Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Sudanese Hug Revisited

In January, the Boston Globe Magazine published an essay I wrote about my friendship with Mahmoud, a Sudanese archaeologist, and a greeting I had never seen before, the Sudanese Hug.


The basic gesture is a right handed pat on another person’s left shoulder while they do the same to you. The Sudanese Hug is more formal than an embrace, but conveys more warmth than a handshake. In fact, with good friends you might start with an embrace, greet each other while giving the Sudanese Hug, and end with a handshake.


I went back to Sudan this spring for an archaeological project and it was fun to revisit The Hug.


I watched families greet one another with it at the airport, and kept my eye out for it on the journey north to the dig site.


At the site, a Sudanese archaeologist friend named Mortada sauntered up to me and gave a stylish side glancing brush to my shoulder, rather than the squarely vertical downward pat that is the norm. “You remember the Sudanese hug, don’t you?” he asked me. Sure I did, but I had never seen it delivered in such a suave, cool way.


After our dig season was over, we went to visit Mahmoud at his home in Khartoum. I was happy to be able to give him a paper copy of the magazine so he could see the article in print.


“You know,” he told me, “a lot of Sudanese have seen this article online.” Apparently, English speaking Sudanese had passed the link around to their friends. What prompted this popularity? “It’s not often that the international news has something about Sudan that is positive, instead of bad news.”


Mahmoud’s sister, the matriarch of his family, came in. Mahmoud introduced each of us in turn, and then pointing at me, he said, “I introduce Jack with just two words: ‘Sudanese Hug.’”


A huge smile spread across her face and she raised her hands in astonishment. “Mashallah! You wrote that? It’s special to Sudan!” Another Sudanese woman I know in the United States had made the same point: the hug was such a natural part of her physical vocabulary that she didn’t think about it as a cultural phenomenon from her home country.


In fact, I had contacted a few anthropologists who work in Sudan and neighboring countries in northern and eastern Africa and they all commented that The Hug was a uniquely Sudanese phenomenon.

Mahmoud told me that he had heard from strangers who read the article and used some internet sleuthing to piece together that he was the archaeologist I had written about. They wanted to know that the story was true and that he was a real person. Old friends and family also wrote to confirm his identity -- “This is about you, right?” His favorite response came from a cousin who was working in the Persian Gulf. “This must be you. Now I know that you must be doing drugs or something with the foreigners you work with -- you are having too much fun.”

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