HIV and gay in Tunisia: A twin taboo

TUNIS Fri Mar 7, 2008 4:23am EST

TUNIS (Reuters Life!) - Homosexual men living with HIV/AIDS In the Arab world face a twin taboo, but Karim doesn't look like someone burdened by stigma.

Smiling and self-assured, the healthy looking Tunisian says his peace of mind comes from accepting what he cannot change, living in the moment and taking care to present a normal face to the world.

The 34-year-old draws the menace from his infection by seeing it as his offspring.

"Personally, I accept the illness. I consider the virus my little baby. Together, we make up the same person," he said.

Dressed in jeans and a V-neck pullover, Karim sounds matter-of-act about his condition, but acknowledges that it wasn't always so easy.

Karim first learned he had HIV when he returned to his native country from France in 2005. He was infected during an eight-year relationship with a French man.

"First, I thought I had flu. But my health kept worsening and analysis showed I had AIDS. A person who was so important to me had infected me," he said.

"I WAS FURIOUS"

"At the beginning, I was furious. I hated everything. But afterwards, I thought that it's better to be hopeful than crying."

He decided to face up to the illness, sensing that a positive mental attitude would translate into stronger physical health. Also, he is on anti-retroviral medication.

"I'm quite good. My health situation is stable. HIV-positives who can't move or even walk are people who refuse the fact that they're infected with HIV. They suffer because they're in very low spirits and not because of the virus."

"I have a principle in my life which says we must make the most of life while we still have its advantages. So, I still enjoy my life. I consider AIDS a flu."

He lives with his Tunisian boyfriend, who is uninfected. They have protected sex.

"I was sincere. I told him the truth and he accepted. His attitude really moved me," said Karim.

"ENJOY THE MOMENT"

Unlike most Tunisians, Karim refuses to draw up plans for his future, even in the short-term, as he doesn't know when AIDS will bring his life to an end.

"I can't do long-term projects. I can't even plan for the summer holidays. I think just about what I can do in the next week and enjoy the moment."

HIV/AIDS is a common topic of conversation widely discussed in many Western countries. But it is still an invisible disease in north Africa and many other parts of the world.

Karim, one of 1,428 Tunisians who live with HIV, has learnt to keep his status a tightly guarded secret in a society where fear, prejudice and ignorance about the disease prevail.

Seventy new cases are declared per year in the North African country, according to official figures.

HIV-positive people who become known as such are shunned by society.

"To live in Tunisia, people infected with HIV have to lie and never say they suffer from AIDS," he said.

"I told my boss, because he's French. If I told a Tunisian about that he'd have a cardiac arrest", said Karim.

"I hate the Tunisian way of thinking. They present themselves as open-mind people and cultured. But it's just a mask," he said.

"In reality, they still think they can be infected via the air."

(Reporting by Sonia Ounissi, editing by William Maclean and Paul Casciato)

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