TATAOUINE, Tunisia — The once bustling cafes in Tataouine, a remote desert town in southern Tunisia, are full of empty chairs. Their dwindling patrons, mostly young men, spend long afternoons sipping coffee or tea as they scroll idly through their phones, watch football or play cards. Many of these men are biding their time to clandestinely leave their home for western Europe, primarily France, Italy or Germany, following in the footsteps of tens of thousands of their compatriots who are already there.
It’s not hard to understand their urge to go. Despite Tataouine’s rich culture and heritage, with roots in Tunisia’s ancient Amazigh community, it has little to offer its youth. There are few good jobs, scarce investment and not much to pass the time (the town of about 80,000 has no operative theater or shopping mall and just one downtown bar atop a two-star hotel). The region’s economic engine — the El Kamour oil pumping station that generates nearly half of Tunisia’s oil — has been the site of on-and-off protests since 2017. And its main tourism draw — a neighborhood of Berber cave dwellings that inspired the original “Star Wars” film — attracts few visitors and is chronically under renovation.