It is hard to get a real sense of the world until you have actually seen, heard, and touched it. That’s one reason I travel internationally every two months, not just to traditional vacation getaways but to countries whose cultures I want to learn about from the inside. My eye-opening recent trip to Tunisia fulfilled both of these functions. In the wake of its Arab Spring revolution, Tunisia remains a welcoming destination for tourists who want to explore the many beauties of North Africa. But my experience there also confirmed my worry that the country’s hospitality to Western visitors, and to liberal Western ideas, may be in danger.
Booking tickets and hotel rooms for my trip was easy, as tourism has almost completely collapsed since the uprising that toppled longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. My hotel seemed only 20% full, and I met few other tourists during my stay, none of them American. This is unfortunate, as Tunisia has a lot to offer foreign vacationers: luxurious Mediterranean resorts, lovely beaches, gorgeous historical ruins, delicious local cuisine and friendly, tolerant people, many of whom speak English and are eager to discuss their country’s politics and history.
I was very pleasantly surprised to discover how different Tunisia is from the many other Muslim lands that I have visited (such as Egypt, Morocco and Indonesia). Liquor is served freely—Tunisia even has its own vineyards that produce local wine—and in the capital city of Tunis, unmarried young men and women mingle openly together in coffee shops and restaurants. Most of the men are clean-shaven and dressed in modern European styles. The women are not veiled; many of them wear makeup and do not have headscarves. In fact, I saw many more women wearing burkas in central London than I did in Tunis.
I experienced no animosity toward me as an American, and it was refreshing to meet people in a Muslim country who did not overwhelmingly believe that 9/11 was an inside job. The gay locals I met there through friends on Facebook had no problem with my being Jewish, and some even took me to visit a cemetery that includes the graves of Jewish-American soldiers who helped liberate Tunisia from the Nazis. (Like Tunisia’s few synagogues and other remnants of the country’s almost-vanished Jewish community, it is heavily guarded to protect it from vandalism.)
Tunisia is also the only Muslim country I have visited so far in which I met gay men who had come out to their families voluntarily; of the two such men I encountered, one’s parents were divorced and the other’s father was dead. But for most gay people there, the closet remains in force. There are no official meeting spots for gay people, and the only place I saw gay men socializing in public was at a small hamam, or bathhouse, hidden on a tiny street. Sexual favors can be purchased fairly cheaply from masseurs there, and shampoo samples double as lubricant for the mostly older clientele. No condoms were in sight; although they are available in pharmacies, many of the gay men I met had never bought them.
Younger gay men tend to meet online through gay websites, and sneak to each other’s homes at night or when their parents are away. (Local men are forbidden from even visiting tourists in hotels.) Because public exposure remains a risk—I met two guys whose angry ex-boyfriends had tattled on them to their families—many gay men prefer to socialize with Westernized women friends, or travel to Europe if they can get visas. Although straight Tunisian men often walk with their arms around their friends’ shoulders, my gay Tunisian friends don't allow themselves to do the same. In the long term, since single men over 30 are considered suspicious, some wealthy and educated gay men adopt beards: women from religious backgrounds, who will be less likely to question them.
This shadowy life has gotten even darker in the past two years. Laws against homosexual activity were rarely enforced under Ben Ali, a pro-Western military leader whose regime helped insulate Tunisia from the rising tide of religious fanaticism that has engulfed much of the Muslim world. But the new government of Tunisia is officially Islamist. (It was elected to power by 41% of the population, versus a divided group of secularist rivals.) Gay Tunisians tell me that arrests for homosexuality have been on the rise, sometimes resulting in jail terms of up to three years, from which some prisoners—victims of harassment, rape and violence from other inmates—never return. Before 2011, transsexuals and drag queens could be seen in the streets; now they have disappeared.
Although the new Tunisian regime claims to be moderate in its approach, there are many troubling signs that Islamic radicals are gaining strength. Salafist terror groups, unleashed from former constraints, have started attacking secular institutions. In September, radicals raided the American embassy in Tunis and replaced the American flag with a black Islamist one; Salafist gangs have also attacked police stations, and last month an opposition politician was assassinated by a pro-government mob. There have been reports of violence against women for violations of “modesty.” Elections have been delayed twice, and no new constitution is yet in place.
Secular and moderately religious Tunisians, straight and gay, have followed these developments with great anxiety. It's a tragedy when people begin to miss the dictator they fought to overthrow a year before. But there is still real hope for Tunisia. Most of the population does not want Shariah law. If elections are not postponed again, and if the non-Islamic parties can unite to win a political majority, Tunisia could be a leading light for democracy in the Muslim world.
Whenever I write about the threat of Muslim fundamentalism abroad, I get angry responses from American gays. But gay people from the regions I’m writing about, who read those same articles, write from across the world to thank me for calling attention to the misery they face under religious rule. And when I go to their countries, they reaffirm their gratitude in person. They worry desperately that their stories are not being heard; they believe that they will be abandoned by Western democracies more interesting in cozying up to the new regimes than in protecting the rights and lives of gay people, women and religious minorities.
If more gay Americans took time to meet their counterparts in the Muslim world, they might be shocked at what they learned. Tunisia has requested and is receiving huge amounts of foreign aid as part of its supposed transition to democracy, including a $100 million subsidy from the United States government earlier this year. Such support should be tied to human-rights protections for its LGBT citizens and other vulnerable communities; meanwhile, we are supporting a government that puts those communities at greater risk.
But while the current Tunisian government may not deserve American support, the Tunisian people do. So we in the West must keep watching, listening, and, when possible, seeing it for ourselves. Visiting Tunisia may not sound very sensible right now, but in a deeper way it makes the best kind of sense.