Watching Dune during the war in Gaza

Watching Dune during the war in Gaza

In 1974, my aunt and uncle returned to the United States from a honeymoon world tour. Over the course of their travels, they ventured through India, Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, before winding up in Israel, where my aunt’s sister — my mother — had recently lived for two years on a collective kibbutz.

Children of the late hippie generation, my aunt and uncle were seekers of spirituality and enlightenment in every form (the more exotic the better), and instinctive sympathizers with the put-upon of all nations. They were also sci-fi and fantasy nerds of the first order who loved Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. Its pervasive overtones of Islamic culture and spiritualism and its story of exploited native tribes fighting a jihad of liberation against their oppressors was a perfect fit for both of their interests. Shortly after returning, they conceived a daughter, and, after the prescient Bene Gesserit in Herbert’s novel, they named her Alia.

Around the same time Alia was born, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 3525, condemning the state of Israel for its occupation of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza. Among the specific acts named by the U.N. were: “The establishment of Israeli settlements therein and the transfer of an alien population thereto”; “The evacuation, deportation, expulsion, displacement and transfer of Arab inhabitants”; and “The illegal exploitation of the natural wealth, resources and population of the occupied territories.”

My aunt and uncle had passed through these territories on their travels, and I have often wondered whether they thought about this when they named their daughter after a book ostensibly sympathetic to the cause of colonial liberation and an exploited population. I thought about it again while watching Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two, the second half of his cinematic adaptation of Herbert’s novel. That morning, at least 112 Palestinian civilians were reported to have been killed by Israeli gunfire while trying to reach aid trucks supplying food. Dune is a novel and a movie entangled in contradiction: a story about the sins of colonizers, told to an audience of viewers and readers largely among those doing the colonizing. And here I was: an American Jew, watching Dune while Gaza was in flames.

Timothée Chalamet’s Paul and Zendaya’s Chani kiss on the top of a sand dune in Dune: Part Two. Image: Warner Bros.

I am not the first to observe that Herbert’s novel is deeply rooted in Islamic religion, culture, and history. The native Fremen are a kind of generalized fantasy of nomadic Bedouin: desert-dwelling spiritualists gifted in the ways of warfare and survival, caretakers of the spice (read: oil) on which the universal economy depends. The Fremen language and religious mythology that plays so vital a role in the story plucks its terminology straight from the Arabic language and religious texts: The outworlder voice of the lisan al-gaib, the messianic Mahdi, the Fremen battle cry of “Ya hya chouhada,” (“long live the fighters,” in the novel; “martyrs” in the Arabic of our world). These are more than colorful details meant to illustrate a culture; they stress a notion of the Fremen as an inherently authentic and righteous people precisely because of their association with Arab history. Indigenous to the land, they — like their Arab inspirations — are the rightful possessors of Herbert’s world.

I say Arab here, rather than Palestinian, and this is perhaps inevitable. When Herbert wrote Dune in 1965, the notion of Palestinians as a distinct people and culture (let alone as an autonomous state) was barely conceivable to most Westerners. It was not until Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories following the Six-Day War in 1967, and the resulting attention drawn to the newly formed Palestinian Liberation Organization, that an awareness of Palestinian culture and Palestinian rights as distinctive really began to take hold. From 1948 until then, the Palestinian territories had been under the sovereignty of Egypt and Jordan, whose policy reflected a general view among Western nations (if not Palestinians themselves) that Palestine was merely an outpost of a larger transnational Arab culture.

Herbert could feel free to glamorize and exoticize his own transnational Arab-coded Fremen, refraining from identifying them with any nation or history in particular. It was a move that was simultaneously progressive, simplistic, and, yes, even orientalist. Even granting the undeniable fact that Herbert was setting out to feature a white savior only to cut him down, his depiction of the Fremen — liberated, in touch with their natural environment, spiritually genuine in their uncorrupted traditions — could only have been the product of a decidedly white and Western writer.

Villeneuve’s films have compounded the issue, deliberately subbing out some of the book’s Islamic terminology, instead drawing from languages as far afield as Mandarin Chinese for the traditionally Arabic dialect of the Fremen. The jihad dramatically declared by Paul Muad’Dib at the close of the film becomes the less politically loaded “holy war.” This is no accident — the film’s co-writer, Jon Spaihts, said that the book’s exoticizing of Arabs “doesn’t work today” — and easy to see why Villeneuve would choose this path. For a white French Canadian director working in a post-9/11 cultural world, associating his native characters with a specific real-life oppressed people posed far more risks than rewards. Even two decades after the paranoia of the Bush era, the fear of being vilified as a defender of terrorists looms large. But denying a clear identity to Herbert’s allegory has the inevitable and unintended side effect of erasing a culture just at the moment when they are trying most desperately to make their voices heard.

Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), cowled and with symbols written across her face in ink, stands in the desert, surrounded by similarly robed figures in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two Image: Warner Bros.

Even so, Dune and Dune: Part Two project a sense of Arab identity almost despite themselves, the visual connotations of ersatz-Middle Eastern deserts and flowing Bedouin-adjacent tribal robes too evocative to ignore. These are not signifiers traditionally associated with Palestine, and indeed, if Herbert had in mind any particular struggle for freedom in the region, it was a more historical one: the campaign led by T.E. Lawrence (better known in film and literature as Lawrence of Arabia) during World War I. Like Dune’s Paul Atreides, Lawrence was an outsider (in his case, a British military intelligence officer) who assumed a position of leadership in a tribal war of independence. And like Paul, Lawrence was increasingly drawn not only to the unapproachable and exotic culture of those he led, but also to a self-conscious sense of his own messianic destiny that both compelled and repulsed him.

