mention of jihad; the Fremen are tribal, dark-skinned people whose planet is filled with spice (oil); Paul’s sister is called Alia, and on and on.

This article in Syfy explains the Arab and Muslim references, then makes the argument that because Herbert borrowed so heavily from MENA culture and religion that there should be Arab and Muslim representation in the new and updated Dune movie. It’s a well-written article, and other Arab/MENA people have been making the argument that since Dune is about colonialism and exploitation, the movie should not erase the indigenous people of the region from which it takes so much inspiration.

Dune being a commentary on the evils of colonialism/imperialism loses a lot if the film erases indigenous North Africans and Muslims, cultures that the books borrow from heavily.


I watched the 1985 David Lynch movie, which was deemed a colossal failure (I had a huge crush on Kyle MacLachlan at the time so it was a win for me). And I watched the trailer for the reboot, with Timothee Chalamet, Zendaya, Charlotte Rampling. And I’m not sure I agree with the Syfy article that the Fremen should all be very obviously Berbers, or that there needs to be more obvious inference to the MENA region as we know it, or to Islam. Because in the future, will MENA, Arabs, or Islam even exist as we know it? Will there be Arabs on Arrakis?

Would I have liked to see Arab or North African actors in the movie? Of course. It seems almost regressive in 2020 to not include the massive talent that comes from that part of the world. But when we’re writing science fiction or speculative fiction, do we need to replicate exactly what we’re living through at the time on the page (or the screen), or does it need to go through some sort of transformation in our minds in order to work as an effective story of the future, rather than the present?

As a girl I grew up in Pakistan, a Muslim country and also a tribal and feudal society trying to modernize, dealing with a colonial past and the exploitation of our land and people by many foreign powers, although the book’s references to deserts, oil, and monarchy fit the Middle East more than Pakistan, a struggling democracy. Reading this tour de force about feudalism and oppression in future worlds while living under an Islamic dictatorship resonated on so many levels for me.

When I was writing Before She Sleeps, a feminist dystopia set in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, I went back and read Dune to help give me with world building and atmosphere. I liked that the world(s) of Dune seemed familiar, but were still strange and alien at the same time. It linked past to present to future through a story that was as much Greek tragedy as it was the story of a Chosen One leading a people to freedom. Yet it felt timeless. And that’s what I wanted to do in my novel, too, although mine is only seventy years in the future, Dune’s tens of thousands of years ahead.

Although the novel is set in what is today’s Oman, I needed the artistic freedom to be able to play fast and loose with characters’ race and ethnicity. I needed to write in a post-religious world, where religion had disappeared from the earth and only its traces remained. I needed to dissolve borders and destroy countries (I merrily destroyed India and Pakistan, glad to be rid of them both at last). I could not write the book I wrote if I’d been forced to tie it directly and literally to real place and people. I was inspired by the Middle East but it is not the real Middle East in my book; it is a place that I have made up in my head.

If I’d tied everything down and made it obvious who was what ethnicity, it would have seemed clunky and obvious. I stuck to names and hints of past cultures, played around with borders, and tried to avoid too much ethnicity beyond the color of someone’s hair or eyes.

So going back to the original contention that Islamic and Arab representation matters in the movie Dune. Yes, on one level it does: definitely, cast Arab/North African actors in the movie. It’s a shame there seems to be not even one. There’s so much talent from that region; why isn’t it included? In 2020, a lily-white cast is an anomaly, and given that Arrakis is a desert planet, you could put people in who have some melanin in their skin.

However, if Herbert had intended to be that literal, rather than taking inspiration (cultural appropriation? who can say?) from the Berbers/Bedouin/Islamic history, I think the book would have suffered. Will there even be distinctions between race/color/tribe in future worlds, on different planets? Do Arabs really live on Arrakis?

I read that it wasn’t just the Arab world that inspired Herbert, but also the dunes of coastal Oregon (the book is as much a shout to ecology and conservation as it is to the political ramifications of Middle Eastern oil). And as was pointed out helpfully to me, Herbert also borrowed from the Hebrew language with the phrase “kwisatz haderach” (Kefitzat Haderech is a Jewish phrase that means “contracting the path”). This is what writers do: they travel worlds and pick up pieces and synthesize them into something grander, stranger, bigger. Weigh down art with exact formulas of representation, and you diminish it for good.

As a Muslim, I don’t need to see myself on the screen to enjoy Dune. And by the way, there will only ever be one Paul Atredes on film for me.


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