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9/17/09 Hugs & Handshakes

Here's a topic I've been meaning to address for a while...

I'm a hugger.

Always have been.

I realize that not everyone is. This is why, on the last day of school, I asked my students to say goodbye with a hug or a handshake. Their choice. Nearly everybody opted for the hug, but a few students - mostly boys - just extended a hand, which I shook warmly as I bade them farewell. I have zero desire to push physical affection on those who don't want it - I just like hugs. :)

So I find it weird that I can hug *some* of my friends here, but not all of them. As I've talked about before, in Morocco, same-gender physical affection is perfectly acceptable in public, but cross-gender PDAs are not.

This means that I can hug my female friends whenever I encounter them, or walk through the streets arm-in-arm with them, but I can't do more than shake the hand of any male friend. If we're in sight of any Moroccan, anyway. Behind closed doors - or in the highly westernized major cities - I can hug my buddies. And I do. :)

But in public, all I can do is clasp a hand and smile.

I must say, it feels odd to travel for 9-15 hours to visit a buddy (which, yes, I've done more than once) and then upon meeting up with him, exclaim, "Hey!!!" ... and then reach out and calmly shake his hand.

But handshakes aren't just for long-lost friends. Here in Morocco, I shake hands every day. It's the first bit of the greeting ritual. Every time I see someone for the first time that day, I shake their hand. It's not a hearty pumping handclasp like Americans routinely exercise; it's a gentle, almost limp, grasping and release of the fingers, followed by placing your hand over your heart. The verb for "to greet" here is slm, the root of salaam, peace, since the formal greeting begins with Salaamu alaikum, Peace be upon you. The whole action, shaking their hand, touching your heart, wishing them peace, and the rest of the complicated greeting ritual, is collectively referred to by this one word, slm.

During my recent week-long visit to America, I found it almost impossible to shake the habit of touching my heart after a handshake. It feels so natural, not only because of 18 months of practice, but also because the handshake-hearttouch combination feels so much warmer than the simple clasping of hands. I love what it represents to me, a silent indication that whoever I'm meeting is invited into my heart, the recognition that everyone is a possible new friend. If you're already friends with them, you can touch your hand to your lips instead of to your heart. It's a bit like blowing a kiss - but without the blowing part. If you're *really* close friends, you can kiss them on the cheek. The pattern of cheek-kissing varies by region. Here in Berberville, it's once on the right cheek and then twice on the left cheek. In another place I stayed, it was right-left-right. Elsewhere, it was two on the right, then two on the left.

I'm not sure *why* people here slm everyone, every time they see them again. It still feels a bit strange to shake hands with my little brothers and sisters and host dad every time I see them. When I lived with my host family, I shook everyone's hands every morning, even before I brushed my teeth. With the kids, it's very casual - almost a "low five" (like a high five but with lowered hands) followed by a halfhearted raising of the hand in the general direction of the chest or lips. But that's because they're little. Adults take it very seriously; I've been chastised for failing to slm everyone in a group. I had walked over to a friend - the only person in the group of six I'd ever seen before - and greeted her, then started chatting with her. She unsubtly reminded me to greet everyone else, which I did promptly, the blush from my faux pas coloring my cheeks as I did so.

Living in a culture so concerned with physically expressed greetings, I chafe against the fact that I can't hug my buddies in the street. I make up for it in private, at PCV gatherings, where I'm known for giving hugs at the slightest provocation. :)

'Cause I'm a hugger. And that's OK. It's not perfectly culturally appropriate, which is why I've adapted my public behaviors, but I refuse to stop being a hugger. And if that means I have to teach cheek-kissing Moroccan women how to hug, than that's what I'm gonna do. :)

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