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Tunisia’s Light Side and Dark Side: Home of Luke Skywalker and ISIS Foreign Fighters

May 4, 2018

December 2017 marked the premiere of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, part of the long-awaited final trilogy in one of the most famous sci-fi series ever created. While filming locations and special effects for The Last Jedi have been mainly confined to Europe and heavily comprised of CGI, the earlier movies relied on elaborate set designs in exotic locations to create the planets in a galaxy far, far away.

Some of the most iconic scenes in the Star Wars trilogies are located in Tunisia, a nation that has suffered significant economic and political instability since the 2011 Arab Spring. Even through this regional turmoil, remnants of the 1970’s set of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope still stand today and have become a relic of modern cultural history.  

When the country was chosen for multiple filming locations during the first trilogy’s production in the 1970s, the magnificence of Tunisia’s archaeological landscape was so striking that the ancient town of Tataouine became George Lucas’ inspiration for the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet. The now-famous Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata, an ancient Berber structure that has become a hallmark of Tunisia’s tourism scene, served as the interior of Luke’s childhood home.

The town of Ajim on the Island of Djerba became the home of Obi-Wan Kenobi and the infamous cantina where Luke sees Obi-Wan use The Force. Like many of the filming locations, the Island of Djerba’s significance is far greater than a scene in a blockbuster movie. The island is home to the  Ghriba Synagogue and houses a vibrant Jewish community. In 2017, Tunisian Minister of Culture Mohamed Zine El-Abidine announced they would be seeking a UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Island and its Jewish heritage, an impressive addition to the country’s current list of seven sites.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site would aid Tunisia in its “focus also on cultural tourism, valorizing [it’s] archaeological sites … and the Bardo National Museum.” Sadly, the day following this announcement, in 2015, Daesh (ISIS) militants stormed the Bardo museum and opened fire, claiming the lives of 20 foreign tourists.

The Sidi Driss Hotel
The Sidi Driss Hotel

Just days after the Bardo Museum attack, reports surfaced that Tataouine was falling into conflict at the hands of Daesh. Tunisia has served as one of the highest sources of foreign fighters to Daesh, and with Tataouine situated near Tunisia’s eastern border, the site is increasingly threatened by the movements of militants across the region. The country’s shared border with Libya became more porous as Libya drove further into its second civil war in 2015, fueling the migration of fighters between the two countries.

Although Libya is sadly still at war today, Tunisia has taken a different turn, seeing significant gains in political stability and economic growth since 2015. The country’s aim to inscribe new UNESCO World Heritage Sites shows its commitment to protecting its heritage and continue to cultivate its tourism economy. However, as foreign fighters return home from Syria and Iraq, Tunisia must be prepared to shield its history from the theft and destruction that these fighters have made a marker of their brand. Not even The Force can protect heritage from those who seek to destroy it.

Katie A. Paul is a Fellow at the Antiquities Coalition, a not for profit dedicated to fighting against the illicit trade in antiquities.