The Unexpected in Mauritania
August 4, 2004
-Jay Davidson, PCV
Maybe you saw the same message on the lgbrpcv Yahoo listserv that I noticed in May: a Peace Corps invitee describing himself as “scared and disappointed” at the prospect of serving in a Muslim country that would be “rigid and stifling.” The author was out to his PC recruiter. He had correctly surmised that gay life would be different in an Islamic Republic than in the United States. He had every reason to be concerned for his well being and to wonder to the listserv group if he would possibly have a greater chance for success in an environment where his very existence is not punishable by death.
Anyone who has lived or traveled abroad has seen first-hand that there is a vast difference between the reality of any given country and the way it is portrayed in the media. I was hoping – no, depending – on that being the case for me when I received my invitation to serve in Mauritania.
The day after the invitation arrived, I looked on a world map to see what the flag looked like. When I recognized the star and crescent that appears on the flags of many Islamic nations, the first sensation I felt was queasiness, a nauseous feeling in my stomach. Maybe this wasn’t such a smart idea after all. Why not just retire from teaching and take it easy in San Francisco, enjoying life in what many consider to be the global epicenter of gay life. Within a day I was filled with a different feeling altogether. My inner voice – the one that I had learned to trust when it spoke – told me, “Accept the invitation. You will teach what you need to teach and learn what you need to learn.” It was with that leap of faith that I plunged into the maelstrom of activity that is needed for both retirement and leaving home for two years.
Joining the Peace Corps fulfills my ambition that I have had since President Kennedy started the organization. I was 13 years old at the time, and very impressionable. The only question for me was when it was going to happen – never if. In 2001, when my partner of eleven years informed me that he wanted to be out of the relationship, I climbed out of my complacency and took a look at what would be next for me. It turned out to be the Peace Corps.
During the month that preceded our departure, nineteen invitees found each other on the Internet and became active on a listserv. This was my first opportunity to be out at large. As members of my training class introduced ourselves, I seized the opportunity to describe myself as a gay Jewish vegetarian. When we met in person at staging, word got out in the group. I hadn’t spent so much time with twenty-year-olds since I was one myself.
These people had grown up in a social environment that was markedly different from the early 1970s when I was their age. They all knew gay characters on television and in the movies; they have lesbian sisters and gay brothers; they attended colleges with active gay student unions. For most of them, my being gay was a very big No Big Deal.
It was a good thing everyone knew, because it was from one of my fellow trainees that I had the invitation to meet Mamadou, my first gay Mauritanian. Mamadou cruised fellow trainee Bill near the Senegal River in Kaédi, our training city. Bill took it in stride, probably fortified after having lived in San Francisco himself, when Mamadou told him, “Je suis bisexuel.” A nice looking straight guy like this must have been hit on at least once, and didn’t unravel. All he needed to do was say, “Je suis pas comme ca.” And then, of course, he told me what happened.
I persuaded Bill to introduce us. I met Mamadou just a few hours before swearing in as a volunteer. As luck would have it, he was there in Kaédi to visit extended family. He really lived in Nouakchott, the capital, where I was going to be living.
Once Mamadou found out where I lived, there was no holding him back. Not only did he come to visit without notice, as is the custom here, but he usually brought a friend with him. This built up the network of gay men I met. Meeting this way was a good way to meet men, as there are no gay bars, social networks or known cruising areas for making contacts.
At the same time, though, I shouldn’t have worried too much about meeting people. Public displays of affection are discouraged between women and men, but they are perfectly acceptable between men and between women. One of my favorite scenes is two soldiers, uniformed, walking down the street holding hands. An army of lovers cannot fail.
Even without Mamadou, however, there have still been other opportunities, all of which are unexpected: the taxi driver who smiled at me and put his hand in my lap; the hotel manager who offered to show me more than a room; the kickboxing instructor who was with his wife when we met, and lost no time telling me he gives massage; the shop owner who, upon finding out I was an American, told that the best part about his visit to his brother in “Texas, Dallas” was that he could see sexy movies where he sat in his own little room and invited others to join him.
I want to make myself abundantly clear that this is certainly not the liberated life that Americans are used to leading. At the same time, though – at least for me living in the capital – this is not so bad. Not bad at all. Probably the most amazing part about the attention that I am getting has to do with the fact that the people who seek me out are significantly younger than I am. Most of them are men in their twenties, thirties and forties. You may not believe this, but I was not this hot a commodity in San Francisco! Nor do I think most 56-year-olds are, except for their highly specialized niche market.
Two factors contribute significantly to my being in the position where I am. The first is that I am in a culture in which age is revered and respected, which is just the opposite of life in the United States. The second factor is related to the first, and that has to do with the fact that because I have a significant part of my work life behind me, I have come to Mauritania with experience that the Ministry of Education wants to tap into. The Ministry is in the capital, so that is why I am too. That’s the Experience Factor – the one that makes a difference in where any volunteer gets placed, based on matching skills to needs.
When I was teaching I consistently encouraged the parents of my first-graders to create a home environment that was conducive to lifelong learning. I asked them to set examples for their own children by keeping lots of books at home and turning off the television set so that they could read, talk, and play with their children.
Being here, I am trying to practice what I taught. I continue to teach. I also continue to learn. And to grow.
Jay Davidson maintains his own web site with weekly postings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Jay Davidson’s website at http://www.jaydavidson.com