The drive from Tozeur to Tatouine was full of varied scenery. First we crossed a seasonal salt lake on a causeway about six feet up. You could see that the road used to go on the lake bed itself, but that they got tired of its being closed — they dug out enough earth to build the causeway. Tozeur had the second largest “palmeraie”, or oasis of irrigated palm trees, in Tunisia; the road led us to Douz which reportedly had the largest. Tozeur’s seemed much more green — Douz is much more at the edge of the Sahara and had a lot more sand. It even had a little dune.
From there, the road turned west toward Matmata, and was just plain desert for many miles. Eventually it became rolling hills, establishing the beginning of the Ksour country extending between Matmata and Tatouine. Ksour is the plural of ksar, which seems to have two meanings. A “Berber ksar” appears to be a fortified village on the top of a hill. An “Arabic ksar” seems to be kind of a multi-story storage space (like the kind you rent in America if you have too much stuff to fit in your house) for grain, olive oil, and dates. It’s also a little like a Certificate of Deposit; the village will have rules about how much you can take out because it has to get you through bad years. Both are architecturally similar, consisting of little rooms called “Ghorfa” with arched roofs, so they have shared the name. Along with the ksour, large numbers of people in the area live in houses dug into the ground.
The other thing the area has as a common thread is that it boasts several Star Wars filming locations. In fact, there’s a planet in Star Wars named after the largest town in the area, Tataouine. We saw the largest one today, Ksar Hadada, which portrayed a city in The Phantom Menace — it’s currently being converted into a hotel. The smallest one, in Matmata, is already a hotel — it had the cantina scenes from the first two films.
Matmata is a real hole. The minute we pulled into town we got accosted by a batch of guides, who said they would give us a one hour tour for 15 Dinar per person. The rate we’ve been getting has been around 10 per hour for both; but it seemed important as we were going inside people’s houses (or so we thought) so we settled on 15 for both and took a guide who spoke some amount of English.
He had us drive to the Sidi Driss Hotel (the “Cantina” and something from some later film) and park and then spent the rest of the time on his cell phone chatting to his friends in Arabic. The “house” was just a model set up for the purpose; and everything we saw we would have seen without a guide at all. This is the experience you have doing business with all the dealers in the world, you contract for some piece of Work and as soon as you reach an agreement, the only thing you see of them is the back of their heads as they phone around for their next contract. The Art of the Deal.
After 45 minutes I was ready to leave. Having lived in Los Angeles, I am not going to be completely bowled over by an abandoned movie set. They have a charm. It was interesting that the set was made of some kind of dense foam rubber molded into treads and painted. The house also was interesting. Being surrounded by tour buses was not. Having been ripped off was also not. We drove out of town and headed for Techine, where we were also accosted by townspeople to show us the houses. The difference was, that we were the only people in town other than the residents; and the guy we were with asked for 3 dinars at the end. We also gave 2 dinar to the manager of the underground olive oil press. It was clearly was a working press, having mashed olives in vats and a put-upon looking donkey roped to a stone and kids’ toys on the ground. In the made-for-touring places, no matter what they purport to be, you see a rack of postcards and the same identical loom with about two inches of carpet started on it, so that you Get the Idea that the Natives are Weaving. I swear, if you went to a telecommunications software development facility, they would have one of these looms set up with the first ten lines of #include’s to make you feel they were doing something. And terra cotta tajines for sale in the lobby.
The kids in Techine were so untouristed they didn’t even want their photos taken. They had rabbits in an underground cage. Familiar territory for the rabbits. A beautiful sunset drive to Medenine. Then a stupid drive to Tataouine; a policeman stopped us and was seriously looking at everyone’s ID and taking it back to the office, I think something real must have happened. Maybe it’s just the latest al Qaeda sortie in Bali. When we got into town we got a little lost twice but ultimately made it to the hotel where the man wasn’t sure whether the paper we have is a voucher though that’s what it says.
We’ve spent two full days in Tataouine. Yesterday was spent mostly ksar-hopping east of town, from the meticulously preserved Arabic Ksar Ouled Soutane to the ruins of Ksar Jelidat. Today we toured ancient Berber villages west of town, including Ghermassa, Chenini, and Douiret. All of them have a corresponding “new town” close by, where most people moved when they got tired of living in mud and stone huts with no electricity or running water because running water is what makes the walls fall down. A few people still live in the ancient villages. The people we’ve encountered in this part of Tunisia don’t seem quite as nice as further north — the guides in Chenine also wanted $12 for 30 minutes of leading you 100 feet while talking on his cell phone (he got $7; you never know at the outset how hard it’s going to be to find your way and we’ve failed to connect with a couple of more obscure ksour), and kids haven’t been taught not to beg from tourists. Or they have been taught that it’s advantageous. It must be a little odd to live in a village that’s been there for 800 years and all of a sudden tour buses are running your goats off the road on the way to some wrecked grain storage facility that you wouldn’t use as a latrine, and make a movie in it. And, their shoes are worth more than the net assets of your family. Except for the royalties. Of course there were royalties, weren’t there Mr. Lucas?