Homosexuality, Tunisian Style

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THE AVENUE Habib Bourgiba is downtown Tunis’s main thoroughfare. Built by the French colonizers as a version of the Champs Élysées and named after Tunisia’s first president, it stretches virtually from the bay of Tunis to the entrance to the medina, the ancient city. While the avenue is divided by a wide promenade full of trees that provide welcome shade in the hot summer months, most pedestrians prefer to stroll along the sidewalks on either side of the street. Lined with restaurants, banks, movie theaters, high-rise hotels, and shops, these sidewalks offer a perfect vista for people-watching. Day-tripping European tourists from cruise ships, dressed scandalously by Tunisian standards in shorts, tank tops, and flip-flops; slender and handsome Tunisian teenage boys, their arms draped around one another’s shoulders or waists; middle-aged women in colorful headscarves holding hands with their jeans-clad daughters; members of the large Tunisian military bureaucracy: police, traffic cops, embassy guards, soldiers; visitors from nearby Algeria and Libya or wealthier and more distant Egypt or Dubai—all can be spotted taking an afternoon stroll along the sidewalks of the avenue.

I learned early on in my tenure as a visiting professor of English at a Tunisian university that the best place from which to enjoy the crowd is a seat on the terrace of one of the many cafés. Cafés are among the only public places where men and women, Tunisians and tourists, all gather and mingle. But because Tunisia is a Muslim country, only foreigners are allowed to drink alcohol on a terrace. Most cafés are gender-segregated, the majority being places where local men go to drink coffee, smoke tobacco from a hookah, play cards, and network—a vitally important activity in a country where jobs can be scarce. But because Habib Bourgiba is prime real estate, its cafés tend to be welcoming to both men and women.

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