MATMATA, Tunisia — The cavernous, underground homes chiseled deep into the orange boulders along this mountainous stretch of the Sahara certainly feel like they belong in another galaxy.
More than 30 years ago, Hollywood director George Lucas must have agreed.
In 1977, Lucas chose a whitewashed, troglodytic hotel in Matmata as the backdrop for the boyhood home of Luke Skywalker, fictional hero of the classic Star Wars films.
In the world that Lucas created, this desert wilderness covered the planet Tatooine, a land of lawlessness just beyond the grip of the evil galactic empire.
For the real inhabitants of Matmata, that kind of freedom and autonomy from dictatorial power belonged only in the realm of science fiction — that is, until Tunisia’s recent revolution.
The ouster of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled on Jan. 14 after a countrywide uprising, created political and social reverberations even in this vast expanse of Tunisian desert.
“Every aspect of life in Tunisia was strictly controlled by the government,” said Tayeb Jemni, an owner of the famous Sidi Driss Hotel that served as a set for Skywalker's ranch. “We had no rights — we were not even permitted to speak freely.”
From end to end of this tiny North African nation, Tunisians continue to revel in freedoms once unimaginable during Ben Ali’s 23 years of autocratic rule. But as the country’s new democracy begins to take shape, some Tunisians are still struggling to make their voices heard.
Tunisia’s ethnic minority population of Berbers, who live in these remote southern deserts known more for aging Star Wars locales than anything else, continue to battle decades of state restrictions over their cultural identity.
For many Berbers, official government recognition of their native language — Tamazight — will be the ultimate litmus test for a fledgling democracy promising to represent the aspirations of all Tunisians.
“I've always wanted my kids to learn Tamazight, but the government has never allowed it to be taught. We have never had any choice other than to teach at our own homes,” said Milood Lamloom, 76, a Berber resident of the mountains near Matmata.
The Berbers, who make up only 1 percent of Tunisia’s 10 million residents, were the original inhabitants of North Africa.
They fought against, but were ultimately conquered, by successive invading armies over the centuries — most recently the Arabs in the 7th century.
Today, North Africa’s Berbers have largely assimilated with the Arab populations of countries from Morocco to Egypt. Demands for national unity during post-colonial rule across all of North Africa led to a sharp decline in spoken Tamazight.
“It is very sad that our language is slowly dying. Hopefully things will change with our new government in the future,” said Ahmed Lidarsa, 48, a Berber mechanic originally from Matmata.
Tunisia does not have laws restricting the Berber language. Many Berbers, however, said de facto discrimination by the government was rampant under Ben Ali. Non-Arab names given to Berber children were frequently denied on official state registries, for instance.
At a Berber cultural festival held in Matmata every year, residents said the local authorities permitted Berbers to wear traditional costumes but banned skits performed in the Tamazight language.
The real problem, said several Berbers, is that Tunisia’s government does not permit their Tamazight language to be spoken or taught in schools. Many of the younger generation of Berbers now speak only Arabic or French — the two official languages of Tunisia.
“I can barely understand what my grandparents are saying,” said Said Ben Jemma, 17, referring to his family in Matmata.
Ghalloul Jhaki is hoping that Ben Ali’s ouster means that Tamazight will now be better protected for future generations.
Jhaki launched a cultural association earlier this month aimed at preserving Tamazight, the first step toward greater political recognition of the original inhabitants of Tunisia, he said.
Civil society groups like Jhaki’s would have been illegal under Ben Ali’s regime.
Despite Tunisia’s reawakened political climate in the post-revolution era, however, Jhaki is still waiting for the official permission to operate.
“I’m still not positive that the interim government will allow us to work,” said Jhaki, a resident of Matmata. “But if they do not, we will still continue the fight for our rights as a people.”
If anyone is to test the strength of Tunisia’s newfound freedoms, it is the Berbers. For years, it was these original inhabitants who most fiercely challenged North Africa’s Arab rulers.
Libya’s long-marginalized Berbers were among the first to join the Benghazi-based uprising against Muammar Gaddafi in February. And last week, Berber rebels in the mountainous western region of Libya overran pro-Gaddafi forces, capturing a government-controlled border crossing into Tunisia.
In 1980 in Algeria, widespread Berber protests erupted after a leading Tamazight poet was barred from speaking at a university east of Algiers, the country’s capital.
The so-called “Berber Spring” in Algeria’s Kabylie region paved the way for greater minority rights there, including legislation listing Tamazight as a national language in 2003.
Morocco’s king created a Tamazight-language state television channel in 2010 — perhaps eager to prevent similar unrest.
Students at universities in both Morocco and Algeria can now study Tamazight — a right not yet granted to Tunisia’s Berbers.
“If Algerians and Moroccans can study our language in a university, then why can’t we?” asked Monji Bouras, curator of a Berber museum in a hilltop village south of Matmata.
Bouras, 44, moved his family from Tunis to the tiny village of Tamazret over a decade ago to live in a traditional Berber cliff dwelling similar to the house his grandparents once lived in. He is proud that his 3-year-old daughter only speaks Tamazight.
But looking ahead, Bouras is less hopeful that her Tamazight will ever become a national language in Tunisia. In the three months since the revolution, Bouras’ young niece has already been denied permission by local authorities for her given Berber name, he said.
“Nothing for Berbers has changed since Ben Ali’s departure,” Bouras said. “And it’s difficult to expect things to change. We are still waiting for our rights.”