Written by Haifa Mahabir
I hesitated on writing this piece, a critique of Frank Herbert’s seminal contribution to the literatures of speculative fiction. It feels a bit beneath the urgency of the topics we ordinarily lend our time to in lensing the Middle East and Northern Africa—the whole heart-breaking aftermath of foreign imperial ambitions. Our dispossession, and our grief. Our resistance. A Saidian orientalist critique of Dune is far too easy. Frank Herbert’s masterpiece of course, regarded as a foundational text of the Science Fiction genre, is inarguably rife with orientalist motifs and imagery.
I voiced this hesitation to a colleague (whom I suspect to be at least a bit of a sci-fi and fantasy escapist), who encouraged me to write it despite my misgivings, because as academics we are all too often so turned towards our own navel-gazing—why not write something that doesn’t take ourselves too seriously. So, here we are.
The story of Dune unfolds against a desolate desert landscape, the planet Arrakis. The year is 10,191, and our insatiable humankind has colonised the vast expanse of planets throughout the known Universe. Of course, the geographical expanse of Iraq—erm, I mean Arrakis—is hostile, yet home to a strange and almost mystical nomadic native people, the Fremen. Herbert’s Fremen likely take their name from the Amazigh people (Arab-Berbers) of the Maghreb of Northern Africa, and Amazigh can be translated as free man. Dune’s Fremen are a sort of sub-culture of humans. They live in patriarchal collectives, called sietches—within cave-like rocky formations that appear throughout the desert sands. The Fremen can be read to be depicted as savage—their bodies sinewy; their tanned, leathery skin evokes harsh desert existence. They can also be read, as my colleague noted, to know of their own human potential as bio-weapons—in the landscape of Dune, those capable of facing the Emperor’s elite and feared forces, the Sardaukar. In this sense, Herbert acknowledges the unique qualities and natural-given bio-physical adaptations of the native within their inhabited geographical space.
The geostrategic (or, interplanetary) significance of Arrakis is that it supplies the most precious of resources in the Universe: melange—a psychotropic spice that expands human consciousness. Furthermore, it is vital to interstellar travel that bends space and time. Addiction to the spice causes one’s eyes to turn blue— read blue-eyed addiction to oil. We can see where this is headed, right? Right.
Dune’s protagonist is Paul, heir to the House of Atreides—and the story’s White Saviour. Amongst the Fremen, he takes on the name Muad’Dib. Deriving from Arabic, Muad’Dib means one who teaches—and rather significantly, one who teaches civility. Not only is Paul adept at combat and strategy, but he is quite literally a Messianic character with superhuman mental capacities. And as such, Paul’s godlike gifts are his burden. He foresees a Universal jihad—which in the scope of Herbert’s novel implies a bloody war. Of course, in Western popular culture the concept of jihad is distorted and misunderstood. The word alone is so heavily laden that I could simply end this critique now, but I’ll go on.
In the longer arc of the story, Paul (as Muad’Dib) falls in love and has a child with Chani, a beautiful Fremen girl. Strangely enough, the name Chani may actually derive from the Biblical Hebrew name, Channah. Common in modern Hebrew and Arabic as Hannah, the name means grace. What’s common in romanticizing the Arab world are depictions of its men as archaic in thought, brutal, incompetent—and perhaps impotent; while as women we are given to beauty, sensuality, and mystery. Our bodies and bloodlines in need of both pleasure and purification by the white knight. This love story was fated, because the girl had appeared in Paul’s dreams long before arriving to Arrakis; he was destined to save her, and to lead her people to salvation, both from their desolation and their subjection under an evil empire.
Paul’s father had been the noble Duke Leto Atreides, sent to the desert planet by the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV, to dethrone the House of Harkonnen, who have failed to subdue the Fremen—because the end in all of this is to secure imperial control of Arrakis’ resources. Here, my colleague intervende: “Ahhh, but the plan within the plan is to destroy House Atreides, whose popularity, alongside developing military capabilities (with their mysterious ‘weirding way’ of battle), the Emperor fears.” He’s right, and it is a note to a sort of tribal feudalism alongside the antagonistic nature of domination.
Where the House of Atreides easily captures the civilised qualities of the Western European in their appearance, knowledge, and virtues, the House of Harkonnen evokes image of bullish aggression and imbecilic lunacy. They are perhaps likened to Soviets, at least insofar as the grotesque Baron Harkonnen is named Vladimir. Let me stop there.
Frank Herbert seems very conscious and aware of what he is doing, and perhaps it is of vital context that the novel is written not only at the height of the Cold War, but at a time of great Western cultural curiosity towards an exoticized Middle East—prior to a turning towards an Islamic fundamentalism that would send large swaths of its lands and peoples barrelling backwards to religious medievalism.
There are troves of scholarly and non-scholarly in-depth analyses on the orientalism in Dune. And in-hand, its Middle Eastern cultural and linguistic influences are too many for the consideration of the brevity of this piece—but they are there.
