In a village far, far, away, 'Star Wars' stirs debate

"Star Wars" fans received a boon Monday with the announcement of the title of the next installment in the cinematic series. "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" is due for release next year.

The news set online chatrooms abuzz.

And, in a remote village in a country far, far, away, it's likely to reignite debate over how much to emphasize a connection to the hugely successful cinematic saga.

When location scouts in 1976 asked to rent a section of the Sidi Driss Hotel in Matmata, Tunisia, for an American science-fiction movie, owner Touhami Jemni quickly agreed, glad for the income.

A film crew spent two months shooting at the hotel, made up of traditional Berber homes carved into cavern walls. It's now familiar to millions as the sunken desert homestead where Luke Skywalker chafes against a dull farm life with his Uncle Owen Lars and Aunt Beru. ("If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from," Luke complains to droids C-3PO and R2-D2.)

"I don't know why they decided on my hotel," says Mr. Jemni in fractured French. "[But] I was very happy.... It's given Matmata great publicity."

That publicity may be in for another boost. Film crews were back last year, filming scenes for "Attack of the Clones."

But as tourism has increased in the past two decades, replacing agriculture as the main source of income, some in Matamata blame the trade for an erosion of traditional culture and values. And in a village where almost no one (including Jemni) has seen any of the "Star Wars" movies, many are reluctant to credit a film created by an American, for a predominantly Western audience, for their success.

Director-producer George Lucas used other Tunisian sites as well in creating the desert planet Tatooine (there's a town called Tataouine not far from Matmata).

Exteriors of the Lars homestead, the dried canyons where R2-D2 wanders alone, and the cliff where Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi look out onto that "wretched hive of scum and villainy" - Mos Eisley spaceport - were shot around the dried salt flats of Chott el Jerid near the Algerian border. Still, Tunisian authorities prefer to emphasize the country's historic heritage, such as its ancient Roman ruins; Kairouan, the fourth-holiest city in the Islamic world; and oasis towns on the northern border of the Sahara.

While there are no statistics for Matmata, tourism in Tunisia overall has grown dramatically, from fewer than 1 million foreign visitors in 1976 (the year before "Star Wars" was released) to 4.8 million in 1999. Tourism revenue has mushroomed from $86 million in 1976 to $1.3 billion in 1999, when tourism ranked as Tunisia's second-largest industry, after textiles.

Those involved in the trade in Matmata stress that the Berber cave homes pockmarking the hilly town drew visitors long before being immortalized on film. "When I saw 'Star Wars,' I thought, 'It's extraordinary, it's beautiful, I'm on the moon.' But it was difficult for me to recognize my own hometown," says Nejia Bouabidi, head of the Matmata tourist office. She concedes, however, that most tourists who drop by do ask about the film.

Formerly an agrarian community, Matmata today is heavily dependent on tourism. Residents work as guides, in hotels and restaurants, as souvenir vendors and camel renters. Ms. Bouabidi says at least 1,000 tourists visit every day, spending an average of 70 dinars ($48), in a place where she estimates the average monthly income is 200 dinars ($137).

"This village doesn't have any other work. Without tourism, we couldn't continue," declares Maher Ghrairi, a plump teen decked out in a Mets cap and Harley Davidson T-shirt. "All villagers love 'Star Wars,'" he says, although he hasn't seen it.

Mr. Ghrairi spends most of his time looking for tourists to "invite" to see his family's subterranean dwelling next door - for a few dinars. His father switched from harvesting olives and grain to selling souvenirs 15 years ago. Two of his three older brothers are tour guides. Ghrairi dreams of working in a big hotel.

Not everyone is happy about tourism in Matmata, however.

"The young people, they aren't looking for religion or tradition, they're looking for easy money," says Karaa Mostari. "The older generation is complaining, while the young say they need to make a living." Mr. Mostari shakes his head over the "invasion" of foreign culture, while sitting by the pool of the three-star hotel he manages.

But for the younger generation, that foreign influence has opened up undeniable opportunities. Compared with other villages in the area, children here stay in school longer, and many live in newly built houses above ground.

Bouabidi, the Matmata tour-office director, grew up in a traditional cave dwelling. Women rarely left home in those days, never worked outside it, and never, ever, wore pants or make-up. "I want to travel. And I like putting on make-up, dressing the way I want," says Bouabidi, clad in slacks and a white blouse.

Some travelers say Matmata should do more to play up its "Star Wars" connection. "They'd make so much more money if they publicized it more. If this place were New York, it would be jammed 24/7, and the queue would be a mile long," declares John Quinn, an engineer and "Star Wars" fan who slipped away from a Tunisian tour package and stumbled upon Matmata by chance. "I know when I go home, the first thing I'm going to say is, I was in the 'Star Wars' set."

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