x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Star Wars nostalgia in southern Tunisia

In Tunisia a strange blend of Arab tradition and Star Wars fantasy is alive and kicking.

Luke Skywalker was an Arab. Or at the very least he lived as one, I thought as I puffed on a shisha pipe inside the cave where he argues with his uncle over breakfast.

It's a scene any Star Wars fan would instantly recognise. Wisps of smoke floated to the ceiling, still decorated with orange and black symbols, just as I had last seen it in the film.

It was a truly odd place - I was in a dwelling three metres underground, inside a crater dug by Berbers hundreds of years ago, but because George Lucas had been there too, alien architecture and devices now surrounded me. Outside, the night sky twinkled, the Belt of Orion and the Big Dipper in plain view. Fittingly enough, on a clear, serene night, the ancient dwelling transformed by Hollywood into Skywalker's home is a good place to contemplate galaxies far, far away, and memories from a long time ago.

The strange blend of Arab tradition and western fantasy is found in southern Tunisia, where Lucas first shot scenes for his space opera in 1977. Film sets and locations can still be visited and, for the movie's devotees, a tour is akin to a pilgrimage - a chance to see and touch actual relics of the Star Wars mythos, a cultural juggernaut that earned almost US$5 billion (Dh18.4bn) in box office receipts alone and defined the science fiction dreams of Generation X.

Visitors to southern Tunisia quickly realise why Lucas chose it for his movie. To reach the various film locations, my family and I travelled for four days across an epic landscape, moving from azure coastlines to glittering salt plains, up veiled mountains, down scarred gorges and across shifting, endless deserts.

Driving down from the capital Tunis, we first arrived at Matmata, a mountain village famed for its underground troglodyte homes. Berbers dug them to escape hot summers and marauders. Small doors carved into rocky hillsides and large, deep craters mark the location of these dwellings. Many are still inhabited; it was a jarring experience to see people coming and going into the ground like insects.

The Hotel Sidi Driss, Matmata's largest underground dwelling, served as the interior of Skywalker's home. Ageing set dressings remain in the hotel's right courtyard: oblong portals with ribbed siding, exotic machinery, piping and exhaust ports. There are plastic moulds (one apparatus had a recycling symbol on it) bolted to walls, and plywood pieces held together by nails, wire, honeycomb mesh and plaster. Fans have scrawled messages on the backs of the wood pieces. The decorations are worn out and will likely disappear within several years. We decided to spend the night.

It was rough - our room was an unadorned cave with only eight rock-hard beds and was lit by a single bulb. Facilities were non-existent; toilets, for instance, were shared latrines, all reeking of urine. Neglect marred the hotel's main attraction too: designating the movie set were just two old Star Wars children's bedspreads, tacked onto a wall leading to the courtyard. The night's saving grace was that, visiting in the off-season, we had the place to ourselves.

I roamed freely, retracing scenes. I followed a path leading above to the crater's upper edge. From there I had a view down into the courtyard, the same perspective Skywalker sees in the movie. At that moment I was a little boy again, the one who made his own lightsaber with tape, a torch and a red plastic tube. Before going to bed I chatted with hotel staff. Some had been around for the last film shooting in 2003. None of them had seen the movies, but were hopeful for another, hailing Lucas for the money and jobs created there as a result.

"The world knows our village because of this film," said Mohamed Rachid, a busboy. We drove further south, into an arid and rocky part of Tunisia, where farming villages and lonely shepherd hovels are scattered among mustard hills and rouge plains. Unique to the region are its ancient strongholds, called ksar. Built to store grain, they are tan-coloured structures of stone, gypsum and mud. The actual buildings are comprised of rows of hump-shaped chambers, stacked on each other and linked together. They were filmed as backdrops for the smuggler's city of Mos Eisley where Skywalker meets the rogue with a heart of gold, Han Solo.

Our trip took us to three buildings that appeared in the Star Wars prequels. Though all shared similar bulbous architecture, they differed in character. The ksar in the city of Medenine is alive - its courtyard is filled with vendors, and people still live in an alley behind it where young Anakin Skywalker and his mother were filmed. While in a remote town further south, the large Ksar Hadada stands as a lonely, empty reminder of its builders and Lucas, who shot scenes from Episode I there. But for sheer wonder and grace there is the Ksar Ouled Soltane, a restored granary featuring chambers stacked four stories high, perched on a hilltop facing the desert. Taking me up to the ksar's rooftops was Ali Gasme Soltane, a sixth-generation descendant of its builders. The village took care of the structure, where dance festivals are now held, Soltane said. A self-described artist, Soltane was amused at how his ancestors' legacy was used to bring life to a modern work of fantasy.

"They were very intelligent people," he said. "That is why they are remembered, and we are proud of them." My family stopped for a late lunch in Tataouine, a nondescript town that inspired the name for Skywalker's home planet. We decided not to drive to the island of Djerba, which has a port featuring four buildings whose exteriors were shown as places in Episode IV, including the Mos Eisley Cantina and Obi Wan Kenobi's hermitage. Ardent Star Wars devotees seek them out, but they are small, neglected and vacant buildings, and not worth the drive if you are short on time.

The remaining locations were over 300km to the west, close to the Algerian border. We opted to drive the next day through the giant salt flats called the Chott el Jerid, where the landscape is said to have inspired Lucas's bleak vision of Skywalker's home planet. As we travelled the lonely road, the land became a desolate expanse, bleached of any colour or life. The soil was entirely crystalline, glistening like a fresh blanket of snow.

