(filed under cultural marginalia)
It was something that I had become accustomed to, a process of acculturation.
Meeting people in the Gulf and the Middle East was always a bit of a negotiated process. As I have mentioned before, while it is a truism that white women are to be treated as men, we inhabit a third gender, which we negotiate on a daily basis. Though my husband can expect a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, a hug, touching noses, or even, in the case of a man at a Syrian gas station, a rather rigorous attempt to crack his back, when I meet men, touching for a handshake is a complex, political process.
It is awkward the first few times it happens, when the glad-handed American thrusts her hand out in front of her, self-assured, flashing a smile, and this is met with a grimaced wince and a slow, reluctant hand limply meeting her own. I knew vaguely about the various prohibitions in Islam against touching women before praying, touching them with your hands, and so on, but it can be a hard habit to unlearn for someone trying to be polite.
So over the years I’ve congratulated myself for becoming more appropriate, more circumspect. When I meet Muslim men I put my hand over my heart, thus removing the necessity for them to decide to be “rude” and pious or “worldly” and accommodating. After a time, I became unused to casual contact in the street–crowds would part in front of me, lest they touch me by accident and have to undergo purification–wudhu–again. But I could not become entirely inured to this process. Every once in a while, I would touch my hand to my heart (I’m so culturally sensitive!) and the man would thrust his hand out in front of me, insisting that I shake it. His cultural sensitivity would contest mine, and I would, of course, shake his hand.
In April I went to Africa for the first time, to the EUROTAST meetings in Ghana and Senegal. My excitement did not really register until I looked out of the plane window and saw the ragged line between deep blue ocean and the vast, tawny Sahara. In Senegal we spent most of our time in meetings on Goreé Island, a heterotopia of its own, but afterwards Dan and I headed south for a couple of days, to a crazy little community on the beach. Senegal is primarily Muslim, and felt more familiar to me than Ghana, even though people spoke English in Ghana and French in Senegal.
We were chatting to a man next to a wall who was fingering a misbaha, a string of prayer beads. He gave Dan a fierce handshake (there is the handshake-snap in Ghana, but that is a whole other thing). I was in mid-motion, putting my hand up to touch my chest, when he held out a fist to me. I probably looked at it quizzically, because he shook the beads in his other hand and explained, “you know, because I’m praying.” So I bumped his fist and he seemed satisfied. I was surprised and then delighted at this new (to me) variation of etiquette. Using the outer surface of the hand makes it okay to touch white ladies with while praying, so, the fist-bump. Okay. Got it.
The fist-bump is not rare in West Africa, nor is it a strictly Muslim practice; in Ghana there was a lot of fist-bumping, but it seemed on a more casual basis than a handshake. And that is how I coded it, a less-formal, “hip” gesture of friendship/encouragement. Since the famously infamous Obama “terrorist fist jab,” a few popular accounts traced the fist-bump to sports and it has been endorsed by doctors as being more hygienic. The fist bump is also briefly cited an example of “emergent culture” by Martin Ortlieb.
In Senegal, under a bright, yellowy sun and next to a whitewashed & peeling mosque, I found a slightly different version of the fist bump. Emergent or no, individual quirk or no, I loved to see it incorporated into a system of beliefs that dictate how and when it is appropriate to touch someone.