Will Denis Villeneuve’s remake of Dune take a golden opportunity to correct Hollywood’s past wrongs of representing Arabic and Islamic culture?!
Let’s just say that Hollywood never did a good job in presenting neither Islamic nor Arabic culture, everyone knows it, and the list of examples is too long, this one is not about the history of it. But if we learned one thing about Hollywood during this decade is that they will be met by a backlash on every aspect of political correctness, diversity and depiction of other groups of minorities or cultures. The latest example of this is the new Disney’s live-action remake of Alladin opening this weekend. The new film has, for the most part, managed to avoid much of its cultural inaccuracies, but despite Disney’s clear efforts to deliver a more respectful version of Aladdin, it may not be enough to satisfy many of its critics.
When the news broke out that Dune was being adapted for a second time, I was so excited, not only because it’s one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy novels, but also because that the man behind this new adaptation is Denis Villeneuve. During the last 10 years, Villeneuve made 6 films, all of them were universally acclaimed to the point where he became one of the most masterful directors working today.
But let’s go back to the novel. 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 clearly borrowed from Arabic and Islamic culture. The similarities between some of Herbert’s terms and ideas and actual words and concepts in the Arabic language, as well as the series’ “Islamic undertones” and themes, a Middle Eastern influence on Herbert’s works has been noted repeatedly. But Dune is not really the only piece of sci-fi/fantasy that borrowed or touched Arab or Islamic culture. Many fantasy series of novels such as the Aiel in the wheel of time series, or Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, or even in the lord of the rings and The Chronicles of Narnia where they were presented as evil races fighting for The Dark One or only just called “darkie”.
The story of Dune 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. So, you’d think that it is through the nomadic Fremen that the Arab and Islamic influence is most felt. But as an Arab, when I read the novel, I did not feel it only through that. The Arabic and Islamic themes and concept and Arabic words were all over the novel, it might not be so obvious to the average Western reader, but the sheer quantity of terms that Herbert borrowed from Arabic and Islamic culture is really obvious, but it is not the quantity that makes it special, what really makes Dune different than the other sci-fi/fantasy novels with respect to the Arabic and Islamic culture, is the deep understanding of all those ideas and concepts that he derived them, and also the way he incorporated them very well into the story.
Although some Arab would feel that the Fremen culture in Dune is more influenced by the nomadic Bedouin culture and does not really represent the entire Arab culture, yes I’d agree with that, Bedouins are only one subset of the Arab people, but again that is not what makes Dune very special. It’s not only about representing their cloths or homes or the animals they ride, the heavy influence on Herbert’s writing goes beyond that. It goes to subjects of Sufism (Islamic Mysticism), it introduces ideas and concepts like: AULIYA (أولياء) which means ‘an ally’, and in some Islamic traditions means ‘an ally of god’, roughly translating to ‘saint’. Also, FIQH (فقه) which means knowledge, religious law; one of the half-legendary origins of the Zensunni Wanderers’ religion. The term is a purely Islamic one. It originated from “understanding”. LISAN AL-GAIB (لسان الغيب) which means “The Voice from the Outer World.” In Fremen messianic legends, an off-world prophet. The term in Arabic is composed of two words. Lisan means literally “Tongue”, and means “speaker”. Ghaib (a more phonetic version of Gaib) means “Unknown” or “that which is not revealed”, or “things that will come in the future, unknown to us know”. One of the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, is the belief that God alone knows what is hidden in the future.
Maybe the most obvious influence that the Freman shows is Asabiyyah (عصبيّة) which is a concept of social solidarity with an emphasis on unity, group consciousness and sense of shared purpose, and social cohesion, originally in a context of “tribalism” and “clanism”. This is inspired by the writings of 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. In Muqqadimah (his most important book), Ibn 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 one of Ibn Khaldun’s books, Kitab al-Ibar (كتاب العبر).
So far, what we know about the adaptation, is that it is an epic science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay by Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts and Villeneuve, The first time Villeneuve involved himself in the writing of the script since his 2010 masterpiece Incendies. The film, so far, stars an ensemble cast consisting of Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Stellan Skarsgård, Dave Bautista, Zendaya, David Dastmalchian, Stephen Henderson, Charlotte Rampling, Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem. The fans of the novel so far are satisfied with how the studios is treating this adaptation, the last example of this was when they announce that Dune is expected to be split into two films, with the first covering approximately the first half of the novel and scheduled to be released in the United States on November 20, 2020. Which shows how confident they are and how much they’re invested in it.
Some of the early criticism the film is facing so far is that no Middle Eastern or North African actor has been announced in the cast to play any of the leading Fremen characters. Instead, it’s been reported that Zendaya, a biracial Black actress, will play warrior Chani and Javier Bardem, a Spanish actor, will be taking on the role of Fremen leader Stilgar. During Hollywood’s history of 100 years, the available parts were lustful sheikhs and bedouins for men, handmaidens and belly dancers for women, then came the roles of billionaires idiots, oppressed wives, Islamic fundamentalists, and to top them all, terrorists.
For me, of course it matters that a Middle Eastern or North African actors play the roles of all the Fremen characters, but I understand why the Studio needs the stars for most of the roles, and Javier Bardem is one, but my biggest concerns lies with how they’re going to treat all of the Arab and Islamic themes, ideas and concepts that were presented in the book. Because I think, they’re critical not only to Arab-American or American Muslims, but also to the entire Arab and Muslims people.
I think Dune is a perfect opportunity for Hollywood to right some of the wrongdoings of misrepresentation of Arabic and Islamic cultures. I believe that Villeneuve has what it takes to bear in mind and consider all the important details in Dune. And I believe it because we’ve all seen Incendies, one of his earlier films, which shows twins taking a journey to the Middle East to discover their family history and fulfil their mother’s last wishes, and the level of the cultural accurate representation and honest details showed us in that film is very rare. All of that gives me hopes that they’re going to do a good job with it.