Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you the Sudanese hug.
While working on an archeological excavation in northern Sudan, I was fascinated by a form of greeting I had never seen before. Two men would each clap his right hand down on the other’s left shoulder. They might pat each other’s shoulder a few times while smiling and exchanging greetings. And then the arms would drop and the men would shake hands.
Curious about this custom, I asked the dig director about it. He told me it was the “Sudanese hug,” and he suggested I ask Mahmoud, the Sudanese government representative who minded our excavation, to explain it. Mahmoud had spent time at academic conferences in Europe and was aware that the Sudanese hug was unfamiliar to most foreigners.
“When you greet a friend,” he explained, “and maybe you are not family, so you do not want to hug him, but you are not just business acquaintances, so you want to show more affection, then you do the Sudanese hug.”
This was a revelation. Later, when I got back to Boston, I told my friend Julia about the greeting over lunch. Julia and I have known each other for a decade through work. I would not presume to give her a hug — and frankly, I’m not naturally a hugger — but I am fond of her, and a handshake seems too formal for our relationship. While the hug is mostly practiced among men in Sudan, I figured we could adapt it for our friendship. We gave each other the Sudanese hug before parting. Perfect!
The hug is not wholly without complications. There is a hierarchy of physical greeting in Sudan. You can embrace your very close friend, and then you might step back and give the Sudanese hug (pat pat pat) while looking each other in the eye and asking about each other’s families, and then end with a handshake. You start from the most intimate and proceed to the more formal.
Mahmoud also warned me about an awkward social situation that can arise: Suppose a man is excited to renew his acquaintance with a friend and raises his arm in anticipation of the hug. But the second man raises his hand only high enough to shake. This would be embarrassing for the first man, who tried to make more of their relationship than was mutual.
Then Mahmoud had a question about physical greetings for us Americans. What did it mean to pat someone on the bottom? The dig director and I looked at each other. It depends on the context, we said. If you’re playing sports and a teammate pats you on the bottom, it’s a sign of encouragement and teamwork.
Mahmoud thought about this. What if you’ve just met a woman at an academic conference and she greets you with a hug and then pats you on the bottom? We convulsed in laughter. “Mahmoud,’’ I said, “I think you know what that means!’’ He responded by blushing.
At the end of the dig season, Mahmoud was there to send me off as I boarded my bus. “Mahmoud,” I said, “I warn you that when I return, I will greet you with a Sudanese hug and not a handshake.” Mahmoud smiled. Not only would he return my hug, he said, but he would first embrace me like a brother. With that, he gave me a warm bearhug goodbye and I was on my way.
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