Asmara, Eritrea, November 2002: Friday evening in a windowless room in the Intercontinental. A reception for the local development bigwigs at the end of a week in which colleagues and I have been working with local journalists, hoping to improve their coverage of HIV/AIDS. About sixty people, half white expatriates, half local Eritreans. Speeches are made, drinks are drunk and snacks are snuck. Some people leave, others replenish their glasses.
Among the guests is an American in an open-necked shirt: Jerry, thirties, intelligent. He came to Eritrea four years ago and liked the country so much he decided to stay. As he talks, his arm rests on the shoulders of one local young male. Every so often his free arm is briefly held by another
young man. I watch these signs of affection and wonder what they mean.
I'm talking with Ed, one of the journalists, twenty-six, lightly moustached, beautiful dark eyes and a mouth and nose at once attractive and mouselike. A good body threatened by chubbiness,
unusual in this part of the world. He promises to take me later to a nightclub
that evening and I wonder what blend of African and American, male and female, rich and poor, it will offer.
"I love everyone." The voice is loud enough to be heard by half the room. "I love everyone," it repeats, and I
turn to see Peter, another journalist, equally good-looking, but more youthful and less masculine. He is gesturing with the generosity of alcohol. "I love everyone," he insists, although no-one has contradicted him. "Especially Jerry." Jerry looks over and offers him a smile.
"I love everyone," Peter tells us for the fourth time. "Especially Jerry. I love him most of all. I want to marry Jerry." The laughter increases, some genuine, some embarrassed. A couple of his friends frown and try to calm him down. For a while, he does so, but he continues muttering how much he loves everyone, especially Jerry.
Curious, I leave Ed, promising to return. Peter smiles at me "Enjoying
yourself?" He nods. "Why do you like Jeff?" I ask. "Because we do things together," he tells me. I'm tempted to ask more, but we're in public and
it's easier to put two and two together without further evidence. "We do things together!" he repeats loudly enough for others to hear and turn. Among them Jerry, now arm in arm with another young man.
Again Jerry's only response is a quiet smile.
Peter repeats his love, loudly, and his friends looked concerned. I look round, see that only about twenty guests remain.
It's an appropriate moment for my colleagues and to bring the evening to an end
and gently guide people to the door.
That task completed, Ed and I stroll down to the car park where we find Peter at the wheel of his car, insisting he can drive.
His friends stand around, trying to prevent him from leaving. They smile in
embarrassment, he growls in anger, but no-one threatens physical violence. Finally, in a half-planned manoeuvre, while one friend talks to him through the driverside window, I reach in at the passenger door, take the keys from the ignition
and pass them on to a second friend.
When Peter sees what I have done, he is more disappointed than angry. I say good night to him and the others.
Ed and I take a short taxi ride to the Shamrock, where, after being frisked with a metal detector, paying 100 Nafka for two entries and passing
signs that proclaim no knives or guns allowed, we find a table by the dance floor.
The music is Western pop. The clientele appears to be the usual mix of
white-skinned development personnel and dark-skinned duckers and divers. In the time it takes to down a couple of beers what I suspected has become clear;
Ed has not a gay bone in his body. But he is intelligent and interesting and we would talk long into the night if the music volume were not suddenly raised
as the dancing begins.
The next morning, Peter appears at the near-empty hotel where I am staying. We sit in the bare hall and exchange pleasantries. I assume he has come to apologise for the previous evening. Some form of apology is
indeed lurking in the back of his mind, but foremost is the belief that I still have the key of his car. I
describe the friend I gave it to. His face falls; the man concerned will not be free until the afternoon.
I offer him a drink.
"Do you remember anything about last night?" I ask when the Fanta arrives. He shakes his head. "You said you loved Jerry," I say. "You wanted to marry him. You said you did things with him." He
appears shocked. I tell him it's not a problem for me. I also live with a man, I
point out - not currently true, but now is not the time for details - but in Eritrea such information could be misconstrued. He looks suitably contrite.
I push against the half-open door.
Tell me more about you and Jerry, I say. He says they lived together for a year
in some other part of the country, and although they now live apart they still see each other regularly. Jerry
now lives in a large house near the Intercontinental, but he does not currently have a "friend". Do I sense regret? I'm not sure.
It is the late morning of my last day in Asmara and I don't want to spend it indoors. I ask if he wants to accompany me to the Museum. We stroll out and along Revolution Avenue. A few thousand feet above sea level, Asmara is now a World Heritage Centre, many of its buildings Mediterranean villas built in the 1930s by the Italian colonisers. Colours are pastel, some fresh, some fading, while thick green leaves and purple flowers flood over high walls.
The sun is warm rather than hot. A few cars pass in the wide streets. There are even fewer pedestrians.
The building where the museum should be is empty. We are redirected to its new
home, but when we arrive it is either not open yet or not open on Saturdays.
Whatever. Having made the gesture to be cultural, I can now relax. I suggest
coffee in one of the cafs in the city centre a few blocks away.
As we walk, I begin my spiel of the importance of condom use, not specifying the
sex of the partner. He confirms that he has a partner and uses a condom. Another question elicits the pronoun she. Further gentle questioning reveals that all his partners have been women. A whole hypothesis begins to falter. It crumbles when
Peter asks if I am married. I repeat what I had said earlier,
about living with a man and add "I prefer men."
He is nonplussed, does not at first believe me. Then the conversation dies. Where
was the faultline? I wonder. How did this misunderstanding begin? Did I imagine too much, is he telling me too little, surely Jerry is gay, what is the meaning of Peter's
"love", do the embracing arms only embrace?
I want to ask all these questions but remain silent.
We walk on and find ourselves talking about drugs. I suggest that marijuana should be legalised. The idea shocks him. At the American bar - more caf than bar -
where we drink coffee at a pavement table, it is his turn to ask questions. Why
do I like men? The answers I give him do not satisfy him. It's part of human nature, I say.
He shrugs. We are silent again, not so much hostile as disinterested. After all, it is unlikely we will meet again.
We walk back to the hotel, stopping at a bookshop where I buy a Tigrinya grammar to add to my collection of unopened language books. He asks if I need anything else or a lift to the airport. I reassure him that transport has been arranged.
As we part, he promises to e-mail me, but never does.