Friday, 23 July 2010

Kissing in Saudi Arabia

Kissing in Saudi Arabia is, well, different.  It occurred to me one day, how strange it is that a greeting that we take for granted back home is practically considered a criminal act here in Saudi. I’m talking about expats greeting a friend or relative of the opposite gender with a hug or a kiss.

It also takes we western types a little while to get used to members of the same gender kissing away 3, 4 or 5 times on one or both cheeks when they meet.   For women this is fine, it seems we are generally accepted as the kissy half of the species.  But I’d say many western guys find male cheek pressing is just a bit ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, better not drop the soap’ unblokey. Even with the argument of ‘But it’s their culture’…. the Western men I known (The Husband and Alan, my huge social circle) are extremely grateful Saudi Arab males are happy to just shake their western hands.

People who hail from kissy countries must find it very hard to curb a greeting that comes naturally to them.

One night, we went to dinner with Hubby’s friend, a Frenchman, very charming.  After dinner, he dropped us off outside the compound. There was another car parked in the road with Saudi occupants. Mr Frenchman said, complete with authentic French accent, “If we were in France I’d kiss you goodnight, but we are in Riyadh and these people might have me thrown in jail’. So, instead, he extended his hand, we shook, he said goodnight, lovely to meet you, and left.

What’s significant about this little scenario is that if he had forgotten where he was and given me a completely natural, for a Frenchman anyway, farewell kiss on both cheeks and the Saudi family present had been offended, he may well have been apprehended.

Of course it’s not just French men who hug and kiss their female friends and relatives – lots of nations do. Even good old NZ’ers do.

The other day, another friend was visiting from Dubai on business.  He’s Scottish. We met him for dinner.  In any other location I would’ have kissed him on the cheek with a ‘hey good to see you again’.  But we were in a busy hotel lounge in Riyadh so to prevent Saudi jaws from hitting the floor in horror of such offensiveness to public decency I extended my hand and explained,’ I’d kiss you but that might cause a stir’ and we settled with a good old handshake.  I admit that, had I not had the previous experience with Mr Frenchman, it would not have occurred to me to restrain myself when meeting Mr Scotsman.

It did feel rather odd to not greet a friend in the usual manner.  I do wonder what would have happened.  Would all hell have broken loose?  Would the religious police have been called to educate us on acceptable practice?  Educating people is apparently a major part of their job description.

What really makes me think this place has taken the hands off approach a bit far is when a husband and wife are frowned upon for kissing each other hello in public.  And I’m not talking major pash which, seriously, only happens at the end of feel good American movies.  I mean a simple kiss on the cheek.

Giving Hubster a peck on the check when I meet him after work comes so naturally that often I forget Saudi customs, or perhaps I'm subconsciously rebelling against silly ideals.   He gets a kiss on the cheek and a hug and sometimes we even hold hands. Couples hand holding, by the way, is allowed, the king said so.  Married couples only of course, though I’ve heard via the grapevine that this is a very recent allowance only practiced by the younger more modern Saudi’s – which is another way of saying not a lot of that happens either.

I can understand that not kissing someone hello is another cultures norm – I can.  But I wonder at what point do the non-kiss practitioners say “ok I’m going to respect the kissers”. For example, we have a French family on the compound. They have 2 teenage sons and a pre-teen daughter.  At a bar-b-q the kids went along and said hello to everybody.  And, as is French custom, they kissed all the ladies on the cheek. Well almost all. One Muslim lady almost put her neck out throwing herself away from the oncoming kiss on the cheek and the young man wasn't sure what he’d done wrong. Would she have reacted this way if she was at a Bar-b in France?  Or would she respect that this greeting is French – just go with the flow?

I often wonder how Saudi’s would handle a powhiri? Or a hongi?  And I have no doubt that sleeping on a marae just ain’t gonna happen – so much for culture exchange.

I do question why all visitors to Saudi must bow to the rules and put their own cultural practices on ice. Yet, Saudis, not all but a fair amount, are less than happy when other nations say ‘While you’re on our turf we won’t accept your cultural cover up practice’, which is a stance that France is taking.

I have to say, I've got my pom pom’s out for France.
And kissing.

Ka Kite,

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