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Dune 2: a tale of Palestinian resistance against Israel’s occupation

March 15, 2024 at 2:20 pm

General views of the ‘Dune: Part Two’ skyscraper billboard campaign at Hollywood & Highland on February 27, 2024 in Hollywood, California. [AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images]

Stories have always conveyed messages to the human subconscious. From the bedtime stories children are taught, to the movies we watch and the novels we read, the art of the story is possibly the most effective tool a propagandist can use. Speeches and the spoken word may impact the mind at a greater scale than books and writing ever can, but nothing reaches the heart and the human psyche deeper than entertainment.

Lecture a child on the dangers of overconsuming sugar and you will bore them, but show them a visual representation or a story displaying subtle messaging on the consequences of doing so, and you may reform their mindset almost instantaneously. Such tactics may also be used to convey realities not easily swallowed whole and in raw form.

Thus, when watching Dune: Part Two, it is difficult to escape references to current and ongoing political realities affecting our world today. Many have reported on the significant influence Islamic and Near Eastern cultural attributes – including Arabic, Persian, and Turkish – have had on Frank Herbert’s Dune universe: it is obvious even to those with only a rudimentary linguistic and cultural knowledge.

That includes terms such as ‘Lisan Al Gaib’ or ‘Mahdi’ for the messianic leader Paul Atreides, to ‘Shai-Hulud’ (eternal thing) for the sandworms, ‘Fedaykin’ for the desert warriors (drawn from the Farsi term Fedayeen), ‘Padishah’ for emperor, and even ‘jihad’ in the books – which the movies chose to leave out.

More impressive than the author’s utilisation of such terms, though, is the complexity of the court intrigues and political dynamics laid out in the story. Rather than making the plot merely one of dichotomous rivalries or a balance of power, it expands to cover the many layers of power and influence that most would overlook.

It is in that very frame that the current war in Gaza, and the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict, may be seen. There is never a perfect parallel in the comparison between fantasy and reality, but it can come eerily close.

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Set approximately 20,000 years into the future, in an intergalactic system of planets ruled by the ‘great houses’ which answer ultimately to the emperor, the first Dune movie shows an imperial delegation announcing to the head of House Atreides – the family from which the protagonist Paul Atreides hails from – that the emperor has granted it rulership over the planet Arrakis.

That house would assume its control of the desert planet, where it would harvest the mind-altering ‘spice’ export that Arrakis produces, which is much sought after throughout this fictional universe due to its ability to fuel space travel and prolong human life.

Shortly upon their arrival, the Atreides are invaded and annihilated overnight by the army of the rival House Harkonnen, in a plan assisted by the emperor and his forces, and ultimately arranged by the Bene Gesserit – a shadowy sisterhood that serves as the universe’s power-brokers and intelligence agency.

With House Atreides betrayed by the imperial leadership and with its top brass slain, only its prince Paul and his mother remain alive, seeking refuge in the desert with the native Fremen people, who have been oppressed under the empire and the Harkonnens for generations.

It is in this setting from which Dune: Part Two continues, with Paul Atreides adopting the ways of his Fremen hosts and emerging as their mythological saviour ‘Mahdi’ throughout the course of the movie, battling both the Harkonnens and the emperor while attempting to outdo the plots of the Bene Gesserit.

That entire plot makes Dune embody a myriad of perspectives: the archetypal hero’s journey, local players’ great power competitions, and the conceptualisation of a future blend of humanity’s cultures, among other things. But it also seems to eerily represent the situation in Palestine, embodying the long and ongoing struggle of Palestinians against Israeli oppression. That is something keenly felt when viewing the movie, especially by those familiar with the current crisis in the Gaza Strip.

At first, the desert Fremen people can clearly be seen as Palestinians, resisting the invasive and aggressive Harkonnens who represent the Israeli occupation forces and Zionist settlers. House Atreides – which was overthrown by the coalition of the Harkonnens and the empire – may represent Arab nations who oversaw Palestinian territories, such as Egypt and Jordan, or even the forces of the Arab Revolt which overran the Levant upon the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

The emperor in Dune represents the British empire, which promised the Levant and Palestine (Arrakis) first to the Arabs (House Atreides) during the First World War, only to betray them and support the Zionist cause (Harkonnens). That emperor also currently represents the United States – the British empire’s American successors who form a major part of the broader Anglo-American establishment or Atlanticist order. Like the emperor, those former colonial and current hegemonic powers in our world seem to play the local regional players (the great houses) against one another, in order to ensure and cement geopolitical interests.

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And behind all of those great and local powers in Dune stands the Bene Gesserit, who operate as some sort of intelligence service or power-broker, acting neutrally and maintaining relations with all players in order to secure their long-term goals and breed multiple bloodlines for their web of potential future outcomes. They can be seen more vaguely as an active intelligence agency in our world – possibly the US’s CIA or the UK’s MI6 – or perhaps more accurately as a ‘deep state’ establishment which transcends the interests of individual nation-states in the pursuit of loftier aims toward a global order.

That wades into the realm of conspiracy and speculation, however, and those waters are much too dark and swampy for anyone to really delve into. There are inconsistencies with such a comparison between the Dune universe and our world, of course, such as the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not one fought over the extraction of a resource but rather of a territory itself, and that there is no singular representative group for the Palestinian cause.

That is inevitable, as there will never be exact parallels in the contrast between our world and a fictional work of fantasy. It is also highly unlikely that Dune’s creator, Frank Herbert, was thinking of the plight of Palestinians when he wrote these works.

There are, however, lessons to be drawn from such fictional worlds and their fables. The struggle of Palestinians against Israel and its occupation has similarly been likened to other legendary works of science-fiction over the decades, such as Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker and the rebellion launch a war of resistance against the evil empire.

While the status quo regarding such movies and works of fiction is to cheer for the resistance against the occupation, it seems that those sentiments do not transfer into the real world, in which a genocide is tolerated and the mass bombing of children and innocents is justified.

If basic morality and humanity does not appeal to audiences throughout the West and the developed world, then the hope is that fiction or fantasy reflecting that reality will open their eyes.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.