Star Wars fans in the UAE have been paying tribute to Carrie Fisher, their beloved Princess Leia, who died on Tuesday December 27, four days after suffering a heart attack during a flight from London to Los Angeles.
Omar Al Bahiti, commanding officer of the UAE Outpost 501st Legion, is a devoted Star Wars fan who had the opportunity to meet Fisher several times at international Star Wars conventions and fan gatherings.
"Carrie would sit down and tell us stories about her time on Star Wars," says Al Bahiti, who is from Saudi Arabia and lives in Dubai. "She was quite funny, actually. On stage, she would always have her dog with her, a little French bulldog named Gary – he even had his own Twitter account."
Gary even Tweeted after Fisher’s death: “Saddest tweets to tweet. Mommy is gone. I love you @carrieffisher.”
Al Bahiti recalls that even when Fisher was feeling exhausted after a long day of autograph signings, she always made the effort to be polite to fans.
“At one of our meet and greets, I asked her how she was and she replied: ‘I’m just tired, it’s been a long day’,” he says.
"One time, I was having a meet and greet with Mark Hamill [who played Luke Skywalker, Leia's brother in Star Wars], and he was autographing something for me. She just burst in and said, 'Excuse me, I'm terribly sorry, can I borrow Mark for a minute?' I said 'OK' – I'd only been waiting for, like, four hours. That was how she was, and we accepted her for who she was."
Despite Fisher being open about her mental-health problems, Al Bahiti believes her legions of fans never saw her as fragile – quite the contrary.
“We liked how strong a person she was in life, as well as on screen. I think she was actually quite a tough cookie,” he says. “She was feisty. You can see she wouldn’t take rubbish from anyone. She was a ‘Hey, I’ll do it my way’ kind of person.”
Another Dubai Star Wars fan, and member of the 501st Legion, mourning Fisher's death is Jonathan Howell-Jones, from the United Kingdom.
“As well as taking on the iconic role of Princess Leia, Fisher always reached out to her fans and was a talented and gifted writer in addition to her acting,” he says.
"She represented the hope, heart and courage I saw in Star Wars. As well as having a special place in our hearts for firing a blaster at Stormtroopers, she was always able to manage a crisis, and still looked great in Jabba's Palace after being captured. We'll miss you, Your Highness. May the Force be with you."
Emirati-Scottish comedian Omar Ismail, 33, who lives in Dubai and is a member of the 80-member 311 Squadron fans’ group, says he was not only a fan of Fisher, but also a fan of her mother. “I grew up on old-time musicals, so I loved Debbie Reynolds as well,” he says. Fisher was the ultimate iconic modern female hero, he says, “especially among geeks and sci-fi fans. She’s the first example many of us can point to of a female character that has a role beyond being the damsel in distress”.
“Even when she’s captive, in the famous ‘Slave Leia’ scene, it’s her own actions that free her. The guys just show up to provide a lift out.”
Yuji Ueda, a 37-year-old Japanese Star Wars fan in Dubai with a collection of more than 5,000 Stormtrooper figures, was also recently in hospital with heart problems.
“I was playing tennis three weeks ago when I had a heart attack, and I had to stay in hospital for two weeks,” he says. “Then I saw the news that Carrie had a heart attack on a plane.”
Ueda says Fisher's death is all the more poignant given the return of the young Princess Leia in the Star Wars spin-off movie Rogue One, a prequel to the original 1977 Star Wars movie, which was released this month. "At the end, Carrie Fisher appears as Princess Leia, recreated using CGI," says Yuji. "We were so happy to see Princess Leia again. Now, as this year ends, we feel a connection between the new and old generations of Star Wars, and we were hoping this theme would continue."
Fisher also appeared as the older Leia in last year's The Force Awakens, and had filmed scenes for the new yet-to-be released Star Wars film before she died. Watching her will be bittersweet for fans when the film is released in December next year.
“It’s going to be tough to see, knowing that it was her final film,” says Al Bahiti. “On top of that, I don’t know how the story is going to be changed to reflect her passing. That’s something that remains to be seen.
"She was an integral part of the Star Wars universe and her personal influence in the entire sci-fi genre will always be felt. Her unique personality, her humour and her presence are irreplaceable, and will be greatly missed."