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Picturing Tunisia: A Favorite Hollywood Location Through A Different Lens

Here's a movie scene burned into my brain: Harrison Ford, playing Indiana Jones, is on a chase through the streets of Cairo. It's in the original movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I saw as a kid. Today I couldn't tell you who was chasing whom or why, but I remember the climax. Jones is pushing through a mass of people when the crowd abruptly parts. He's confronted by a swordsman, who flips his giant scimitar around both artfully and menacingly.

This looks like doom for Indiana Jones, until, with his expression and body language showing both resolution and dismay, he simply pulls out a pistol and shoots the man.

Something about the scene compels you to laugh. Maybe it's the abrupt release of tension, or the outrageous presumption of the swordsman who thought he could stop Indiana Jones with such an antiquated weapon. There's something deeper and faintly satirical in the scene, too, a kind of dark humor about Americans in the world, relying on technology to blast our way out of trouble. Beyond that, and less amusingly, there's even a hint of colonialism. You think of many people around the world who, a century or two or three ago, lost their independence while fighting with spears and arrows and muskets against Europeans who had rifles and machine guns. Without a word of dialogue, the scene says a lot. Like all memorable art, it conveys many meanings, possibly including meanings the filmmakers never intended.

The scene came to mind again as we visited Kairouan, Tunisia. It was one of our stops as Morning Edition followed the "revolutionary road," a route through the swiftly changing nations of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Kairouan, you see, was used as a backdrop for some of the Cairo scenes in Raiders. (It's one of several iconic movies shot in Tunisia; Tatooine, Luke Skywalker's home planet in Star Wars, is actually Tunisia, where Tatouine is the name of both a city and a province).

The real Kairouan is a Muslim holy city, an early foothold for Islam as it spread across North Africa. It is home to scores of places of worship, including the Great Mosque, a building of sandy bricks with a square minaret and a design that is said to have influenced mosques all through the region. Many of the old city walls are still standing, and several walls of a kind of fortress have become the walls of a magnificent hotel.

In the medieval medina, the crowded old city where the streets are too narrow for cars, upscale shops sell every kind of women's clothes, from miniskirts to the full black covering called niqab. Carpet dealers hawk locally made products to pilgrims and tourists. Poor women weave those carpets in neighborhoods well away from the city center, sitting on benches hunched over their work, in tiny rooms lit only by the sunlight from an open door.

Kairouan can seem like a timeless city, though of course that is an illusion. A closer look reveals signs of change. Satellite dishes adorn rooftops inside the old medina. A short distance away, an image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse hangs over the entrance to an amusement park called "Kids Land." Dealers say carpet sales have gone from bad to worse since Tunisia's revolution scared away the tourists. Conservative religious activists known as Salafists staged a mass meeting a few weeks ago. On the street a block away from the Great Mosque we encountered several men who'd apparently had a few drinks, complaining loudly about Tunisia's new leaders. A constituent assembly is supposed to be writing a new constitution, but is moving slowly enough that one of the men barked that it will take 50 years to finish it.

Our photographer John Poole took a look around the city. Rather than a pistol, he shot the real Kairouan with a camera, and nobody confronted him with a sword. The images are different from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and this is as it should be: movies create their own reality. Like the movie, though, these images invite you to find your own meanings in what you see.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.