Live Happy, Live Hidden: Tunisian True Story
By Nico Jah, an adventurer, climber and radio DJ currently residing in the Horn of Africa,
Aymen is currently planning his escape from Tunisia. He’s plotting where he’s going, country, city, neighborhood, strategically planning where his life as a gay Tunisian might be easier, with less restrictions and above all less fear. In the coming year, he will turn his back on his family, his friends and his countrymen. Aymen has no choice but to flee. Even as Tunisia attempts to build a democracy from the rubble of the Arab revolution, Aymen will perhaps never witness how his country evolves and is shaped by the leaders of his generation.
Aymen is a gay Arab barely thirty, and there is a fork in the road. One road leads to a chance for personal freedom in the precarious context of a homosexual immigrant, while the other leads to forced cohabitation with a Muslim wife he is repulsed by, all in the name of social convention, traditional gender roles and the propagation of his family’s legacy. If Aymen doesn’t choose to flee, his family will wrap the coils of tradition around him and pray to Allah for healthy grandchildren.
He grew up in a well-to-do family in Tunisia. His father was a military man while his mother stayed at home raising children. Aymen was easily her favorite, and he enjoyed all the benefits of being the first-born while uncles held lofty expectations for the “man of the house” to make the family proud.
Aymen grew up in the city of Bizerte, a upper-middleclass town not too far from the capital city Tunis. By Tunisia’s standards, the town is considered open-minded, liberal and a model of progressivism, and like many of Tunisia’s port cities, influenced by the French colonizers.
“Men in Bizerte are more into cultural events, art expositions and fashion. But they would never have sex with one another,” Aymen explains. Instead gay men travel to the capital city where “gay cruising” is popular, not just among locals, but with European travelers.
The small city is made up of various families—almost clanlike—many of which have been a part of the ruling class for over seven centuries. Aymen’s family is one of these, and if Aymen were to have sex with a man from another clan, the social construct of Muslim virtue and decency would collapse under the weight of disrespect and shame.
Aymen’s family: wealthy, upstanding, humble and pious. But having a gay son: shameful, indecent, mentally ill and heathenistic.
When he turned 12, Aymen already felt attracted to males. After experimenting in sexual relations with girls, he was steadfast in his sexuality by 16 and at the same time confused and frightened by what he was becoming.
“I couldn’t accept my image in front of Allah. I couldn’t look into a mirror,” ha explains. Reading the Koran caused so much shame, and Aymen chose to lock himself in the house and remove the temptation of seeing other men. “I stayed inside for six months. If I decided to leave, I would take a family member with me. I was scared of Allah and my family. Just terrified.”
When he finally removed himself from the dungeon of shame, he gave into physical temptations. At 17, Aymen made eye contact with Seluh, 21, walking through the streets of Bizerte. Most gay relationships begin with eye contact. In fact, the two men glared at each other for three weeks. When they finally spoke to one another, they became instant friends, and the courtship continued.
For nearly six months, Aymen and Seluh met every day. Seluh became a close family friend, despite being from a lower social class. The family tolerated him hanging around Aymen and his brother. The attraction grew, but Aymen and Seluh continued to speak about girls, football and movies. “We had to make up conversation because neither of us wanted to talk about being gay.”
Finally during Aymen’s high school vacation, the two traveled to the beach. In the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea, they held hands (as men do in many parts of Africa) and kissed, passionately, romantically, and energetically.
For ten years, the couple existed in a parallel world. Aymen’s family still had him figured as a close friend. When Aymen went to university in the South of the country, Seluh met him every weekend. They relied on friends through a network of gays and lesbians in Tunis to spend the weekends together.
During those ten years, Aymen and his partner were happy, living by the adopted homosexual Tunisian motto “Vivons Heureux, Vivons Caché” orlive happy, live hidden. “One must be very strong to live as a homosexual in Tunisia. Today, if you discover at age 15 that you are more attracted to men, you are lost. There is no reference, no model.”
Therefore, most homosexuals in Tunisia prefer to hide the fact that they are homosexual. Last year Aymen’s and Seluh’s relationship ended just as the two had always predicted. Seluh’s family forced him to marry a woman to start a family and begin living the life of a heterosexual man stuck in a charade of heterosexuality.
“You get a nice job, get married with a woman from your class. You have children and everybody thinks you are successful,” he says.
For now, Aymen continues to resist his family’s attempt to “correct” him. Even at thirty, Aymen has never come out to his family, and coming out to society still remains impossible in Tunisia.
Seluh is currently expecting a daughter.