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4/11/09 Moroccan Man-Touch (and Implications for Gay Travelers)

One of the first cultural differences noticed by Americans in Morocco is the practice that my friends and I refer to as "The Moroccan Man-Touch".

In America, especially among white Americans, there's a strong cultural taboo against physical contact between men. Handshakes are fine, back-slaps are permissible, but that's about it. Some men will hug each other, but many (maybe most) won't.

Morocco is different.

Here, men touch each other all the time. They hug, they lean, they hold hands, they walk arm-in-arm, they kiss cheeks, they cuddle. In public. It's the Moroccan Man-Touch.

I vividly remember one afternoon, when I'd been here for a week or two, I headed out of our hotel (in a fairly large southern city, popular with tourists) and passed by two snappily-dressed, coiffed guys holding hands and strolling the street. My knee-jerk reaction was, "Oh, look, a cute European gay couple!" (Which I thought to myself, but did not say out loud, lhumdullah.) A split-second later, I realized that nope, this is just a perfectly ordinary pair of straight Moroccan men.

Every time I travel, I think about it again. In my site and souqtown, I tend to avoid looking at men, for a variety of reasons. When I'm 8 feet in the air, though, looking through a bus window, I feel much freer to people-watch and even stare. So I see the man with his right arm wrapped around his friend's shoulders and his left arm rubbing his friend's belly. I see the guy standing behind his friend, arms clasped around his buddy's chest. I see the two men approaching the bus station, one with his arms hanging straight down, the other wrapped around his friend's arm, one hand clasping the elbow and the other the hand. I see the long, lingering goodbye hugs, with repeated kisses on each cheek.

It looks like a scene out of Provincetown, but these are all straight men. (Or so they'd call themselves, anyway, but that's an entirely separate can of worms.)

At the Language Camp, two of my male PCV buddies had a running contest going: They fully participated in the Moroccan Man-Touch with the male counselors/instructors, and competed to see which of them could touch a Moroccan man enough to make him uncomfortable. Neither won. They did both end up with a bunch of new friends. :)

Today we had a SIDA (AIDS) lesson with the students at the nearby middle school. Afterwards, we discussed the next lesson with some of the teachers, and showed them images we're planning to use. The images all relate to SIDA, some more obviously than others. The exercise is a creative one, asking the students to create explanations connecting the photos to SIDA. Sometimes the connection is pretty tenuous, as in, "These corrugated iron shanties represent a community in poverty, where the triple cocktail isn't available and therefore HIV is more likely to turn into AIDS."

One picture showed two men, smiling into the camera, one with his arm draped over the other's shoulder. In America, it would clearly be an image of gay men, and students' possible connections could be that AIDS first appeared in the gay community, or that AIDS continues to be rampant among gay men, or something in that vein. Here, though, everyone assumes that they're just two buddies, and the students say things like, "Even if you have SIDA, your friends won't abandon you," or "You can't transmit SIDA by hugging, so this is safe behavior."

Actually, that last sentence was the one I thought of. It wasn't until "Lahcen," my PCV friend who had brought the pictures, explained that it showed two gay men, that I realized that it hadn't even occurred to me. I've become so inured to the Moroccan Man-Touch that it hadn't even crossed my mind that these two men with their arms around each other might be attracted to one another.

And that's where the "Implications for Gay Travelers" comes in.

In America, gay couples often hesitate to show affection in public, for fear of attracting attention and/or harassment. Straight couples can engage in public displays of affection without a second thought (unless they're approaching public decency laws), but for gay couples, public affection is a nearly political act that requires no small measure of courage. Here in Morocco, it's the reverse. It's Hshuma (inappropriate, shameful) for men and women to touch in public (though, like in the US, handshakes are nearly always acceptable), but same-sex couples can be free to hold hands, link arms, put their arms around each others' waists, etc.

It may seem odd to promote gay tourism in a country where homosexuality is a crime, complete with a 5-year potential jail sentence...but as long as you limit your PDAs to the behaviors described here (as in, keep kissing and the rest for your locked hotel room!), you'll actually find a more tolerant populace than in most American cities.

Oh, and yes, women do engage in Moroccan Woman-Touch, but (1) It doesn't alliterate as well, so it's not as fun to say, and (2) It looks less startling to American eyes, because every junior high in America has girls clinging to each other all day long. Also, women are much less frequently hanging around outside - if they're out-of-doors, they're probably going directly from one place to another, not loitering for the fun of it, as the men do for hours at a time - so you just don't see it as much.

But here are some examples of the Woman-Touch: (1) Last time I was in a grand taxi for a few hours, the matronly woman next to me first put her arm around me, then pulled my shoulders down so that I was snuggled against her bosom. She'd noticed me dozing off, and wanted me to rest more comfortably. (2) Another time, a group of us were crowded side-by-side in a big room, for a meeting. The woman next to me leaned over to hear something better, and (completely unconsciously) balanced herself by holding my thigh with both hands. (3) During Language Camp, there were always more students than available chairs or sofas in the big room, so the girls routinely sat on each other for an hour or more at a time. (4) Whenever I'm seated next to a woman, I can count on her using my leg as an armrest. (5) In every medina in the country, you'll see women shopping together, bodies intertwined to some degree.

This utter unselfconsciousness about expressing friendly physical affection is actually one of my favorite aspects of Moroccan culture. I've always been a hugger by nature, and while it makes me sad that I can't hug my male PCV buddies in public, I can't help but smile when a Moroccan friend tucks her arm through mine while we walk through town. :)


  1. Wow.
    Makes you wonder what's wrong with the US, that we think touch is weird or scary or should be restricted to the 1 person you're in a romantic relationship with...

  2. Subversion in the post, judgment in the comments. Not bad, lady, you may have to keep blogging after your term is over.

    --You know who :-)

  3. American girl married to a sweet, loud and happy Moroccan guy and I laughed outloud when I read the descriptions of the Moroccan Man-touch and the your experience with the Women! It is very true and endearing too! I just wish it were okay for my hubby to be so cuddly with me too (just a teensy bit jealous) ;)

  4. American woman engaged with a sweet Moroccan man,I dont know why,but the men from Morocco are specials,I love deeply the mine


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