A Missed Chance?

By Miriam Ghobrial

A barren land.
Seas of sand.
Death always looming.
A young pale man, unassuming
of the fates that lay ahead.
Arrakis – Dune – Desert Planet
Extract. Colonize. Inhabit.

This is a story, it seems, to be as old as time. Young pale men destined for something greater, for somewhere else, for a dangerous war, for an alien planet. Young pale men who carry sacred bloodlines within them, sacred powers – whether Luke Skywalker, Lawrence of Arabia, or Paul Atreides – these men, these characters attempt to meet their dangerous fates on alien soil and the spectator is expected to clap, regardless of success and failure.

Focusing on Paul Atreides, a mere boy at the beginning of the newly adapted book, Dune, one can see how Frank Herbert’s vision has served as a blueprint for countless other science fiction narratives. Paul is an intentional product, selectively bred to lead, his father a glorified duke and his mother a powerful witch. Much like the Skywalker/Palpatine bloodlines in Star Wars, this intentional and selective breeding of Paul, becomes the foundation of his character as a super-being who is destined to control the universe. Furthermore, this notion can be problematic when the people being cast as these selectively bred super-beings are white men, implying the superiority of the white man, even in a far-reaching galaxy with diverse kinds of beings. Eugenics in science fiction has been criticized by Katherine Everett as an “unethical plot device,” in an article written for The Lantern. Paul is seen as a Messiah that the people of Arrakis, the Fremen, call Lisan al-Gaib – which notably sounds like an Arabic term.

Eugenics aside, the multilayered nature of Dune comes from its allegories to the real-world problematics of environmentalism, religious fundamentalism and more importantly imperialism – especially within the Muslim World, referencing it in a way that is hard to miss, both in the novel and in the film. First published at the height of the Cold War in 1965, the book offered what some call a “challenge” to imperialism. The sand planet, Arrakis, holds an important substance – Spice – without which space travel would not be possible. This resource is vital to the empire and so agents of the empire, the leaders of the great houses are sent to Arrakis to manage and maintain Spice production, while the local Fremen remain untrustworthy, mostly uncooperative and incapable to manage it themselves. Colonialization of Arrakis becomes justifiable. Necessary. Acquisition of knowledge about Arrakis becomes necessary.
All For The Wellbeing Of The Great Empire.

In its layered allegories and its direct reference of Islam and the SWANA region (South West Asian and North Africa) as cultural backgrounds, the book can be seen as a criticism of imperialism; of a white savior that conquers to elevate the status of an indigenous people that are incapable of helping themselves. This savior is but a child in the first section of the book, a confused and incompetent child. This criticism, however, does not rid the book of its Orientalization of Arrakis and the Fremen. Seeing as how Herbert borrowed much of his story’s contents from real-life politics – from a Western perspective – and from other works of fiction, most notably, The Sabres of Paradise (1960) written by a British travel writer, nonetheless, makes the frameworks upon which he bases his world building on less truthful and more in line with the Orientalist fantasy.

Orientalism itself is defined by Edward Said as a framework of knowledge conceived by the West about an Orient, i.e., an Other, that rationalizes and categorizes said Orient. This framework serves as “an accepted grid for filtering through the Orient into Western consciousness.” This framework, which in many ways justifies the colonialization of the Orient by the superior Western foreigner is not merely political or a cultural scheme that tries to hold the “Oriental” down, but it is rather a “distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts;” This notion, these frameworks, are not newly brought on by British and French imperialism, but it rather finds its origins in the styles of writing of much older travel literature. Furthermore, Orientalism as a framework of knowledge is not a fixed one but it is rather ever-changing, ever-evolving. Whether Herbert’s novel is Orientalist is therefore a settled matter; in his direct insistence of using the SWANA and Islam as inspirations – in the Fremen language that very much resembles Arabic and Persian for example – he is audacious, specifying exactly which Orientalist frameworks of knowledge he is using by being heavily influenced by the texts of travel writers. His insensitivity to the subject matter, his appropriation even, become testaments of this which he aims to criticize about his Western world.
After the “failure” of David Lynch’s 1984 film adaptation of the book, comes this year’s critically acclaimed epic directed by Denis Villeneuve. Striking visuals, poetic monologues and a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack by Hans Zimmer carry with them an air of a very abstract Orientalism, that attempts to hide itself through aesthetics. In every sense of the word, Dune is a cinematic epic, it seems to be a worthy retelling of the un-adaptable book. The 2021 film tells the story of the first part the book, where the House of Atreides settles on the new planet.

However, although the striking visuals of the desert, the soundtrack of the hollering “primitive” voices, and the romanticization of Paul’s inner struggles technically make for a great film, it is hard to ignore the problematics of Orientalism even in Villeneuve’s modern and watered-down adaptation. Watered down, in the sense that it tries to keep the Arabic-like language to a minimum, abstracting and generalizing what was allegorically Arab, Bedouin and Muslim in the book to an exotic culture, splattering ethnically diverse brown and black faces when Fremen are to be shown. Haris A. Durrani explains in a Washington Post article, that rather than solving the Orientalism of the book, the abstraction, and the watering down of the film backfires, creating only another kind of Orientalism with a different feel and look. An aesthetically pleasing Orientalism that, at least in this film (probably the first of a series of films) is neither exercising criticism nor self-aware; an Orientalism that is vague and culturally aimless, alienating and othering in different ways than Herbert’s stereotyped classic Orientalism. That being said, the question of Dune being read either as a criticism or a perpetuation of Orientalism and imperialism is endlessly disputed by many. It is also a question that has little to do with Herbert’s – or Villeneuve’s – artistic intention and much to do with audience perception and inevitable formations of cultural frameworks.

Finally, one can say that Dune may be simultaneously read as criticism and as perpetuation; it claims to be critical of what it perpetuates, commenting on the very real issues faced in the colonial (and the postcolonial) context but it also seems unable to detach itself of its perpetuated frameworks, relying on them in style and narrative, both in the film and the book. This conundrum may only be solved, when we start reimagining old stories rather than attempt retelling them in a nicer, more abstract way with beautiful cinematography and a jarring Hans Zimmer soundtrack.

Miriam Ghobrial
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