It’s too easy—we know this by now, and the critique is tired; redundant. But to discard Frank Herbert’s masterful work to the dustbin of Edward Said’s Orientalism is, frankly, a bit lazy. We are so caught up in our own navel-gazing, that critique fails precisely where Said fell short—in any meaningful analysis of material forces and consequence. What is more compelling than the cultural orientalism of Dune is to acknowledge Herbert’s own critique of imperial ambition and competition.
My now confidant in escapism asked me what would have been the trajectory of the modern Middle East, essentially had the West not carved it up, colonised, and exploited it? An essential storyline of Dune is the desire by the Fremen to transform their desolate homeland into an Edenic and lush, fertile land. Paul, as the One the native inhabitants have been waiting for, in-turn not only altruistically carries the Fremen’s burden but internalises its mission as his own—manipulating religious influence to endear himself amongst the Fremen and to further his own ambitions to become Emperor himself. Amongst the Fremen, he becomes one of their own. There lies both the political necessity of alliance and geostrategy, but in Paul’s pure goodness, a true desire to transform and rescue their barren world. Desert people without any true agency to save themselves, Paul becomes Saviour in all ways—and the hero of the story who will bring salvation, perhaps in the way that we spread democracy and civilization to uncivilised and desolate foreign lands. Further between the lines of morality and ethics, we are confronted with human arrogance towards nature, and the very question of disrupting an ecological system—altering environment to suit a particularly Western ideal or conception of a Garden of Eden, with little acknowledgement to the consequences of playing God.
Perhaps in answer to his question—had it been different—I would return to this. What’s unique about humanity is our inclination towards progress. Of course, the Arab world of the Middle East and Northern Africa was never the desolate landscape it has been so storied to be—it has simply been largely unknown and misunderstood, both by proximity and narrative design to suit Western imperial ambitions.
Against our perceived desolate landscapes, urban and agricultural life and community alike has flourished long before the rise of what we mark as Western civilization—and it is why our dark corner of the earth is itself mapped as a cradle of its very inception.
Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the period of Europe’s middle ages saw few literary and written records survive in the absence of archival mediums that could withstand decay and rot in the European geographical climate. In this time, it would be in Baghdad that classical philosophy and thought had its revival, and the Arab world became the centre of scientific and intellectual advancement.
Contrary to the narratives that would conveniently justify the modern brutalities visited on the Arab world by foreign military invasion and conquest, by the end of the nineteenth century, such expanses as the Levantine basin of the Mediterranean would experience early forms of industrialization, alongside the tradition of maritime and agricultural trade.
Before our lands were divided up and conquered and colonised in the wave of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, there had been what was essentially an inter-continental passenger train that could take you from Cairo to Haifa to Beirut to Damascus. That we used to travel freely, without militarized and foreign borders. It is a story not only of what once was, but what could have been.
I think it is appropriate that Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist and refugee who escaped Nazi persecution at the rise of the Third Reich, once wrote: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” The notion implies that beauty lies in the unknown; it is precisely in our differences. But in our flawed human natures, we fear this unknown—and it is that fear so uniquely weaponised against us; a civilising mission of profit at any price, that waves an ever-bloodstained flag of Western values and ‘Democracy’. I think Frank Herbert, perhaps of his own inherent volition, understood exactly this. Because in spite of Dune’s orientalist romanticizing of the Middle East and her cultures, faiths, and peoples, the writer more importantly acknowledges a shared humanity and potential, and he dares to imagine a future that rescues humanity from its own abyss. As flawed a work as it may be, Herbert doesn’t make enemies of the Arabs.
I’ve only now watched both David Lynch’s 1984 and Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film adaptations of Dune. Lynch’s adaptation is rather absurd (and a well-deserving casualty of Mel Brooks’ 1987 sci-fi parody, Spaceballs). The novel’s Middle East and North African influences, presence, and significance are nearly entirely absent, but I wouldn’t expect more—the film is suited to the 1980s theme of cultural and historical irreverence in American popular culture.
In far contrast, Villeneuve is aware of the Middle East and North Africa’s exotic capital in the twenty-first century landscape of a global war on terror—and the re-emergence of the Arab world depicted in film as beautiful and mysterious in its peoples and traditions, and deadly. The Fremen are explicitly Middle Eastern nomadic peoples, against a familiar desert landscape that compels images of the Sahara, or the remnants of an ancient civilization in Wadi Rum. We hear Arabic spoken throughout the film. What is glaringly left out is that there are no Arabs cast in any significant, speaking role—confirming only that our presence for Villeneuve isn’t a reckoning against our history of foreign wars and colonization. Rather, true to the imperial spirit, the movie absorbs itself in our culture and language, while we are erased altogether.
Haifa Mahabir is a PhD student in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kent, supervised by Dr Bashir Abu-Manneh. Her research traces the origins of Israel’s exceptional state of emergency to the British Mandate for Palestine between 1917-1948.
This blogpost appears as part of a special issue guest-edited by Anne Caldwell.