Game Of Thrones superfans in the UAE

From getting series-related tattoos to co-writing a book with George RR Martin, there are some hardcore GoT fans in the Middle East.

Gareth Rees April 20, 2016

Mandy Aridi is a lecturer in Art History at Canadian University Dubai. She is also a self-confessed “superfan” of Game of Thrones.

“I’ve got Game of Thrones figurines on my desk at work, my friends and I have Game of Thrones viewing parties, Game of Thrones t-shirts, the Game of Thrones board game and a Game of Thrones WhatsApp group,” says Aridi, a US expat who moved from Brooklyn, New York to Dubai in 2012.

“Besides the obvious pull of the storylines and how invested we all become in the characters’ lives, it’s the world itself that really attracts the historian in me – a Renaissance/Medieval-type setting meets a fantasy/supernatural world,” she adds. “Throw in some drama, wit, wolves and dragons, and I’m set.” 

Before joining the faculty at Canadian University Dubai, Aridi worked in community and artist outreach for Middle East Film & Comic Con (MEFCC), the annual pop culture convention in Dubai that she credits with bringing the UAE’s community of Game of Thrones fans together. “There’s definitely a big community here [in the UAE], we just need to do more to unite them,” she says. “That’s why Middle East Film & Comic Con has been so much fun and such a hit for thousands of people in the region – we all want that outlet to geek out and meet fellow superfans.”

Arafaat Ali Khan, Communications Director for MEFCC, says Game of Thrones has been popular with visitors from the start. “This was quite evident from the response Jason Momoa [the actor who played Khal Drogo in the first season of Game of Thrones] received at the first Middle East Film & Comic Con back in 2012. We’ve seen cosplayers aplenty embodying their favourite characters year after year.”

Such is the popularity of the show that the name Arya (spelled Aria) was one of the top 20 most popular names for baby girls born in the United States in 2015. For the premiere of season six, she will settle for a viewing night, homemade guacamole and a t-shirt bearing the words “valar morghulis”, a phrase meaning “all men must die” in the fictional High Valyrian language, which will be familiar to fans of the show.

Some superfans rival the White Walkers’ army of the dead. such as Elio M Garcia (AKA Ran) and his partner Linda Antonsson, who are founders of Game of Thrones fan site Westeros.org, boast a connection to George R R Martin’s fictional world that stretches back to a time well before Game of Thrones was even a glint in Benioff and Weiss’s eyes. The couple created their website in 1998, nine years before HBO commissioned Game of Thrones and 13 years before the first season of the show aired in 2011.

“We were both university students, living on opposite sides of the Atlantic, but [we] were both fans of fantasy,” recalls Garcia. “Linda is the one who first read A Game of Thrones [the first book in the series, published in 1996], and she convinced me to read it. We were in love with that first book, and quickly got enmeshed in the early online fandom.” 

Westeros.org, which now has 1.5 million unique users per month, started life as a website for Blood of Dragons, a role play game based on the A Song of Ice and Fire series, but is has grown to incorporate news, an archive of information about Martin and the series and a forum that now has more than 100,000 registered members. 

The forum is the official meeting ground of the Brotherhood Without Banners fan group, which has members from around the world who meet up predominantly at science fiction conventions where George R R Martin is a guest. “I know people who have attended every single Worldcon [World Science Fiction Convention] for a number of years, including the far-flung one in Japan, just to hang out with George and the Brotherhood Without Banners,” says Garcia. “At one convention a number of members got themselves tattooed with a winter rose, which is an important image in the novels.”

A tattoo might, literally in the case of those unswervingly loyal Brotherhood Without Banners members, be the mark of a Game of Thrones nut, but surely it doesn’t take permanently marking one’s body to be a true fan? “All fans are true fans,” says Garcia. “But that said, I suppose a ‘hardcore’ fan is someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about the series in depth, formulating opinions on characters, plot lines, themes and mysteries. If you think about the series for more than a minute or two every day, I think that makes you a pretty hardcore fan.”

It’s safe to assume that Garcia and Antonsson devote more than a few minutes every day to Martin’s creation. The couple have a close relationship with the author, having co-written a companion book to the series with him, The World of Ice and Fire, published in 2014, and they recently created the leading wiki dedicated to the series, which is hosted on their site. The long-time Martin disciples could justifiably claim to be the biggest fans of his series in the world. But why? What’s all the fuss about?

“Martin has created a rich world, certainly, and he knows how to keep fans hooked,” says Garcia. “But most importantly, he writes a fantasy world that feels like it’s populated with real people, with real virtues and flaws. The moral landscape of Westeros [one of four continents that make up the world of A Song of Ice and Fire] is very much grey, rather than black and white, and that’s something many people can recognise as being how things really are.”

For Luke Wilson, founder of TV fan site EssentialTV.com and the man behind the @EssentialGoT Twitter account (46,155 followers and counting), that started in 2014 to entice fans to his website, the appeal is simple: for him, Game of Thrones is the highest quality show on television today. A string of Primetime Emmy Awards, two Golden Globe nominations for Best TV Series (Drama category) and a stack of Screen Actors Guild gongs would suggest he’s right. Wilson puts this down to the creators having the material from Martin’s novels to work with, and is interested to see if Benioff, Weiss and their team will be able to maintain this high standard in season six, the first to go “beyond the books”.

“The things that fans find appealing about Game of Thrones are universal,” he adds. “It is not a story that belongs to one culture or viewpoint. It is a world of pure fiction that borrows elements from many cultures, stories and historical developments in a way that transcends borders.” 

Dan Selcke, Editor of fan site WinterIsComing.net, which attracts approximately one million visitors per month, also believes that the success of Game of Thrones is in large part thanks to Martin’s carefully thought-out story, but he also praises a new generation viewers with more time for challenging TV. “I think we’re living in a time when audiences are ready to enjoy television that demands a lot more of them,” he says. “Game of Thrones isn’t light entertainment. It’s very dense, and requires people to pay attention. People have the wherewithal nowadays to set aside big swathes of time and dive in, and this show rewards them for that commitment.” 

But the show’s complexity has also attracted a more cerebral type of fan. “I love how high-minded some of the fans are,” says Selcke. “We’ve had a couple of contributions from people with PhDs in history – the show intrigues them academically, and they want to write about it.”

But don’t worry if you don’t have a PhD or a pet dragon, Wilson says he doesn’t distinguish between true fans and the average viewer. “There is often a sense of elitism among the most passionate [fans], who consider themselves above the rest, but I don’t subscribe to that thinking.”

“I love going to places like Comic Con where fans are not ashamed to display their unbridled enthusiasm for Game of Thrones, or any fandom,” he adds. “At New York Comic Con last year I saw a fan in the most incredible Tormund Giantsbane [a major character since the third season of the show] costume. He could have been the actor’s stunt double, and he was just standing in line for a taco.”

Wilson believes that Game of Thrones’ success has allowed television obsession to move beyond the world of Comic Con and become not just acceptable but commonplace. “I’ve always been an aficionado of scripted TV, following my favourite shows religiously, discussing each episode and my theories on future developments with friends,” he says. “Today, this is no longer nerdy, it’s just a part of most of our lives. Before Game of Thrones, who would have thought that the average person on the subway, or next to you at lunch, or walking down the street, would be publicly discussing dragons?”

Game Of Thrones Season 6 will simulcast on OSN on April 25