Who are the real-life Fremen?

Dune was… surprisingly good? I can’t lie, I thought the first movie was dense and confusing as hell, so I wasn’t looking forward to the sequel. Luckily, though, despite how painfully long it was (literally - my back started aching halfway through), there was a lot more action and development that made the movie feel like an actual movie rather than a weird fantasy info-dump.

Best of all, though, was getting to know the Fremen more. I feel like we rarely see films that touch on, let alone focus on their characters’ religions, so Dune was not just refreshing but also really thought-provoking. More importantly… I think I know them? I think I’ve met real-life “Fremen” before?

I’ve mentioned it in a few of my previous articles, but it’s worth mentioning again that I lived in Morocco for a while. Which is why, when I saw the Fremen’s tattoos, they were oddly familiar : aren’t those Imazighen tattoos?

Tell me I'm not the only one who sees a resemblance.

Little did I know this simple thought would lead me down an endless spiral of Google searches.

For those who don’t know who the Imazighen are, they’re the native inhabitants of North Africa - hence the Morocco connection. If Imazighen is new to you, the term Berber might be more familiar, though it’s generally considered somewhat offensive. You might even have heard of some of their ethnic subgroups such as the Tuareg, the Riffians, or the Kabyles. Regardless of whether or not you’ve heard of them, you should know that they traditionally tattoo women’s faces for a variety of reasons, ranging from health and protection to beauty and tribal identification - just like some of the Fremen women in Dune. Also, some Tuareg have blue-stained skin from the indigo dyes they use - similar to how the Fremen have blue eyes due to the spice they consume.

Even if the indigo doesn't always rub off on them, the colour of their clothes is enough to earn them the nickname "the blue men"

More importantly, though, Imazighen literally means “free people”. One could even say it means “free men”.

“Free men”. “Fremen”. You see where I’m going with this, I’m sure.

Except that, when I tried to see whether or not other people had made the same connection, things got a little less clear. Sure, some people pointed out the potential link between Imagizhen and Fremen, but it turns out Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, might have also been inspired by Bedouin people… Who also practiced face-tattooing. This, of course, throws a bit of a wrench in my theory, especially since the new Dune film seems to take more inspiration from the tattoo styles of the Bedouin, nomadic tribes from the Arabian Peninsula.

I'm not an expert, but I think the Dune tattoos are more inspired by the Bedouins because they're rounder?

Then again, the word Bedouin doesn’t have any specific connection to the word “Fremen”, simply meaning “desert dweller” or, according to my Moroccan fiance, simply “person from the countryside”.

Then again AGAIN, apparently in the Dune books, the Fremen claim to be from “Misr”, the Arabic word for Egypt, where there are both Bedouin and Imazighen groups. Also, there’s the fact that Herbert was potentially inspired by a book called “The Sabres of Paradise”, which is based on an Islamic revolt in southern Russia. Even better, the Kwisatz Haderach is based on a Jewish concept. And doesn’t Arrakis sound kind of like Iraq?

Maybe it’s time to take a step back, because everything up until now is inconclusive at best. As far as I can tell, there’s no mention of face tattoos in the Dune books ( NO, I am not going to read them - I don’t hate myself), so let’s ignore that. The indigo and “free men” link is more plausible, but still rather tenuous. As for the Fremen claiming to be from Misr in the books, well, how many of us can claim to accurately know where our ancestors were from 20,000 years ago?

I am descended from the people of... Wherever this is, I guess. And you probably are too!

As far as I can tell, the most salient facts about the Fremen are as follows :

  1. They speak a language that is mostly based in Arabic with some other linguistic influences.
  2. They have a link to Sunni Islam, practicing Zensunni (in contrast to Zenshiite or Zensufi which are real things in the novels - I wish I were joking) and waiting for the arrival of the messiah al-Mahdi, an important figure even in current Islam.
  3. The Fremen have a religious text called Kitab al-Ibar, most likely a reference to Ibn Khaldun’s historical encyclopedia by the same name, which covers a universal history (often believed to have influenced Herbert with its theories regarding how “stagnant societies” can be overthrown by small, close-knit tribes), a world history, and a more specific history of the Imazighen in North Africa.

While there might be more evidence to be found in the books, I still refuse to read them, and my final conclusion is this : Frank Herbert didn’t really know what he was doing. He probably knew about all of the cultures I mentioned in this article and was inspired by all of them, resulting in a vaguely Islamic amalgam that can be traced back to many sources without being entirely inspired by one.

I’m not saying this doesn’t make for an interesting fantasy culture or anything - I’m obviously kinda obsessed. It just seems weirdly fetishistic about Islamic cultures, to the point of being borderline, if not outright, Orientalist (which is broadly considered not cool). The movie is arguably even worse for adding in the face tattoos, as they’re largely dying out in both Imazighen and Bedouin groups since tattoos are considered haram (forbidden) in Islam. But hey, who cares about cultural realities when the aesthetic is cool?

Side note : I think once the K-Pop craze is over, the new cultural obsession will be North Africa and the Middle East, but that's a topic for another article.

Anyway, sorry, but my title was a trick. There doesn’t really seem to be a solid answer to who the real-life Fremen are, but hopefully this can serve as a starting point if you want to look into the many interesting cultures that inspired them - just don’t be as weird about it as Herbert.

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