The outskirts of Matmata, a small town tucked up in bare hilly country, are pockmarked with the circular courtyards of subterranean houses. In one of the houses once lived a local boy made good: Luke Skywalker.
The house where the Star Wars hero's journey began is now a hotel and tourist attraction. But on a recent visit, my brother Ned and I found it almost deserted.
We arrived early and waited on the steps for the hotel to open. Almost immediately, a young man pulled up on a motorbike and addressed us in broken English: “You want to make tour in the desert?” His eyes were watering and looked fatigued. “Ride camels?”
He was like a lot of young people in Matmata these days: desperate for work. A tourism slump after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution has hit the area hard.
Revolt that toppled the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011 also frightened investors and tourists who have long supported the economy. Tourism revenues crashed by almost 40 percent in 2011, according to government figures, and are still about 7 percent below pre-revolution levels. Overall, growth is sluggish, and joblessness high.
In Matmata, Ned and I found the tourist office closed and the streets empty, save where café chairs spilled onto the pavement. It was a hot day, and the yellow-ochre hills seemed beaten by the sun. Presently the hotel manager arrived and greeted us. He was a short, amiable man with a bald crown and a slightly frantic air.
“You can have this room,” he said, smiling and opening a door. Then he flung open its neighbor. “Or why not this one?”
Anyone who has seen Star Wars will recognize Luke’s house. It consists of sunken courtyards joined by tunnels, with adjacent rooms – a relic of the local Amazigh people, who decided centuries ago that living underground was the best way to keep cool. Arabic has largely replaced their language, but their houses remain.
In 1976, George Lucas used southern Tunisia’s arid landscapes for Luke’s home planet of Tatooine, adapting the name from the southern Tunisia city of Tataouine. The house figures prominently in the first Star Wars movie. In a memorable scene, Luke picks at his breakfast, argues with his uncle about when he can leave their moisture farm, and finally gets up in frustration.
“Where are you going?” says his aunt, who has watched with concern.
“Looks like I’m going nowhere,” Luke says, trudging off. “I have to finish cleaning those droids.”
Luke might have felt similarly in Matmata. The town seems to run mostly on tourism – when there is any. There was a brief frenzy at the hotel around lunchtime, when several busloads of tourists arrived, snapped photos, and were fed. Then they drove off again.
My brother and I wanted to visit the area, and went looking for a taxi. Instead, we found and hired an affable man named Abdelkarim, who was tooling along in a run-down grey Opel four-door. “I’ve always worked in tourism,” Abdelkarim said. “But there’s not much work nowadays.”
Tourism jobs in Tunisia have fallen from about 250,000 in 2010 to about 212,000 today, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council, a global forum of industry leaders. That’s an improvement on 2011, and tourism seems to be recovering. But for now, men like Abdelkarim are struggling.
Abdelkarim’s car was struggling, too. It began sputtering along the road to Tajoune, a nearby town. The fuel gauge was dangerously low. “No problem,” said Abdelkarim, tipping a plastic bottle of contraband Libyan diesel – the only fuel available in Matmata, he said – into the gas tank.
After that the car refused to move at all. We let it roll backwards downhill, and for an instant it yawed crazily, Ned’s door flying open. Abdelkarim fiercely engaged the clutch and the car coughed back to life, belching smoke.
“Listen, thanks, but I don’t think your car’s destined for Tajoune today,” I said.
“No, I guess it’s not,” said Abdelkarim with a little laugh of resignation.
Abdelkarim arranged instead for Ned and me to visit Tajoune with a friend of his named Ayed, who had a better car and lived with his family in Brussels, where he went to high school. They were visiting their home town, Matmata, for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha.
“I’d like to come back here to live, but there’s no work,” Ayed said.
We were sitting outside a café on a clifftop high above Tajoune. Far below us, a wedding cortege of pick-up trucks was winding through the village. The sounds of drums and chanting floated into the evening.
Ayed was on track for a high school diploma geared toward a future in science and technology, he said. “What could I do with that here?”
When we returned to Matmata, the hotel was deserted again except for the cook, who had stayed to make dinner for us, the only guests. A full moon burned a halo in the sky above the empty courtyards. Later, with nothing else to do, the cook joined us for a chat in the Skywalker breakfast nook. When he finally rose from the table and said goodnight, he was swallowed up by the darkness of the empty hallway.