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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
“In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.”
I first read those words in high school, when my drama teacher, Mr. Lemieux, handed me a worn paperback and said, “I think you’ll like this one.”
Frank Herbert’s Dune opens with mystery and promise as young Paul Atreides overhears a conversation between his mother and the visiting Reverend Mother: What’s a gom jabbar? he wonders. What will he find on Arrakis? Who is this woman who calls and dismisses his mother like a common serving wench?
“Paul fell asleep to dream of an Arrakeen cavern, silent people all around him moving in the dim light of glowglobes….”
Paul’s fear and excitement and anticipation for his family’s move to Arrakis immediately ignited my own curiosity as a teenager.
What new world was I about to explore?
I’ve re-read Dune a half-dozen times over the years since I blazed through that first paperback in highschool. It’s a familiar world now, and one I love re-immersing myself in.
I grew up in the desert. I love the desert. And it would be a lie to say that my desert planet, Bulari, wasn’t in part inspired by Arrakis.
Dune was also my first exposure to “Middle Eastern culture.”
I put that in quotes, because of course Dune is science fiction set far in the future, and the culture in question is “Fremen.” As a teen, I assumed that the elements of Middle Eastern culture in the series were simply seeds from which Herbert had grown a unique world.
(Of course, much of what I thought was unique was simply lifted wholesale from Arab culture. It was my unfamiliarity with the Middle East that made me feel like Herbert was a genius for creating Arrakis.)
With the movie coming out later this month — (I AM SO EXCITED!!) — there’s been a lot of criticism of the story that has me feeling contemplative about my love for it.
Herbert’s storytelling, characters, and vision are epic — but I can hold my unabashed love for the story alongside my desire to listen and learn.
After all, Dune was written by a white man nearly 80 years ago. Fundamentally, the story is a white savior myth, and no matter how badly I want to see an excellent adaptation of the source material, any adaptation will be made using problematic bones.
A few years after I read Dune for the first time, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Centers, and that curious sci-fi word, “jihad,” was all over the news.
I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the Middle East or Arab culture despite the fact that it felt familiar after years of drinking in the lavish descriptions of Frank Herbert’s Arrakis.
I went to college and took Middle Eastern studies classes. I sought out Arab authors and started learning from them. I tried to expose myself to art, stories, writing by Arab creators.
Earlier this month, I thought I might reread Dune in anticipation for watching the movie. Instead, I decided to spend time seeking out other voices that will help me broaden my perspective.
What I’m hearing is an overwhelming disappointment that despite being heavily influenced by Arab culture, there are no Middle Eastern or North African actors cast in main Fremen roles (like Chani and Stilgar).
“The great irony of the new adaptation is that it seeks to criticize exploitation,” write Laila Ujayli and Zaina Ujayli for Inkstick Media, “while perpetuating cultural exploitation in its casting. In a film critiquing resource exploitation from the desert, inhabited by indigenous peoples who wear Maghrebi clothes, speak in Arabic words, and are manipulated by a parody of Islamic theology, Arab actors will speak no lines denouncing imperialism or exploitation.”
(FFS, Hollywood, we’ve been over whitewashing casts a dozen times in the past few years alone!!!)
The cast looks amazing. But as a viewer, I can’t help but be disappointed myself that I won’t get a chance to experience a richer version informed by the perspective of Arab actors.
As much as I’m excited for this movie, it’s a white man’s adaptation of a 80-year-old work by a white man. I read science fiction to explore new worlds and meet people with different lived experiences than my own.
And as comforting as it is to revisit old favorites, I always want to bring new perspectives with me on the journey.
Am I going to see the movie later this month?
I’m going to go watch the hell out of it.
(I am 100% team “Would betray my ancient order of space witches for this photo of Oscar Isaac.”)
And I’m also going to make sure I’m doing the work of listening to Arab creators who are telling their own stories, rather than letting Frank Herbert and Denis Villeneuve define the narrative.