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Global Psyche: A Hands-on Approach

Muslim men are affectionate in ways that would make an American male blush.

Sudanese-American psychiatrist Louai Bilal experienced a moment of culture shock when he returned to Sudan after a seven-year absence. A male friend greeted him warmly and then linked pinky fingers with him as they walked down the street in Khartoum. "He was completely at ease with it, but I was frozen," Bilal remembers, explaining that he's internalized American taboos against same-sex affection for men.

Lingering handshakes, handholding, embraces, and sometimes kisses between heterosexual men are the norm in much of the Muslim world. In Senegal, men walk with arms draped around each other's shoulders. In Saudi Arabia, greetings between men are almost always extended with kisses on the cheek. In Afghanistan, men write love poems to friends, and Taliban fighters give one another flowers. In Egypt, a man will punctuate a conversation by putting his hand on a buddy's thigh—and then keep it there.

Bilal sees the roots of this behavior in gender segregation, a tradition in Islamic cultures. "As boys, we grow up together," says Bilal, who teaches clinical psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco. "We're separated from girls at a very young age, so it becomes natural for boys to seek affection from other boys."

Public displays of affection between men also have deep historical roots in Muslim culture. "Islam brought unity and fraternity to the Arab world," says Osman Ali, a psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City. Touch is a very public declaration of membership in the Umma, or the community of Muslim believers.

In much of the Middle East and Africa, homosexuality is taboo and rarely acknowledged, so straight men feel free to show affection in part because no one will assume they're gay. Michael Luongo, the author of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, still has trouble reading the overtures of men he meets in the Middle East. He was particularly perplexed when a young man in Afghanistan wanted to hold hands and chat for hours, and then invited him home to spend the night. "If this was the West, everything he said and did would mean that he wanted to sleep with me," Luongo says. "But he was just happy to meet an American."

Embellished Elocution

In Arabic, the word habibi literally means "my beloved." But in Iraq, it's used as a term of endearment in the most casual of conversations. According to Akbar S. Ahmed of the Islamic studies department at American University in D.C., "Expression in our part of the world tends toward hyperbole and drama."

Yale psychologist Mona Amer attributes her animated, expressive way of communicating to growing up in Egypt and Saudi Arabia: "When I was in graduate school, I would be discussing an issue in class and students would come up to me afterward and say, 'You were so passionate,' but I had already forgotten what the topic was. That was just the way I talked."