The clouds seemed to float slower there, as nothing moved within eyesight. We stopped to explore, but were unable to, as the ground surrounding the tarmac road gave way with a single step. That's when I became anxious; it is no place to get a flat tyre, run out of petrol or suffer an engine breakdown. Still, we met some western tourists braving the same route, including a number touring Tunisia on motorcycles. One such pair, an Austrian named Robert Gallaire and his Portuguese friend George Matos, were also on a Star Wars location tour. Both men grew up with the movies, and the enthusiasm they had for the films hadn't worn off in the 1970s and 1980s.

"The original movies were very hi-tech for their time," said Gallaire, wearing a blue motorcycle jumpsuit. "It was something incredible, nobody had ever seen anything like it before." But, like many in his generation, he was less charitable towards the prequel films.

"I didn't like Episodes I, II, and III," he said. "Too much special effects, and not a good story." Soon after clearing the salt flats, we arrived at a Star Wars film site that is not marked on any map. Credit is due to devotees who located it and posted the coordinates online (yes, people are that serious about this).

In the village of Deghoumes there is a road to Sidi Bouhlel, where the tomb of a saint, called a marabout, overlooks a canyon. It is the same canyon where Jawas capture R2-D2, and where Kenobi saves Skywalker from Sandpeople. From above we could see the rectangular rock where the droid was hauled; the canyon's evocative red boulders and scarred cliff faces seemed to hide aliens still.

Other places, such as the small crevice and rock where Kenobi and Skywalker first meet, can be visited at the base of the canyon, but with two small children in tow, hiking for us unfortunately was not an option. We ended our day in the resort village of Tozeur, booking a 4x4 with a driver to travel the next morning into the desert. Renting the vehicle is a must: despite the extra suspension underneath us, it was still a bumpy ride as the road of sand dipped and rose with the terrain. The driver stopped gently to let wild camel herds pass, but spun his steering wheel with rapid aplomb to avoid pitfalls.

Then, to the delight of my children, our driver forced the SUV up and down several towering sand dunes. We first reached a flat plain featuring a large brown rock formation, named Ong Jemel for its resemblance to a camel. It is where Darth Maul had his lookout in Episode I, while the plains below provided backdrops for Podraces from the same film. And just minutes away is the top of a sand dune with a panoramic view of the best-kept Star Wars location in Tunisia, the abandoned movie set called Mos Espa. My children excitedly ran off into the make-believe city, yelling and going in and out of alien structures and playing hide-and-seek. But you don't have to be a child to marvel at the collection of 30 buildings. They are the same constructs found in the underground home in Matmata - façades of wood, mesh, and plaster - but on a larger-than-life-size scale.

To be in the middle of the set is to be in the middle of a Star Wars movie itself; moisture evaporators stand vigilant in the main thoroughfare, while alleyways lead to rectangular portals and dust-coloured dwellings featuring cones, domes, arches and alien gizmos. Many of the city's aliens and spaceships in the movie were computer-generated, but this is a real place that you can walk through. It is hard not to grin at the silly fantasy of it all. The surprise for us, though, was that we found it bustling with activity.

A number of labourers were renovating, repainting and building new buildings. Ironically, the effort to build these alien structures was done in a very human way; one man applied plaster with his bare hands, others sat and smoked in the shade of an alien hall. One worker who spoke English, Farouk Ben Ibrahim, came forward to explain. Renovations began back in December, he said, after an Italian film producer contracted locals.

"He gives us money, and we fix it," Ibrahim said. "He said there is another part of Star Wars filming here. In the summer, maybe."

If true, no one would be more excited than fans of the series, and that includes Amr bin Amr, a local who has stood guard over the set since 1997. "George Lucas wore a fox mask so he could play a part in the film," Amr said. "This is my responsibility," he said, waving his cane at the movie set façades.

"I hope they come back, so we can make money."

We could've stayed there for hours, but there was still one final destination. We backtracked, but instead of returning to Tozeur we drove onwards through the town of Nefta and straight towards the border with Algeria. But before entering al Qa'eda territory our 4x4 went off the road to the left and onto a dirt path. Dirt soon gave way to sand, and then to slushy salt flats. We were back on the salt pan of Chott el Jerid, but only this time we were right in the middle of it. Being there was like being on the moon - cold, empty, and nothing to see at all - until a small, rounded structure began to form on the horizon.

Soon enough, we were in the presence of a piece of movie history, the iconic igloo and craters of Skywalker's home. Lucas chose this isolated site, over 300km away from Matmata, to present the exterior image of a solitary home in an alien world. Even without the movie magic it feels that way. My wife and I laughed as we walked up to the small building, still in disbelief. It was fragile and decaying.

There were no guards there, no workers and no gaggle of tourists. Salt is eating away at the building, as plaster chunks fall from its bottom. A number of pockmarks and indentations also exist on the exterior. Drivers from a nearby off-road vehicle rental business have turned the igloo into an obstacle on a course - piles of tires sit nearby. The vandalism still does not take away from the location's wonder, but it does ensure the igloo will vanish in time. Being there brought back a flood of boyhood dreams, and now they had been realised. Something that up until that moment only existed in my mind as a piece of fantasy, I had touched.

It was still make-believe, but now my memories would be of something real. As dusk approached, I walked to the edge of the crater where Skywalker once stood, and held my boy. In the best of Star Wars traditions, we watched the sunset, together, as father and son.