Learning about a cultural difference

One day in early 1992 the mailman brought me an invitation to a wedding in Bahrain. Muhamed whom I had met with his friend Reza in Oslo in the mid-80s was going to get married to a Bahrain beauty.

“How about traveling to Bahrain for a vacation in March”, I suggested to my husband. “It’s warmer there than in Denmark. And I could contact my Swedish-Norwegian friends who live there and ask whether we could stay in their house. By the way, one of my local friends there is getting married and we received a wedding invitation.” These were three compelling arguments and my husband did not object.

Once established in my friends’ luxurious residence in a gated Bahrain compound we did some sightseeing in the local market with our 6-month old baby girl. She was sitting in an old-fashioned brown pram, eyes wide-open, looking at women totally dressed in black long gowns only with a narrow opening for the eyes or a net in front of the eyes. Getting quickly tired from the hot humid weather we did not do much else than drift and relax at the compound’s pool.

Muhamed and Reza arranged for us to meet some of their friends. We were also invited for a boat trip in the Persian Gulf and to a dinner at a friends’ house. Muhamed also invited our hosting friends to the wedding party. In fact there were to be two parallel parties at different places. The one for men would be at a friend’s house and the party for about 100 female guests would be in a big tent, where we would be sitting on carpets on the ground. At that party we could expect to see the newly-wed couple arriving around midnight for some traditional ceremony after which we stood in a queue to congratulate them.


The evening before the wedding, Muhamed invited me out for dinner; just me, not my husband or friends. He picked me up in a fancy car probably borrowed from some car shop or a friend. The seats were covered by transparent plastic which was uncomfortable and sweaty to sit on. The car was driven by one of his male friends or maybe a relative, who I understood was functioning as some kind of a guard.

We drove to a local restaurant where we ate some delicious food and small-talked.  I had all the time a weird feeling that something was not OK: it felt as if Muhamed wanted to tell me something, but could not find the words.  There was some invisible elephant in the room. Was it the driver-guard, who didn’t say anything? I did not dare to ask but hoped I could figure it out sooner or later.

After the dinner, the three of us went for a walk in a scarcely illuminated park. The air had cooled down a bit but my internal tension was increasing. In the end I could not contain the suspense, and blurted out: “What’s wrong Muhamed? Tell me”.

Muhamed looked almost relieved that I had asked.
“Our relationship will change now, when I get married”, he answered in a low voice.
That sounded so dramatic. We did not have any “relationship”, I thought, surprised. We had just known each other for some years, met a few times and at best we were friends.

“I don’t quite understand what you mean, Muhamed? Can you give me an example of what we cannot do any more when you are a married man”, I asked thinking whether we cannot any more send postcards to each others which had been our only form of long distance communication.

“You cannot hug me any more”, Muhamed explained.

“But how do I congratulate you and your wife tomorrow after you have gotten married?

“You can shake hands with us”, Muhamed responded.

That’s what I did. This cultural lesson taught me to ask anyone in advance: “Is it OK that I give you a hug?”


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