What do we do when we meet someone new? Depending on our culture, the norm may be to shake hands or give a small wave; it may be to give a sort of “fist pump;” we might give one or two kisses on the cheek, or a small hug, or even rub noses, as is the norm in some Asian cultures. This simple-seeming tradition is one of the most important that the global traveler must manage in order to respect local tradition.
Nevertheless, I found myself offended the other day when meeting some of my husband’s friends at a café the other day. In Egypt, it is common for people to shake hands with each other upon greeting, even if they’re friends; girls often give a kiss on the cheek or a hug, not unlike European and Latin cultures. My husband introduced me to some of his co-workers who were already seated in the café, and I proferred my hand to say hello. One by one they shook my hand, albeit reluctantly and with a shake like a flopping dead fish. Remembering my sister’s remarks about how she hated a person with a limp handshake, I mentioned this to my husband after we had sat down.
“It’s a sign of respect,” he said. “Because you are my wife, they don’t want to touch your hand.” They can’t touch my hand? I looked down at my hand. I was wearing woolen fingerless gloves. Was it really such a turn-on for a guy to touch a married woman’s hand? Although I had not insulted their culture—they might have felt uncomfortable shaking my hand, but when I offered it they weren’t about to refuse—I myself almost felt insulted. I wasn’t some precious cargo, meant to be hidden away behind a purdah curtain, and I disliked the fact that my married status meant that guys were afraid to even shake my hand.
However, whereas the guys in our group seemed to be concerned with respect and propriety, the females were most certainly not. The two stylishly-dressed (and, with their blonde and red coifs, decidedly European-style) women who also happened to be my husband’s bosses barely greeted me or even gave me the time of day, even though the one was a native of Berlin, Germany, and knew perfect English. Except for the few times my husband tried to draw up a conversation between us, they basically pretended that I did not exist. I was prepared to dismiss this as a nervousness to communicate in English, or a preoccupation with the Munich vs. Ali team football match, until my husband himself brought it up to me.
“They’re jealous of you because you’re pretty. They act like that towards the pretty employees in our store,” he explained, which in fact explained nothing. The two of them were way more stylishly dressed, and themselves pretty. I had had experience before with the petty jealousy of Egyptian girls, especially concerning those who were enamored with my husband, but it still made me shake my head. I don’t care what country or culture you’re from: wearing your jealousy on your sleeve and displaying it is disgusting. We can’t help but feel jealous at times, it’s just human nature unfortunately, but to obviously show your jealousy is just rude and classless.
Like many of my other café-going experiences here in Egypt, this one thus came with a lesson in human interaction that did not go unnoticed. I spent most of my time willing myself not to think about the absurdity of not being able to shake hands, or female jealousy, and instead tried to concentrate on people watching through the plate-glass windows, eating my arguably-decent pizza and watching the football game (even though I am no great fan of sports.) The highlight of the night was being introduced to one of the co-workers, a man who had spent 7 years living in Queens, New York, not far from where I lived. He loved Queens, loved the people and thought the weather was fine, and had even been to my hometown! It’s a curious window that seems to open up when you meet someone who intimately knows your hometown when you’re so far from home, as though you instantly have a bond with this person that transcends niceties or cordial remarks.
And guess what? When we said good-bye, he shook my hand, firmly, which made me remember that no matter how far you roam, you can always find a little bit of home!