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Tunisia's Star Wars fans battle to bring the Force home

As the world goes crazy for The Force Awakens, the home of the saga's original locations has failed to capitalise on the new release
Fans pose in outfits of Stormtroopers on 3 May, 2014 during a parade on the last day of the international meeting of Star Wars fans in Tozeur (AFP)

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, a Hollywood film crew arrived in the Sidi Bouhel valley in southern Tunisia, and a legend was born. 

Today, four decades later, as the seventh Star Wars film opens around the world and breaks box office records, Tunisians are not immune from the phenomenom that is The Force AwakensOn 18 December, fans of the movie flocked to a theatre in downtown Matmata, Tataouine, for the fan club-planned premiere of the new movie. Ghosts of Star Wars past awoke, as C3PO and stormtroopers graced the premiere with their presence.

Fittingly, in the country where Tatoouine farmboy Luke Skywalker once sped across the dunes on a landspeeder, there were no shortage of filmgoers declaring themselves huge fans of the space saga in Tunisia. 

Down in Sidi Bouhlel, the famous valley used for scenes in the original Star Wars films, as well as The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was no sign of any activity around the new movie's release. It remains beautiful and serene, just as it has since George Lucas first decided to film here in 1976. While movie sets often come and go, this particular one has remained largely unchanged since as long as anyone can remember. The rock the Jawas hid behind before they shocked R2D2 is still prominent.

Photo below: Screenshot from the Star Wars movie in which R2D2 is taken by the Jawas. Photo above: The rock remains today

Sitting above the valley, a donkey brays in the distance. The sound reverberating off the sides of the mountain, creating an effect eerily like the war cry of the sand people known as Tusken Raiders. It must have been the same noise Lucas heard when he was filming here four decades ago.

In this sense, Tunisia is a treasure trove of much-loved locations from the original trilogy. Villages and sites remain intact throughout the country. Unfortunately, these sites are neglected by Tunisia's tourism industry. If it weren't for Tunisia's Star Wars fan club, many of the sites in this potential haven for legions of the films' fans would have fallen into obscurity. 

Salam Ben Said, 63, serves as the guardian and host at the Mos Espa site, outside of Nefta, in southern Tunisia. Mos Espa is the famous site of Anakin Skywalker's home in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. With a crew of Tunisians and foreigners, George Lucas designed and built the set from scratch.

Mos Espa site at dusk (MEE/Conor McCormick-Cavanagh)

Ben Said believes Lucas chose the Mos Espa site because it is "a virgin place, untouched by humans". In the past, only camel herders trekked across the desert expanse. It is no wonder that Lucas decided to film scenes for the alien planet Tataoine in this area.

The filming, which took place in 1998, brought in a significant amount of both publicity and business to the oft-neglected southern region of Tunisia.

Wahid Abbes, 34, now a correspondent for Shams FM, a Tunisian radio station, recalls working there as a teenager. "We heard there was a famous film being shot nearby. They needed labour, so we went there and worked," he told Middle East Eye.

Boys and young men helped in the set production and also served as production assistants. At the time, LucasFilm offered significantly higher wages than what could be earned doing other odd jobs around these boys' hometowns. Additionally, the movie production stoked new national and worldwide interest in the south of Tunisia. People became fascinated by the fact that the new Star Wars movies were being filmed in the region and also recalled that the original films were shot here.

Tozeur, a town famous for being both the birthplace of renowned Tunisian poet Abdou Kacem Shebbi and a beautiful oasis, once again became a hotspot for tourism. While other communities in the interior and southern regions of Tunisia were suffering, those in cities like Tozeur and Nefta, which had close access to Star Wars sites, flourished. All of that began to grind to a halt in 2009 with the crisis in the eurozone. Hotels struggled to stay profitable and many workers were laid off. To make matters worse, revolution enveloped Tunisia, scaring off more potential foreign tourists.

