Hollywood’s North African Mirage

Hollywood’s North African Mirage: Seeing Beyond “Casablanca”

Text and photo by L. Axelrod

Camel in the desert of Morocco.

Whether creating the fictional planet of Tatooine for “Star Wars,” the legendary dunes of “Lawrence of Arabia,” a romantic adventure for “The English Patient,” or a Roman coliseum for the recent blockbuster, “The Gladiator,” the desert sands and colorful cities of North Africa have long been favorite locations for Hollywood’s dreamweavers.

Perhaps it’s the light–dry, clear and bright–that attracts filmmakers. Or maybe it’s the varied landscape–moonlike wastelands, towering sand dunes, lush, palm-filled oases and snow-capped mountains–that creates any cinematic geography, real or imagined.

Most likely, it’s that North Africa–from the pyramids to the kasbahs to the Saharan dunes–is the stuff of our collective Western fantasy. No place else on earth reads “exotic” in the same way.

Menacing and seductive, romantic and exciting, North Africa embodies all that we imagine when we think “Arabian Nights”–veiled women, turbaned men, slow-moving camels in windswept dunes, wealthy sheiks and belly dancers in oasis tents. Other less appealing media images have fed our fears–terrorists and bombings, religious fanatics and oppressed women.

These pictures come to us as much from Hollywood’s fantasy factory as they do from history. As the crossroads of East, West, North and South, North Africa has always played a leading role in the Western imagination.

Before “Casablanca,” crusader stories and religious diatribe made Arabs villains; later traders dreamed of the riches of the East; romantic paintings of Rubenesque women in veils stirred the groins of Victorian men; and intrepid explorers told tales of treasures and tombs, kingdoms and adventure. These are the myths that have been incorporated into our movies and our imaginations.

But is any of it real? Is Hollywood’s mirage of North Africa a false carnival of exoticism and danger? Do we care?

Actually, some of the fantasy (and danger) does exist for real. In the desert villages and medinas of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Morocco, women wander the dusty streets swathed from head to toe in black robes. Camels led by men in djellabas parade through town, traders haggle over prices in the crowded souks, and Bedouins still make camp among the oases and dunes.

Wandering the arid and disorientating Sahara takes real preparation and caution, and in parts of Egypt and Algeria, religious fanaticism provokes riots. In many ways, then, North Africa truly is the way it has been imagined.

But for those whose celluloid cravings won’t be sated by reality, the movie sets themselves are always there to improve the picture. Matmata, Tunisia, the fictional Tatooine of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” epics, is an actual place (actually the real town of Tataouine is not far away).

Travelers can imagine the Empire is coming among the troglodyte caves and lunar desert landscape, or spend the night in Luke Skywalker’s home. Other Tunisian towns and cities from Tunis to Tozeur are featured players in the movies and visits to these locations rekindle the memories of favorite scenes.

Aït Ben Haddou, an ancient and picturesque kasbah near Morocco’s Drâa Valley that was the setting for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Gladiator,” is one of the most well-known sites and is easily accessible. But inside the steep, labyrinthine alleyways, it is difficult to distinguish between the real buildings and the sets. In fact, not far from Ouarzazate, a fully equipped movie studio designed with kasbah-like pisé walls is set among planted palms, waiting for the next crew to descend. And what visit to North Africa wouldn’t be complete without paying homage to Casablanca?

Making pilgrimage to movie locations is one thing–and there are many, many across North Africa (I admit that Aït Ben Haddou and Matmata were on my itinerary, and I did have a beer in the Casablanca Bar at the Hyatt while the movie played in the background). But indulging the sheik and harem film fantasy can also mean taking a camel trek out to the dunes to spend the night in a luxury Bedouin tent hotel, or wrapping an indigo Tuareg turban around your head and heading out into the sands for adventure.

It’s all great fun, and with proper precautions, quite safe. But travelers do North Africa a great injustice if they don’t look beyond Hollywood’s exoticism and stereotyped danger to see the real countries and cultures. Yes, the traditional ways of desert life are still alive, and Islamic fundamentalism and political unrest are strong in certain parts (Tunisia and Morocco, however, go to great lengths to keep it at bay). But North Africa is also home to cosmopolitan cities where young women walk wide, shaded boulevards in mini-skirts, where cell phones and battery-operated televisions are found in the Sahara, where boom boxes pound out Arabic, European and American pop music, and where modern kings and politicians struggle to move their countries forward as the 21st century comes whirling in like a Saharan sand storm.

Bogart’s “Casablanca” is just not the same place as the real one. Beyond the snake charmers and storytellers of Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna are artisans and businesspeople working to make a living for themselves and their families. Away from the tourist spots, in the villages and small towns, locals talk readily about politics, religion, social concerns and economics. Poverty and unemployment are problems in many rural areas and in the medinas of imperial cities, and volunteers are working to help community development and education. At the same time, many of the youth go to college, and both old and young are excited about their future and the future of their countries as they emerge from decades of colonialism.

There’s nothing wrong with reveling in the North African fantasies that have attracted travelers for centuries, or doing the movie thing: that’s part of the reason for visiting. But responsible travelers would do well to get past Hollywood’s mirage, get off the beaten path and look at North Africa through a different, more realistic lens.


Jesus of Nazareth–Morocco
Lawrence of Arabia–Morocco
Madame Butterfly–Tunisia
Monty Python’s Life of Brian–Tunisia
Raiders of the Lost Ark–Tunisia
Star Wars–Tunisia
Star Wars: the Phantom Menace–Tunisia
Tea in the Sahara–Morocco
The English Patient–Tunisia
The Gladiator–Morocco
The Man Who Knew Too Much–Morocco
The Man Who Would Be King–Morocco
The Last Temptation of Christ–Morocco
The Sheltering Sky–Morocco

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