Tu­nisian Desert’s Star Wars Ex­pe­ri­ence

Riverbank News - - NEIGHBORHOOD VALUES -

MATMATA, Tu­nisia (AP) — There’s a rea­son the orig­i­nal “Star Wars” movie was filmed here in the deserts of south­ern Tu­nisia. This stark, re­mote land­scape looks like an­other planet.

One of Tu­nisia’s vast desert re­gions is even called Tataouine, like Luke Sky­walker’s home planet, Tat­toine.

And the un­der­ground home where Luke Sky­walker first ap­peared living with his un­cle and aunt is a real hotel in the town of Matmata, one of var­i­ous desert lo­ca­tions used in the movies.

“It looks just like the film,” said Lorenzo Bres­ciani, one of two young tour­ing Ital­ian pro­fes­sional ten­nis play­ers who re­cently vis­ited the Hotel Sidi Driss. “When you see it on the film, you say, ‘OK.’ But when you are here, it has an­other ef­fect.”

Hotel owner Ma­soud Be- rachad says vis­i­tors have dropped off since Tu­nisia’s demo­cratic rev­o­lu­tion in 2011 and since ter­ror at­tacks killed tourists in 2015.

Still, “Star Wars” fans keep the hotel in busi­ness. “They come and take so many pic­tures,” Ber­achad said. “You can see how happy they are. They can stay here for hours and hours.”

Aside from tourism, though, jobs here are scarce. Matmata’s pop­u­la­tion is dwin­dling as peo­ple leave for a more modern life else­where.


Be­fore be­com­ing a hotel in 1969, the “Star Wars” dwelling was a tra­di­tional home used by in­dige­nous Berbers. The Berbers played a ma­jor role in the his­tory of North Africa and Europe af­ter form­ing pow­er­ful al­liances with Ro­mans and Arabs. Remember the Jawas from “Star Wars,” the hooded fel­lows who trade in scrap metal and cap­ture C-3PO and R2D2? Their dark cloaks and pointed hoods re­sem­ble the gar­ments of tra­di­tional Berbers, as does Obi-Wan Kenobi in his cloak.

The Berbers’ un­der­ground dwellings, like the Matmata house, were carved from sand­stone to of­fer shel­ter from heat and a place to hide from en­e­mies. Few peo­ple live that way to­day, but some dwellings have been pre­served as mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing one owned by Mah­boub Theouibi, whose fam­ily moved into a modern house about 25 years ago.

Like most of the dwellings, theirs was built with a cen­tral court­yard open to the sky. “Broth­ers lived in the same room, cousins in an­other,” she said. “Each room had a pur­pose.” She pointed to a small room ac­ces­si­ble only by lad­der, where the fam­ily stored food, and a stone for milling grains. “Ev­ery­thing was made by hand,” she said.

She re­mem­bered her life there fondly, de­spite hard­ships like car­ry­ing wa­ter by camel from a spring far away and the daily search for food.


It’s a long jour­ney across wide-open plateaus to this desert ter­rain. Long, straight high­ways pass in­dus­trial cities such as oil­rich Gabes and phos­phate-pro­duc­ing Gafsa. Ven­dors by the road­side sell tea boiled in fire-warmed pots, pas­tries and beau­ti­ful ce­ram­ics. Stacks of jerry cans hold cheap gas smug­gled in from neigh­bor­ing Al­ge­ria and Libya. In lone­ly­look­ing and half-fin­ished towns along the way, the only busi­nesses seem to be cof­fee shops filled with men smok­ing hookahs and play­ing cards.

A jumble of walls and stone homes mark a Ber­ber town on a hill called Tamezret. Here Mongi Bouras, a 50-year-old Ber­ber ar­ti­san, has metic­u­lously turned an old cave home into a mu­seum to show­case his peo­ple’s his­tory.

His mu­seum is filled with his gor­geous tra­di­tional

art­work, all hand­made: dresses, quilts, car­pets, man­nequins adorned in tra­di­tional cloth­ing. It’s also full of tools and ob­jects that would have been found in a Ber­ber home, like pes­tles and the two-han­dled jars called am­phorae.

He said an­i­mistic, Jewish, Chris­tian and Muslim sym­bols be­came part of Ber­ber crafts and pat­terns, and his work re­flects that: In his la­bo­ri­ously wo­ven gar­ments and car­pets there is a Star of David, a Chris­tian cross, an Is­lamic cres­cent moon and nat­u­ral­is­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions.

The low door­ways, he said, forced vis­i­tors to bow out of cour­tesy. In one room, he lifted a col­or­ful car­pet to re­veal a wooden door in the floor. This used to be the en­trance to a 1-kilo­me­ter-deep tun­nel once used by in­hab­i­tants to get wa­ter, their path lit by oil lamps. “The sign of the

smoke from olive oil is still there,” he said.


Far­ther on, the Sa­hara gets closer. The hori­zons stretch longer. Traf­fic is sparse. Moun­tain pro­files etch the land­scape.

Out of nowhere, a town ap­pears: Douz. A restau­rant menu lists camel’s milk, lamb’s head and grilled fish trucked in from the Mediter­ranean. An­other city on the edge of the Sa­hara, Tozeur, is busy with shops, lit-up mosques, ca-

fes, mar­kets, traf­fic.

Then, just out­side Tozeur, a bizarre sight ap­pears over the top of a sand dune: an aban­doned film set from an­other “Star Wars” lo­ca­tion, a place called Mos Espa in the films. Ven­dors sell crafts and pushy boys try to get tourists to pose for pho­to­graphs atop camels or with long-eared desert foxes.

As the sun falls, the dunes and desert take on strange shapes and colors. It’s as if they truly be­long on an­other planet.


The Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, Tu­nisa.

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