'Star Wars' has borrowed from Arab culture for years - when will it give back?

Where’s the Arab representation in the Star Wars cast?
Where’s the Arab representation in the Star Wars cast?

When Star Wars returned in 2015 there was a new hope for diversity and to an extent, the franchise has delivered. The Force Awakens welcomed a new leading hero in Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a new face in the Resistance with John Boyega’s Finn and in subsequent films black and Asian characters have been added to the mix.

When it comes to Arab actors, however, there is a troubling lack of them especially when you consider how much the franchise borrows from Arab culture.

Take a look at the Jedi. George Lucas borrowed the aesthetic of their uniforms from North African tribesman and the Sufi brotherhood (which is a style said to still be worn by Saharan inhabitants of the Maghreb) and, though it’s not been confirmed, there were claims that the filmmaker spoke with members of the “Habibiyyah Sufi Order” in Berkeley, CA, as research for the film. Sufism is described as “Islamic Mysticism,” while the Jedi name seems very much derived from the Arabic term ‘Al-Jeddi’ which means “master of the mystic-warrior way.”

Lucas’ mystic warriors even learned and practiced their philosophy in a similar way to Islamic sheiks. Students spend years learning under the guidance of their teaching-sheiks, in the same way, padawans like Luke Skywalker train under the tutelage of Jedi Masters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. Even Admiral Ackbar’s name could have been taken from the Arabic word “Akbar,” which means “greatest,” and of course that’s what he was (RIP).

The Jedi Master and padawan, like Obi-Wan and Luke, seem inspired by Islamic sheiks and their students
The Jedi Master and padawan, like Obi-Wan and Luke, seem inspired by Islamic sheiks and their students

North Africa also plays a far bigger part than just the Berber and Bedouin fashion seen in the franchise thanks to Tunisia playing host to much of the original trilogy’s production. The town of Tataouine even provided Lucas the inspiration he needed to name Luke’s desert home, Tatooine. The director also admitted in the documentary, From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga, that a lot of the film’s aesthetic, content and soundscape decisions were made on location and influenced by the crew’s surroundings.

Male camels in heat were used for sound effects, the nomadic tribes influenced the portrayal of the Sand People/Tusken Raiders and several Tunisian villages and areas were used as a backdrop for Lucas’ prequel trilogy too.

And what are the Jedi? They are “a noble order of protectors unified by their belief and observance of the Force,” whose ideology shares more than a passing resemblance to the tenets of Islam. This is not to say that other religious doctrines weren’t an influence on Lucas when he was conceiving the Jedi way of life but many studies into Star Wars’ theology rarely acknowledge the influence of Islamic or Arab culture, and in the wider conversation of representation in the franchise not much is said about the lack of opportunities for actors of Arab heritage either.

Riz Ahmed is the only Muslim actor of note to have a leading role, which came in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but there has yet to be an Arab actor or actress afforded the same opportunity. What we have seen is several more white actors land roles in Episode IX from JJ Abrams. Matt Smith, Richard E. Grant, Dominic Monaghan and Keri Russell have been brought in by The Force Awakens director, as well as black actress Naomi Ackie.

Last week, Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico in the franchise and has suffered an unfair amount of racist abuse and trolling for her casting, published a brilliant piece about the importance of representation.

Riz Ahmed is the only Muslim actor to have a central role in the live-action Star Wars franchise
Riz Ahmed is the only Muslim actor to have a central role in the live-action Star Wars franchise

Speaking of trolls she said: “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of colour already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.”

As Tran successfully argues, she doesn’t belong in the margins and has every right to her place in the Star Wars world as much as any white actor. So do Arab actors and actresses who barely get a chance to star in a movie where they’re not stereotyped as terrorists or taxi drivers. Ahmed made this point in his Parliamentary address on diversity for Channel 4.

“People are looking for the message that they belong, that they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, their experience, they are valued,” he said. “They want to feel represented. In that task, we have failed.”

Arabs want to be as much a part of the Star Wars narrative as their white, black and Asian counterparts and there are actors out there already who could be called up for inclusion. Aiysha Hart, Sara Khan, Ben Youcef, Marwan Kenzari, and Maria Zreik are just a few working actors who could fly an X-wing but there are also plenty of unknown stars waiting for their chance if Lucasfilm casting directors chose to cast their net wide enough to find them.

Daisy Ridley was unheard of until she landed the role of Rey, and now she’s one of the most recognisable stars in the world. That’s fantastic, but if doors are only open to certain types of people then we’ll never have true equality or representation onscreen.

We need to remember that people of colour might be a catch-all term for non-white people but it doesn’t fully recognise the differences between ethnic minorities. One ethnic minority isn’t a substitute for all ethnic minorities and onscreen representation needs to reflect this, especially in a globally loved franchise like Star Wars.

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