Almost a decade ago, my mom and step-dad moved to the United Arab Eremites for three years for work (if you wonder where I got my sense of adventure from). We got to visit them about a year-and-a-half into their time there, after they’d had a chance to make some friends.
It was only the second time I’d spent any significant time in a Muslim-majority country, and the longest extended time I’ve spent in a place I’m not the majority culture.
There were a bunch of really interesting differences. Since Friday is the Muslim holy day, for instance, the weekend in the UAE is Friday/Saturday, with Sunday being the first day of the work week. The church my parents attended there had their main worship gathering on… Friday morning. (They did a Sunday evening gathering, but it was poorly attended.)
And it was basically impossible to sleep in there because every mosque (which are on every two or three blocks) blasts the first call to prayer about 30 minutes before sunrise. In their defense, you’re not supposed to sleep through it, but come on! We were on vacation!
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in a place I’m not majority culture, I always get nervous about making the right impression. I know there are tons of cultural practices and details I don’t know, and I don’t want to be that American.
One of the trickiest areas to navigate is male-female interactions. Muslim countries have a reputation (well-earned, in some cases) for treating women as second-class. But in several Muslim countries – like Egypt and the UAE, women’s attitude toward their own bodies varies greatly. In the shopping district in Cairo, for instance, I saw two mannequins in a store window. One wore a bedazzled burka – the garb that shows only a woman’s eyes. The other wore a clubbing outfit that was barely more than a bikini. In the same store. On sale next to each other.
The UAE is similar – you’ll see women wearing all sorts of different outfits from extremely modest to… much less modest. So it’s hard to know how to interact with a woman in the UAE when meeting for the first time.
In America, our standard greeting is the handshake. But it’s not uncommon, especially when meeting a friend of a friend, for someone to say, “I’m a hugger; bring it in!” and go for a hug.
(Maybe we should use these color-coded bracelets everywhere?)
So it was I think our second day in the UAE. My mom was teaching at a women’s college there, and she brought Amanda and me to work to meet some of her colleagues. Mom introduced us to the dean of her college, a Muslim woman in a pretty conservative hijab. She reached for my wife, Amanda’s, hand and shook it, then turned to me.
Without missing a beat, I extended my hand and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you!”
She stared at me, then looked pointedly at my hand, and back at me. Until it got awkward, and I lowered my hand. Then she smiled – thinly – and said, “It’s nice to meet you as well.”
I had breached a cultural barrier. In the UAE, default assumption is that men and women don’t make contact – no handshake. Certainly no hugs.
Now, that’s not always the case – a few of the women I met there offered to shake my hand, and several of the men did the same with Amanda.
But I had made a faux pas by not allowing her to take the lead, to show me what she was comfortable with. And in doing so, I had communicated disrespect. I had devalued her and her culture. Later, she told my mom, “Your son doesn’t know very much about Muslim culture!”
That small action – thoughtlessly extending my hand – became a barrier for the possibility of a friendship between that woman and me. Now, granted, that was the only time I met her, but it did also negatively impact (though fortunately, not in a major way) my mom’s relationship with her as well. My inattention and actions became a barrier for love in that moment.
I want to talk about barriers to love – what are some of the things in our lives that can block us from giving or receiving love?