On Tuesday, CNN reported that ISIS jihadis had established a way station in the Tunisian town of Tataouine—the namesake for Tatooine, the home planet of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars.
“The desert and dun-colored cliffs around the town of Tataouine were once the backdrop for the movie Star Wars, much of which was filmed in this neglected corner of Tunisia in 1976,” the CNN piece reads. “This struggling town on the fringes of the Sahara still draws a few fans of the movie but now finds itself part of a real conflict, as a way station for jihadists crossing the Libyan border 60 miles to the east.”
“ISIS has taken over the real-life Tatooine,” subsequent headlines blared. “ISIS overruns town that inspired Luke Skywalker’s home planet,” another announced. “Star Wars fans urged to avoid Tunisian town,” one asserted.
It is true that ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a landmark museum in Tunis, and that governments have warned tourists in general about traveling to Tunisia, given recent “security incidents.” But the rampaging, bloodlusting terror group has not in fact seized control of “Tatooine.”
Tataouine itself was not used as a filming location for the Star Wars movies, but several other places in Tunisia were. ISIS does not dominate Tataouine or any of the old film sets—as bizarre, sexy, and frightening a story as that would be.
Due to the exaggerated media reports, the president of Tunisia's Star Wars fan club has been inundated with frantic messages, and Tunisian government officials were forced to come out and call bullshit. “This information is false and without foundation and doesn’t reflect the reality,” said Mohammed Sayem, who sits on the tourism commission in the city of Tozeur.
“We were obliged to reassure our friends and fans abroad that it’s fine, everything is OK, the sites are protected—there was even a festival of electronic music there a few weeks ago,” Abderrahman Amer, a local Star Wars buff, told the Associated Press. “There is a world of difference between an Islamic State base and a music festival.”
These locations in Tunisia have been pilgrimage sites for Star Wars enthusiasts over the years. And three years ago, a small group of dedicated fans traveled to one of these spots to renovate the Lars Homestead, Luke Skywalker’s childhood home.
The set had been deteriorating in the hot desert sun since the late 1970s. Then in 2012, the group managed to raise more than $11,000 through a Facebook page to finance a trip to restore the homestead. The team worked with locals for four days on the repairs. The Save the Lars Homestead project members put in a new foundation, fixed the steps to the building, and repainted it. They installed a commemorative plaque, and an entry coder designed to look like the one from the original Star Wars flick.
Mark Dermul, a Belgian native, led this project. He guided groups of Star Wars fans to related Tunisian locations between 2000 and 2012, and wrote several books on the subject.
And he was not pleased with recent, misleading coverage of the site he once helped restore.
“I have been receiving many questions from fans and journalists alike with regards to the news about ISIS-related terrorist activity in Tunisia at this time,” he wrote in a statement. “Some people even go so far as to ask me what we can do to save the Lars Homestead from the terrorists… [But] the activity takes place in the sleepy town of Tataouine, which is south of Medenine near the [Libyan] border (60 miles). The [Star Wars] locations referred to in the news media are all the way across the Chott el Jerid on the other side of the country, over 200 miles away!”
Dermul had last traveled to Tunisia with his family for a weeklong holiday last April. It was his sixth time visiting Tunisia. “My kids had never seen the Star Wars locations before and they told me that it was time for me to show them,” he told The Daily Beast. “So I did.”
He blames the erroneous viral stories on “bad journalism,” or perhaps “popular” journalism, as “Star Wars sells copy.” Regardless, he sees this fixation on George Lucas’s old filming locations as weird, especially since human lives could be on the line.
“I have also been a bit annoyed, to put it mildly, by people who contacted me to ask me what I planned to do to protect the movie sets from the terrorists,” Dermul continued. “Not only is that a strange question—for what could I possibly do?—but it also shows a strange frame of mind. Hundreds of people are suffering from these terrorist activities and people are worried about movie sets? I think we need to focus on what is really important here. And it is not the safety of brick-and-plaster buildings that were once seen on the silver screen. It’s the people of Tunisia, who already have a hard time trying to eke out something of a reasonable life in harsh conditions. This will only make their suffering worse as many needed tourism dollars will no longer be spent in that beautiful country.”