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Day 89: Djerba to El Haddej

El Haddej, Tunisia 
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Return to the crucifixion scene. Walking round a troglodyte home in El Haddej. Both Life of Brian and Star Wars were filmed in this unique, moon-like landscape.
Michael Palin - SaharaBefore I set out on this Saharan journey southern Tunisia was the closest I'd ever been to the desert. That was in 1978 and I came here to be crucified. Security problems in Israel and an appetite for biblical epics had created a lucrative role for Tunisia as a stand-in for the Holy Land. Not only did Tunisia look right, it was also both friendly and stable, and when the producers of Monty Python's Life of Brian approached the local authorities they agreed to let us use locations in Monastir and Sousse for urban Jerusalem, whilst the scenes set outside the city were to be shot in the bleaker, more desolate south, around Matmata on the edge of the Jebel Dahar mountains.

A wide bend in the road and a hill with a long flat-topped ridge spreading out below it has a curiously familiar feel, and as the bus climbs I remember, with a shock of recognition, that this is where we filmed the Sermon on the Mount. That day in November 1978, very similar buses, in which several hundred of our extras had been brought up earlier, appeared on this road halfway through the afternoon's filming. The extras, who had been forced to stand around watching Englishmen do silly things all day, saw this as a sign that it was all over and began to stampede off the Mount and down to their buses. Terry Jones, our director, raced after them, urging them to come back. Unfortunately, he was dressed as the virgin Mandy at the time, and the memory of this black-clad old crone screaming at 500 joyful Arabs is an image of the Matmata hills which will give me pleasure on many a cold day.

So it is that, soon after lunch, in a flat hazy light, I find myself standing above the village of El Haddej, almost twenty-three years, to the day, since I hung on one of two dozen crosses, tapping my feet and singing 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 89
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: El Haddej
  • Book page no: 231

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