This decline in tourist numbers continued in the wake of social unrest, political assassinations, terrorists attacks, and shoddy reporting of the reality of the situation in southern Tunisia.

In March 2015, both CNN and the Guardian published a story about the Islamic State group using the Star Wars sites as a waypoint for their militant activities. The author of one article later corrected his earlier claim that IS was using Tataoine as a base in a second article, but the damage was done. Just like that, Tunisia’s Star Wars sites became linked to terrorism. Now, only two out of 18 hotels is still open year-round in Tozeur. At the Mos Espa site, Ben Said told Middle East Eye that only one or two tourists make the trip each day.

Salem Ben Said sells traditional jewellery at the Mos Espa site (MEE/Conor McCormick-Cavanagh)

While some of the neglect of these sites is sheer bad luck and unavoidable, with millions of Star Wars fans worldwide and a new film released, many locals feel that Tunisia's ministry of tourism could have done a great deal more to attract visitors to these sites. 

Right now, the sites lack necessary context for fans. Salem Ben Said, the camel herder now turned Mos Espa guardian, told MEE that he "knows very little about Star Wars," which he refers to as Harb al-Noujoum, Arabic for Star Wars. He thought the movie was about "ancient civilizations going to war with each other".

His eldest son, Ali, who also works at the site, still hasn't seen any of the films. His knowledge of Star Wars is virtually non-existent. All of the men working at the Mos Espa site are simple camel herders. They are nice and honest, but hardly best prepared to be the guides for visitors to some of the most famous film sets in the world.

While the government has failed to take the initiative to revive the fortunes of the sites, journalist Wahid Abbes and others proposed a plan to the ministry of tourism several years ago to invest in an official Star Wars tour guide for the sites in the surrounding area. They are yet to receive any official response.

When questioned if it was doing anything for The Force Awakens premiere, the ministry said no and that it had no plans for the upcoming months. Middle East Eye also reached out to LucasFilm to see if they had any upcoming plans to relate to Tunisia. A representative from the company responded to say they were too busy with the upcoming premiere to respond.

Regardless of the lack of current outside support, Tunisia is not short of willing fans and guides ready to take visitors to the Star Wars sites. With high unemployment and a huge "geek community," Abdou Ameur, president of the Star Wars Fan Club Tunisia, says the possibilities are limitless. Tours to the Mos Espa site could include the exterior of the Luke Skywalker homestead near Chott El-Jerid and the famous Sidi Bouhlel valley, close to Nefta.

Intergalactic agricultural equipment at Mos Espa site (MEE/Conor McCormick-Cavanagh)

Such a tour might include the true story that Libya’s government called in military support after seeing a large vehicle moving across the Tunisian desert near its border. The vehicle just happened to be the Sandcrawler being used by George Lucas for filming in the late 70s. The whole experience could be topped off with projections of the films on site, Ameur says.

Tunisia’s Star Wars fans are not waiting for the government to take action. Ameur and the Star Wars Fan Club are working toward establishing Tunisia as a dream location for legions of fans around the world. The fan club gained fame in March 2014, when it directed a music video rendition of the Pharell Williams song "Happy" at the Tunisian sites. Even Pharell Williams liked to the rendition, which included fans from around the world dressed as C3PO, Stormtroopers, and other Star Wars characters. At the same time, the fan club also launched the Save Mos Espa campaign, with the goal of rescuing the Star Wars city site from desertification.

"We are doing as much as we can. We care and are trying to maintain the Star Wars sites and slowly but surely work toward establishing Tunisia as a haven for Star Wars fans," Abdou Ameur said. 

Despite the fact that desert scenes for the new movie were shot in Abu Dhabi, Ameur hopes to continue to capitalise on Tunisia’s uniqueness as the original site for Star Wars.

In the long run, a combination of will from fans and action from the government will determine whether Tunisia can become the top destination for fans of the film series. A little help from the Force wouldn’t hurt either.