My story about teaching in Khartoum, Sudan in 2007 is now on the Transitions Abroad website. It begins this way:
By Alison Bate
Shortly after I arrived in Sudan, one of my favorite male students quietly passed me a handwritten note, whispering that I should read it later.
After class, I read a charming explanation that because he was Muslim and I was a woman, he could not shake hands when we met.
“OK?” he asked, embarrassed, the next time we ran across each other.
“OK,” I confirmed, smiling, keeping my hands firmly behind my back and mortified that he felt the need to explain his actions.
In Sudan, such mistakes are easy to make. Whenever men meet, they shake hands with everyone in the room. Whenever, I walked into a room, they nearly all shook hands with me too. It is a charming custom, and you soon get in the habit of doing the same. But Khartoum is home to students from all over the Arab world, and those from Saudi Arabia, in particular, have been raised in a strict Muslim culture that believes men should not touch women, especially those outside the family.
Most Sudanese Arabs — in Khartoum anyway — come across as moderate Muslims, and are usually curious about the West and surprisingly comfortable when discussing politics. They are also very hospitable and friendly to foreigners, so it is easy to forget that the government or fundamentalist Muslims may not share the same relaxed attitude.