A Little Joke
I’ve played a trick on the town of Tozeur. One of Zied’s friends got it into his head that I am Zied’s cousin from the US (he has an uncle who is a State Farm agent in Maryland, apparently). That friend told everyone at school, and seemingly overnight the “news” was ubiquitous. We played along, and now wherever we go people call out “Zied! Is that your cousin?!” and we laugh and laugh and laugh.
"But it’s also for your protection," Zied explained.
"Oh, so if they think I’m related to a local, maybe they won’t bother me to buy stuff or rob me?" Not quite.
"It’s good they think you’re related to me because otherwise they might think you are a gay."
My inference here is that the spooked villagers of Tozeur would assume I am homosexual and beat me in the streets. As if gay men are zombies out of The Walking Dead who wander into town from time to time and need to be dealt with.
It’s a truly homophobic group. Each new person I’m introduced to is followed by the line “But he’s gay.” I say “Oh” and they say “Just kidding!” and they laugh and laugh and laugh. “He’s an M-boy” they say. M-boy meaning fag, slang taken from the Arabic word mibun, homosexual.
I’m a celebrity around town. People want to meet me and shake my hand. They stop me on the street to practice saying “Hello, how are you?” to which I obligingly answer “Fine. How are you?” because I know that’s what they expect to hear. Many, many people get a kick out of this.
One guy gave me a flower. He was working behind the counter at a pizzeria and was absolutely thrilled to see me, not just because I was a paying customer. “You’re English?” he asked, and when I said “No. American” his smile doubled in intensity. ‘I’m American’ is the magic password that opens up a whole new level of adoration and privilege for Tozeurians. When I said this to the pizza guy, he gave me a free bottle of water and a pretty red flower from the pot next to the cash register. “I’m make you a great pizza!” he exclaimed. “Everything!” Later, while I was eating the delicious pizza, he plopped himself down at my table and started making chit chat.
"I’m sorry to hear about Boston" he said. A lot of people know about the Boston Marathon bombing. "And Waco." They knew about that one before I did.
The Tunisians I’ve met are hands down enamored with American life and culture. I wonder what they would say if I told them that, for gays, America is practically a paradise. How would they respond to know that making gay jokes in the US is looked down upon? How would they respond if I told them I am gay? After getting to know and like a genuine American homosexual, would it make a positive change on their perceptions?
When I told Zehar that his hero, Barney Stinson, is played by a gay man, it ruined his day. “That can’t be. He’s so cool.”
"You don’t think a gay guy can be cool?" I asked. He thought for a second and said "No."
We laugh at the joke we’ve played, Zied, Zehar and I. How funny it is that we have the whole town fooled as to my true identity. I guess it’s best to avoid aspersions. I guess the smart thing for me to do is to go on smiling and waving and saying things about Maryland. Otherwise the people of Tozeur might get wise, and figure out who I really am: just some stranger who wandered into town and started telling lies.