Article — From the March 2009 issue

Raiders of the Lost R2

Excavating a galaxy far, far away

( 2 of 8 )

For more than a decade, a small subculture of fans has been hunting down Star Wars filming locations around the world. Maps and travel guides now circulate on the Internet, as do photos of the landscapes in which the visitors have tried to replicate the exact vantage points used in the films. Often the traveler is in the photo, assuming the exact place and posture of Anakin or Luke Skywalker. Many of these trips were initially inspired by a 1995 article published in Star Wars Insider, the official Star Wars fan-club magazine. “Return to Tatooine” was the travelogue of David West Reynolds, an enterprising fan who journeyed through the sandy outlands of Tunisia, fastidiously tracking down sites that stand in for Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the original 1977 film. Once this itinerary was spelled out, other pilgrims followed. A toy collector named Gus Lopez, well known in the Star Wars community, now maintains online guides to the Tunisian film locations, complete with GPS coordinates. He has also compiled information about more obscure sites, such as Mayan ruins in a Guatemalan jungle that served, in a handful of establishing shots in the first Star Wars film, as the exterior of a rebel base on a moon of the planet Yavin. Mark Dermul, the president of the Belgian Star Wars Society, operates a similar online resource and has led tours through a sheer white landscape of glaciers in Finland featured in The Empire Strikes Back. Dermul’s seventy-page guidebook to the region is titled The Force in Finse.

At several of these locations, as in Buttercup Valley, the sets had been abandoned, the spacecraft parts and shantytowns left to be reclaimed or repurposed when their surroundings reverted to Earth. In Tunisia, for instance, real-life nomads moved into a fictional slave village; later, a substantial portion of the set, an intergalactic scrap yard, fell into the hands of an actual junk dealer, a local named Kamel Souilah, who began selling off the pieces from a storefront in the city of Nefta. One Tunisian ended up building his backyard chicken coop out of the domed “moisture vaporators” that supposedly made life in the deserts of Tatooine possible. On merchants’ tables alongside Berber crafts, tourists could find fragments of a fiberglass skeleton left in the dune. Gus Lopez said he was able to scavenge so many artifacts in Tunisia that he had to ship them home. Many of the objects he recovered weren’t immediately recognizable, so back in his living room Lopez watched the films again, searching the backgrounds frame by frame to authenticate each antiquity.

Jad had also been to Tunisia, in 2004. He hadn’t intended to explore the Star Wars universe; he had just finished graduate school and wanted to get out and see our world. But after spending the better part of a year traveling around Asia, Australia, and Europe, and visiting a few Star Wars shooting locations along the way, he settled in Wroclaw to live with a Polish woman he’d met at a hostel in Spain. Nine months later, with that relationship collapsing, he began plotting his next move. He’d fantasized about going to Tunisia since reading “Return to Tatooine” years earlier, and now whenever he got the chance he explored websites like Lopez’s and Dermul’s, compiling notes. When the breakup finally came, he crossed Europe on a series of trains and, with no return ticket or clear plan, caught a ferry from Milan to Tunis. It was a twenty-four-hour boat ride. He sat near an aging German tourist in a Speedo and watched brown dolphins play in the ferry’s wake.

Jad spent the next week slogging toward various corners of Tatooine. He recovered a section of rubber trim from the roof of what had been Luke Skywalker’s great-uncle’s garage in Attack of the Clones. He visited as many as five locations in one day, forming alliances with other Star Wars tourists and hiring flummoxed Tunisian drivers. “It was transformative,” he said. “I felt like, after months and months of feeling lousy and like I’d wasted so much time and thrown away a part of my life, that it was okay to give back to myself. And that there are great things in life that are worth pursuing.”

He had financed his trip by selling off his collection of Star Wars toys on eBay, netting $6,000 in three weeks. Those toys had become an addictive burden, he told me—“a lot of stuff” that, while imbued with a kind of magic when he was a boy, no longer made him feel closer to the films. The trip those toys paid for was an actual saga.

’s last article for Harper's Magazine, “A Curious Attraction,” appeared in the October 2007 issue.

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