For Lawrence, the Jews and Muslims of Ottoman-era Palestine were a sideshow to the larger struggle he was waging, but the seeds of conflict were already taking root. In his book Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, the historian Scott Anderson describes the immediate tension that emerged between the native Palestinians and the newly arrived Zionist settlers claiming ownership of the territory by right of both God and history. In a moment of alarming clairvoyance, Lawrence would write, “If a Jew­ish state is to be cre­at­ed in Pales­tine, it will have to be done by force of arms and main­tained by force of arms amid an over­whelm­ing­ly hos­tile population.”

The Jews arriving in Palestine were exerting the advantages of Western European wealth, political connections, and, indeed, whiteness to gain access to the most desirable and economically lucrative ports and farmlands in the region — areas from which Palestinians found themselves increasingly foreclosed, long before the massive displacements of 1948. And tellingly, the Zionists were doing all this while neglecting to see themselves as anything other than fellow natives of the soil: an indigenous people of the Holy Land whose return was not only justified, but an inevitability of their collective destiny.

This is a tendency of which Dune, in both novel and film, is well aware. Paul, in seeking to become Mahdi of a native people, stresses his earnest desire to be one of them, and to fight in their name alone — and he is, at first, sincere about this. But the basic fact of his foreignness — in the film, his very visible whiteness — remains. Whether he desires it or not, he is free to shake off the limitations of his adopted culture if and when it suits him to do so. Thus, he gets to experience the advantages of Fremen life (the spirituality, the arcane knowledge, the illicit thrill of righteous warfare) without being trapped by any of its consequences. This is the fantasy shared by liberal colonizers since time immemorial, be it T.E. Lawrence or James Cameron’s Avatar: the dream of the conqueror to wear the skin of the conquered.

In a crowd of Fremen warriors, Chani’s blue eyes pop as she stares with suspicion or even hatred in Dune: Part Two. Image: Warner Bros.

Villeneuve understands these narratives, their preponderance, and their effects, and his Dune screenplays try earnestly to give a voice to the oppressed class that can overcome the louder arguments of their oppressors. One of the most remarked-on changes he makes to Herbert’s novel concerns the character of Chani, the Fremen warrior who becomes Paul’s lover. In the novel, her part is mainly to periodically give supportive pep talks to Paul during his moments of hand-wringing. In Dune: Part Two, she is a thoroughgoing skeptic of his messianic destiny. This gives a helping of agency to the movie’s most prominent non-white, and non-male, character, but it also casts a dark shadow over the notion of messianism itself. In one of the first exchanges of dialogue heard in the film, she remarks, “You want to control people? Tell them the messiah will come. Then they will wait for centuries.”

The film, and Herbert’s story, exist to bear out this maxim. Paul at the film’s outset is legitimately horrified by his Mahdi identity, haunted by visions of the bloodshed and starvation his actions will unleash: “A holy war,” he says. “Millions and millions of people starving to death because of me.”

His turn occurs when he comes to a late realization that he himself is a member of the oppressive Harkonnen bloodline. Only then does Paul begin to wield his religious authority cynically and politically. Villeneuve refuses to let us ignore this: The film’s final, climactic assault on the Harkonnen palace is shot as a chaotic, red-hued inferno, not the triumphal moment of liberation we’ve been conditioned to expect. Hans Zimmer’s musical cues are grim and foreboding. Even the harsh, bellowing vocal delivery of Timothée Chalamet’s Paul as he declares his holy war is meant to echo that of Dave Bautista’s brutish Harkonnen nephew. Fire, fear, and cynical brutishness from the top down; these are the inevitable fruits of the messianic tree.

Timothee Chalamet stars at the camera in Fremen garb as Paul Atreides in Dune: Part Two. Image: Warner Bros.

Without messianism, there would be no Israel. The country was founded as an ostensibly secular and socialist state following the conclusion of its war of independence in 1949. And in that moment, Israel’s first president and spiritual founding father, David Ben-Gurion, explicitly tied the nation’s existence to the messianic destiny of the Jewish people — the term he used for the “ascent” of the world’s Jews to Israel was aliyah, pronounced the same as Alia.

Without the same faith in apocalyptic outcomes, there would be no Hamas. The brutal and sudden attacks of Oct. 7, 2023, which provided the ostensible cause for Israel’s assault on Gaza, were committed precisely because they were likely to unleash cataclysmic violence that would upend the political order. More than 30,000 Gazans — nearly all of them civilians, starved, assaulted, and terrified in their own homes — have been killed since Israel’s attack began. For Israel and Palestine, as for Dune’s Fremen, to follow a messiah is to walk the straightest path toward hell.

The rabbis of medieval Europe rejected the leadership of would-be messiahs, who, as they saw it, had led the Jews only down a repeated pathway of revolt, defeat, and catastrophe. They suggested instead that the messiah would not lead the Jews to their destiny, but rather follow it: that only when we ourselves had built a society worthy of the messiah’s coming would that day finally arrive. I don’t think Frank Herbert would argue with that. When all is said and done, I don’t think history would, either.