Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Arab greetings: the man kiss

Men kiss men here, not women. It is very common to see men hold hands, or their arms locked as they walk down the street. In fact, a man will routinely rest his head on another man’s shoulder on a metro train. One time, I even saw one man sit on the lap of his male friend.

A kiss from my supermarket manager
Cairo is a city that is adopting the ways of modernity, while holding onto its traditions. It is a place filled with modern amenities like supermarkets and theaters and shopping malls and jazz clubs. But at the same supermarket with 10 different types of cereals, the manager Wael introduces himself to his foreign customers. Shortly after I met him, he greeted me and pulled me in for an unexpected peck on the cheek, Yasser Arafat syle. It was sudden. And warm. And totally appropriate for a Cairo supermarket, yet completely alien to this foreigner. Wael now kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. In fact, the last time he saw me, he kissed me three separate times within 5 minutes. This is unusual, even for an Egyptian.

The doorman to the Fajr center, Abdul Al-Wahead, Servant of the ONE, now routinely kisses me on the cheeks whenever he sees me. His horse teeth protrude prominently from his wide smile. Perhaps, it is because of the one chat of 10 minutes that I had with him a few weeks ago, that he now treats me like a long time friend.

My tutor Dr. Moustafa kisses me on the cheek whenever I do well in my lesson or understand the grammar; this works out to be about once a week or so. At first, it was a bit awkward, to say the least.

How to explain all this male-male bonding? I’m no sociologist, but as I seem to remember reading some time ago, whenever you cut off men from women and only limit them to other men, as is the case in much of the Arab world, then men will sublimate their desires ie they will redirect their desires to other men.

Ahmed, another teacher at the Fajr center, came into the class today for a few moments to ask my tutor something. A tall gentleman in his mid 20s, he looks like a point guard for the Chicago Bulls. He wears a big beard in the style of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him). Normally, we shake hands. However, this morning, he pulled me in for a Yasser Arafat type greeting—and gave me a wet one on my cheeks. He then rubbed some perfume from a small bottle onto my right hand. Perhaps, it is a sign that I’ve lived here a while that I did not think the exchange unusual at all.


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happym said...

Hey, mmm I didn't know what to make of this post... I am from Cairo, and am currently at the states.. It seems that like most Westerns you are judging our culture through the compass of your own... why think that because men are separated from women (which am sure isn't the case, you would find most of those you are talking about married, and trust me sexually satisfied)they are simply redirecting their desires toward other men!!!
We are simply warm people, touchy feely, ya... but that's how we show compassion. If you really wanna understand our culture, although I know it's quite different than yours, I think it would be best if you start trying to REALLY see it the way it is, rather than how it COMPARES to your culture.
I hope you enjoy Cairo, It is THE most beautiful city (sorry, can't help it am Cairean)

Atiq Khan said...

Hi, wow--nice. Why didn't you ask your visitors about their greetings? I am sure, they would've given a good answer so you would've not judged their greetings now. Its not only in Cairo, but almost in all Arab countries. People in Muslim countries shake hands and kiss one and others cheeks to show affection of brotherhood and not sexual desires. I understand your reaction. People in Islamic countries would have same reaction as yours if a male and a female have a French kiss in broad-day light in a street.