The African Muslim Fist-Bump

"Fist bump" by Indy Trendy Skits on Flickr
“Fist bump” by Brady Tulk on Flickr

(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.

Hama, Syria

A little over a year ago, I spent a night in Hama. That day, Dan, Melissa and I were checking out sites in western Syria for potential projects and had gotten ridiculously lost in the mountains. The mountain towns were lovely, friendly and felt refreshingly relaxed. But it was late, and we were all tired, starving, and indecisive – a potentially lethal travel combination. We crashed in our hostel and then went out to get felafel. It ended up being the best felafel I’ve had in my life. Then we wandered the streets. It was the beginning of June and dead hot during the day, so most folks came out at night to socialize. At first it seemed like it was a shibab-dominated scene–boys were everywhere. But there were women around as well, enjoying the night air. We walked by the famous waterwheels – great, groaning, wooden dinosaurs that are monumental in scale and lit up like a carnival. The splashing water cooled the sweltering night, a miracle of relief in the desert breeze.

I hadn’t expected much out of Hama; it was a way-point in a misshapen quadrangle between Damascus, the coast, and Aleppo. But more than the groaning waterwheels, or the dark, cobblestone maze of the old city — the people of the city. The women. Or, one woman. There were a group of ladies on the street just wearing hijabs without a full veil, only slightly older than me, chatting and eating ice cream. I smiled at them, well, because I don’t generally see a lot of women while travelling in the Middle East and I miss their company, if only on the street. It’s a strange and lonely feeling when you recognize it.

The women hesitated, smiled back, and then one lady grabbed my arm. I wasn’t actually all that surprised by it, as I’ve become accustomed to displays of sisterly affection and warmth from a wide swath of amazing Middle Eastern women, but what came next did surprise me–she wanted me to have a bite of her ice cream. I didn’t really get it at first, but even after several demurrals, she insisted. We shared a melting bite of ice cream, laughed, hugged, and went on our way into the night.

So tonight, as the protests in Hama rage on, I’m thinking of her.

Solidarity with people who are yearning, aching, struggling to be free. Always.

Haram at the Beach

Dead Sea Family by Lisa

Last night I watched the sun set over four countries. Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all visible from the beach on the Red Sea south of Aqaba and I had plenty of time to contemplate geopolitical vagaries as I dug my toes into the sand.  A hot wind was blowing in from the Jordanian desert and I watched the various families settle in around me.  The beach is a liminal zone in Muslim countries, where negotiations of culture, politics, and religion come into high relief.

The public beaches at the Red Sea, the Dead Sea, and the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean all have their own particular local mores and acceptable configurations of the highly contested terrain of women’s bodies.  Haram is a very rough equivalent of the word “sinful” in Arabic.  As a Western lady working in the Middle East, I hear it a lot. Pork is haram, chicken is not haram, exposing one’s hands may or may not be haram.  At first I tried fairly hard to figure out how to behave and dress respectfully, but it is contingent on so many factors that it is incredibly difficult–probably impossible since I am foreign anyway. Even my most conservative mosque-going wear was rejected at the Great Mosque in Damascus and I had to put on an Orko-like cloak to enter.  So now I just do what I can in most situations to not draw too much attention to myself, with one notable exception: The Beach. I wear a regular swimsuit and get stared at, but there are usually enough other scantily-clad foreigners to soften the impact. My tattoos also attract attention, perhaps only slightly more than on Western beaches where people pretend not to notice.

Anyway, I will always remember the first time I saw a conservative young couple come to the beach. She was dressed in a full burqa and niqab (face-veil) and he was in short swim trunks.  She sat down under and umbrella and fanned herself as he went splashing off into the sea.  He occasionally came back to check on her, but otherwise she just sat there, sweating in the 50 C heat.

Since then I have seen this same scenario played out several times, with different age-ranges in different states of dress.  I’ve only seen the vaunted burkhini twice, both times on pre-teens who were passing through another liminal state, becoming a sexually mature (and therefore covered) woman.

So it was a familiar scene last night, a woman with her husband and four children, she completely covered and the rest of the family ready for the beach.  She sat in the sand while her husband played with the children and splashed around.  A scholar that was more sympathetic would probably say that she was still the nucleus of the family, that she guarded with the rest of the beach gear, but she seemed very much forgotten in all of the fun.  So, to my surprise, she started playfully throwing rocks at her family and they giggled and dodged the rocks.  This continued until after sunset, when she finally hiked up her burqa and waded into the surf up to her knees.  I looked around and saw that many women were doing this semi-covert dusk activity and that couples were drawing closer together in the dim light of shisha coals.  There’s been daytime swimming as well, women being held tight by their husbands while their burqa swirls around them.  I guess it might not be so different than when I wore a t-shirt to the pool as a self-conscious little kid.

I think I will continue to find beaches in Muslim countries fascinating for both the changing ideas of how women should dress and how foreigners are integrated into the social scene.