From Sand People to Doctors: An Examination of Middle Eastern Representation in the GFFA

*Reposted from SWRepMatters.com while the site undergoes maintenance*

While watching the very first episode of The Mandalorian, a certain character caught my attention. “Baby Yoda”, you’re probably already thinking. And while I do love The Child with all my heart, I am actually referring to Dr. Pershing. 

Played by Omid Abtahi, Dr. Pershing is an associate of The Client, and is possibly affiliated with Kaminoan cloners. But it wasn’t this affiliation that made Pershing stick out to me. I honestly didn’t even notice the first time around. It was that the actor playing him is, like me, Iranian. Excitement ensued in my Iranian family, as it always does when one of our own makes it big. “That guy, the doctor! He’s Iranian!”. 

Given that we have so little to work with, representation-wise, seeing a face that looked like someone we might know was definitely a cause to celebrate. Not to mention a source of humour. Doctors are stereotypically one of the few professions “permitted” for an Iranian child, and it’s nice to see this was still the case a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. But Dr. Pershing is not coded as Iranian, or Middle Eastern in any capacity. He simply exists to serve the story. While I am personally a fan of this approach, I do also think it’s high time we saw more explicitly coded, positive Middle Eastern representation in this universe, considering what we have been given so far.

When we first meet our hero, Luke Skywalker, and by extension his home planet of Tatooine, we see that while the spaceports are bustling hives filled with beings of all kinds, the open plains of the desert are occupied by only one kind: “Sand People”. Sand People, with their indecipherable howling, and their stick-waving, and their name that sounds just this side of a racial slur relatives of mine have had thrown at them, were all we had for coded Middle Eastern “representation” for a good long while. I can’t speak to what the intent was, if that was even supposed to be Middle Eastern coded, or if it was just meant to be a generic threat to get Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi to the same place. The Sand People weren’t even given a proper name until The Phantom Menace, when they are referred to offhand as Tusken Raiders. They come up again in Attack of the Clones when Anakin Skywalker famously slaughters an entire village of them as payback for the abduction of his mother. We are meant to understand that this was an outsized reaction, and that what he did was wrong. But in that moment we were still 25 years into a franchise where the only coded Middle Eastern depiction was mindless, faceless, howling sand dwellers who now also apparently abduct innocent women.

More recently, however, steps have been taken to humanize the Tuskens and move their depiction away from mindless, faceless desert dwellers. Half of John Jackson Miller’s 2013 novel Kenobi is told from the point of view of A’Yark, a Tusken clan leader. In the novel, through communications with A’Yark, Obi Wan comes to understand that the Tuskens are the beings native to Tatooine and that in their view moisture farmers are colonists exploiting their natural resources. The idea of an outside entity arriving in the desert to draw on its natural resources is, I suspect, not unfamiliar to many from the Middle East. Iran prior to the Second World War found itself in conflict with both England and Russia who sought to relegate the Iranian people to the barren centre of the country while exploiting the resources from the north and south. Not to mention the more recent, similar conflicts currently going on in the Middle East. To provide the Tuskens with this narrative is to both cement their identity as “Middle Eastern coded”, but it also humanizes them. Sabaa Tahir’s 2017 short story Reirin (found in the “From a Certain Point of View” anthology) is entirely from the point of view of the titular Reirin, a young Tusken woman who has left her clan due to the restrictions placed on her due to her gender and is seeking to make her own way in the world. 

A’Yark, the clan leader in Miller’s novel, is also female, but leads her clan out of necessity, not because their views are more progressive than other Tuskens. The gender roles in Tusken society further reinforce this Middle Eastern coding but in a way that provides more depth of character to the Tuskens. Others may see it as a reflection of their own non-Middle Eastern cultures, but I certainly don’t want to speak to that, there are others more qualified to do so. 

Though Miller’s novel was eventually declared no longer canon, Episode 5 of The Mandalorian finds the title character on Tatooine where he reminds a fellow bounty hunter that it is the Tuskens who are the native beings on Tatooine, rather than invaders or aggressors. It is to the show’s credit that it carried this plot point over to the current canon, allowing it to reach a wider audience, and hopefully giving them a new perspective if and when they rewatch the earlier films.

Though depictions of the Tuskens have been improving slowly, people from the Middle East still really haven’t seen much in the way of actual representation. Most of what we’ve seen in terms of “representation” if you can call it that, is through language rather than visuals. To start, I should mention Rogue One, and more specifically, Jedha City. The first time I saw the movie, when they mentioned going to Jedha, I was convinced I’d heard them incorrectly. The name and pronunciation (though not the spelling) is lifted directly from Jeddah, a Saudi Arabian port city. Jedha’s narrow alleyways, reminiscent of many a real-life grand bazaar in an historic part of town further drove home for me that we were meant to be in a pseudo-Middle Eastern environment. According to the creatives, this was an intentional choice. The city was intended to be a mix of Middle Eastern cities, with some influence also drawn from the city of Sarajevo. The film even gives us a character native to Jedha in Bodhi Rook, played by Riz Ahmed. But Ahmed’s family is South Asian and not Middle Eastern, and I don’t want to imply that the two are basically interchangeable. Even the different countries within the Middle East are not interchangeable. But it is worth noting, and perhaps an indication that we are on the right track, that our named character native to the vaguely Middle Eastern locale is played by an actor whose family hails from the same continent as half the Middle East. Baby steps.

On a final note about the use of language, and specifically the Persian language, there are two names in the ancillary material that jumped out at me: Ryder Azadi and Aftab Ackbar. Ryder Azadi is a character from Star Wars: Rebels, first appearing in the show’s second season. Initially he was the governor of Lothal who sympathized with the rebels, before becoming a rebellion leader in his own right. I can think of no better story for a character whose last name is literally the Persian word for “freedom”. I couldn’t believe it when I heard them mention his name in the show. A little on the nose, I thought, to literally name one of your freedom fighters “Freedom”. The funniest example of on the nose wordplay, for me anyway, comes from everyone’s favourite Mon Calamari rebel, Admiral Ackbar. The announcement that the Allegiance: Journey to the Rise of Skywalker comic would introduce Admiral Ackbar’s son was met with some light interest from me, until the announcement that his name is Aftab. My ears perked up, as they always do when I hear Persian spoken by non-Iranians. Then the hilarity dawned on me. “Aftab” is a man’s name in many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, and is also the Persian word for sun, or sunshine. Yes that’s right. Admiral Ackbar, hero of the Rebellion, named his son Sun.

Of all the unexpected ways to become aware of the lack of Middle Eastern representation in Star Wars, for me it came when I decided to try and get my sewing skills up to par enough to join either my local Rebel Legion or 501st Legion. It was then, as I mentally scrolled through face characters that there is not a single one I could think of who looks like me. Not a single one I could pull off enough to dedicate the time to a detailed costume build. The most I could hope for is Background Jedi Knight, Imperial Officer #25, or the third X-Wing pilot from the left. I love this universe, and I hope going forward that it gets better. We have the upcoming Disney+ series, Kenobi, to look forward to. Given the likely setting of Tatooine, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch that Tuskens will be appearing in some capacity. With British-Iranian writer Hossein Amini writing the series, I have hope that not only will the Tuskens continue to be humanized but that, perhaps, the writer wants to see someone onscreen that looks like him too.

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