The recent release of Dune: Part One (2021), an American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve, has once again raised the troubling question of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of Arabs, Muslims and Islam. Film critics, especially from the Arab and Muslim worlds, are gripped by their hobby on how Hollywood misrepresents them.
It’s time for a reality check and to make peace with the fact that “Hollywood” is an abstraction in the business of misrepresenting everyone. It has no commitment to the truth. It made a profitable business to deceive the world. Native Americans, African Americans, Arabs, Asians, Latinx, Muslims, Africans – all on planet Earth are misrepresented for the simple reason that a factual, virtual or fictional white narrator stands in the epicenter of Hollywood as an industry that the world tells that he is the measure of truth and wisdom, joy and amusement.
Dune is now doing its bit of misrepresentation with the latest visual panache and modern digital bravo and virtuosity. It takes place in the distant future amidst an interstellar dystopia, and is based on the 1965 science fiction novel by American author Frank Herbert. In 1984, David Lynch made a film version of the novel to the dismay of critics. But the 2021 adaptation by Denis Villeneuve has received much praise, from almost everyone except some Arab and Muslim film critics who think it presents them wrong and has a white savior fantasy at its core.
Do it. This is a textbook white savior fantasy. But what so? What does this have to do with us – Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis, Turks, Indians, “Orientals” as they call us? A white American novelist, a white Canadian filmmaker and a mass media company based in Burbank, California – Legendary Entertainment – thinks the whole universe needs a white savior who looks like actor Timothée Chalamet. What is it for us? All the power to them!
For Arabs and Muslims to chase after these films and ask why did you misrepresent us, or why did you borrow from Islam without any recognition, or why did you cast a white actor in the lead role rather than a first generation? Indian, Pakistani, or The Egyptian “Muhammad” (as Ridley Scott once put it) blows the horn from the wrong side, as we say in Persian.
Props are not people
“Arabs” are not real people in these works of fiction. Arrakis in Dune are not Iraqis in their homeland. They are figurative, metaphorical and metonymic. They are a mere synecdoche for a literary historiography of American Orientalism. They are tropics – mockups that are there for the white narrator to tell his triumphant story.
The world at large will fall into a trap if we start arguing with these fictional white interlocutors and tell them we really are not what they think we are. It’s not just a losing battle. This is a wrong fight. This is not where the real battle line is.
You are not fighting Hollywood with critical arguments. You Fight Hollywood with Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Abbas Kiarostami, Elia Suleiman, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Moufida Tlatli, Ousmane Sembène, Yasujirō Ozu, Guillermo del Toro, Mai Masri, ad gloriam. You do not fight misrepresentation. You signify, celebrate and polish performances that are works of art.
What difference would it make if you played Riz Ahmed or Dev Patel or Rami Malek instead of Timothée Chalamet as the lead role in Dune? Would that have solved the problem – in what way?
We are dealing with a massive machinery in Hollywood that is still revolving around itself and producing stronger doses of fantasy to keep alive the delusion that it is the epicenter of the universe. Throwing Sydney Poitier or Denzel Washington on it will consume them and still spit out the same delusional fantasies. So if you want to fight that machine, you have to change the conversation partner – opt for a different storyteller, the furthest away from Hollywood. A single shot of a Kiarostami or Ozu will melt mountains of snowflakes in Hollywood. You do not improve the lie with cosmetic creampuffs. You correct the lens with truth.
The late Jack Shahin spent his precious life documenting such Hollywood abuses. He presented his findings in his 2001 book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which was made into a 2006 documentary. Other more detailed criticisms of such misconceptions have piled up over the years. For what purpose?
It all started in 1921. In October of that year, the silent romantic drama, The Sheik (pronounced like the French word “Chic”), began in the US and Europe. For the next 100 years, from 1921 to 2021, from Sheikh to Dune, Hollywood had a ball – it produced and promoted one delusional fantasy after another about Arabs and the wider Muslim world. But what does this have to do with us, the real Arabs and Muslims?
The question to ask
The question that Arabs and Muslims should ask themselves is exactly the question that James Baldwin asked half a century ago – exposing white people’s dark subconscious:
“The question you have to ask yourself,” Baldwin said, “the question the white people have to ask themselves – is why was it necessary to have a Negro in the first place? Because I’m not an N ** “No. I’m a man. But if you think I’m an N ****, it means you need it. And you have to find out why. The future of the country depends on it.”
Today, Arabs and Muslims need to reverse that question and ask themselves why it matters to them what an irreparable racist culture thinks of them. Why this obsession with the Hollywood portrayal of Arabs and Muslims or anyone else for that matter? The more Arabs and Muslims procrastinate asking the same question by simply replacing Negroes with Arabs, the longer they paradoxically extend the white supremacist Hollywood’s ability to torture them, commit epistemic violence, put them on the defensive, and put them leaves doubting whether they who are Hollywood. think they are.
“Is Dune a white savior tale?” mostly Arab or Muslim film critics ask themselves. Of course it is. Approximately? Of course, Hollywood chose to throw a great Rudolf Valentino of his time in Dune to go save “the Arabs” from themselves. What’s new?
“Frank Herbert’s novel drew from Islam,” they say. Frank Herbert did not do such a thing. He could not distinguish “Islam” from a hole in the wall. He drew from the Orientals’ fantasies of Islam, not Islam. No two Muslims can even agree on what Islam is – let alone two Orientals of the Hollywood vintage.
I watched most of Hollywood’s fantasies about the Muslim world and I found nothing in it that went at a distance about me as a Muslim or an Iranian. Nothing.
These movies are like English “translations” of Rumi that I pass by occasionally. When I look at those “translations”, I can never say what the original poem is and I spent a lifetime reading and learning Rumi back and forth. Because the English “translations” of Rumi are really acts of piety by well-meaning Americans who are trying to find a decent “spiritual” way that is attributed to Rumi and I find nothing wrong with that, for Americans. However, it has nothing to do with me – or with anyone else reading Rumi’s work in its original.
Years ago, in my 2009 book Post-Orientalism Knowledge and Power in a Time of Terror, I wrote that through his wonderful life, Edward Said had a fictional white interlocutor in his mind trying to convince him that Palestinians were wronged – unless and until that fictional character was completely convinced that Palestinians were indeed wronged, then Palestinians were not wronged.
But we are done with that fictional character who sits in the best of our critical thinkers. Perhaps the most eloquent spokesman for the Palestinian cause died unconvinced that he had convinced that fabrication of his own imagination of the cruelest fact of its history. We changed that conversation partner a long time ago. We’m not talking to him anymore. He is fictional. He’s not real.
The border fictions that separate East and West, Hollywood and Bollywood have dissolved into cyberspace. They are meaningless in a reality in which how a white savior’s fantasy can stimulate the fantasies of his white audience is of little relevance to the rest of humanity as a whole. They need their white saviors. It’s a psychotic mindset. We can only wish them a speedy recovery.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.