There are people who, after ten or twenty years of absence, meet you in the street and the only thing they can exert themselves to utter is “hi”. The same with their own family. I have seen this in Western films many times. Kissing the family member is out of the question. We are not the kissing type, they say. Just “hi” and the conversation starts.
“It’s been a long time…..”
“Where is John?”
“He’s been dead a long time.”
In the Orient (and in our own country) it is a bit more exaggerated. A member of the family is in America. He announces that he will be arriving on such and such date and time. The whole family is agitated in the manner of the Great Millennial Expectation of 1844. The flight number and time of landing is communicated by the greatly expected guest, who on his arrival is welcomed in a way that makes any head of state green with envy. Expressions of joy and elation are accompanied by ululation, falling on the neck in embrace, along with kissing, hugging and shedding of tears. Distant relatives are there to welcome the “long lost son” and in the melee you end up kissing and hugging the wrong person. Does it matter?
In Eritrea greeting people is an art. As you walk along the street, you meet someone you think you know from somewhere. Passing by without acknowledging them is a breach of social norm. And if you are sure you know them, you simply approach and greet them by first giving them a handshake.
“How are you? I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
“Michael! Is that you? You have changed a lot.”
And you go on inquiring about their health, their family, and their work. Sometimes you cross the line of propriety and unconsciously put your acquaintance on guard.
I remember one day an elderly man, a distant relative, stopped me in the street for the usual greeting ritual. After asking about my health and that of my family, he wanted to know if I was thinking of marriage, and then asked about my work and my salary. Some people are very curious, and what’s more, they expect you to tell them everything. I didn’t want to offend him by not telling the family secret!
They say that in the Eritrean lowlands, greetings are occasions for passing information as well. A man walks in the vast immensity of the semi-desert with his arms resting on a stick which runs astride his shoulders. He meets another nomad, like him, and they stop to greet each other. They don’t talk about the weather like the English, but about the general situation in their surroundings. A man coming from Keren, gives a detailed account about the situation in Keren, a kind of social, political and economic briefing. The other one, who has visited Ghindae on his way, in turn briefs his guest. In a harsh desert environment, the passing of correct information about one’s surroundings is a matter of life and death. No wonder the Derg regime hated such “whisperings in the wilderness” and tried to turn such culture to its own benefit (yet failed in vain).
One of the most common occurrences for polite people is when they greet a friend or acquaintance because not doing so might be considered an offense. This is a problem many Eritreans encounter every day.
“Good morning Mr.Berhe.”
“So how is life….?”
You don’t know what to say. You don’t know that not to say. You stopped him to say hello. It is now a problem to get rid of him. You are at a loss for words. You stopped that guy in the first place. And he was in a hurry to get to work on time.
“Where are you going?”(You know you shouldn’t have asked such a stupid question.)
“Where else do you expect me to go at 7 in the morning?”
You got what you deserved.
“How is your dear mother?”(Something tells you that you have learnt nothing from your first stupid question)
“How come you don’t know that she has been dead for three years now?”
Me and my big mouth, you say under your breath and leave the scene as quickly as possible.
Women are clever at untangling themselves out of similar embarrassing situations. The usual greeting ritual followed by loud smacks (false kisses) repeated three or four times. The number of false kisses increases in proportion with the depth of acquaintance. The human heart being wicked, it is sometimes difficult to guess whether the repeated kisses are signs of tender loving care or a cover-up for deep-seated hatred. Why should your enemy know what you are thinking about?
Then comes the second phase. Women can say anything that comes to mind and it finds a ready and willing listener. They can talk about the most insignificant things in this planet for hours on end and sound as if they are talking philosophy. They have all the time in this world and stop only when they feel like it.
Then you have the shoulder-bump type of greeting. This was introduced by the freedom fighters. It is a vigorous version of the one practiced in the countryside. People say it is the real thing. It is also more hygienic than the cheek-to-cheek kissing. The problem is that sometimes there is an unequal match between a robust youngster and an old frail man. The shoulder bumping can send a sickly octogenarian rolling onto the pavement. Fortunately, your acquaintance has the good sense to hold you steady with one arm in case you stagger.
Shaking hands has become so deeply engrained into our greeting culture that a person who has been eating or washing his hands will use his arm (not his hand) to complete the “handshake”.
I have heard people say that the handshake is a recent introduction into our culture, as recent as the late 1980’s. You go to the villages and you rarely see handshakes. The normal procedure is to bump the acquaintance on the shoulders lightly and they do likewise.
Another interesting habit in our greeting culture is the utterance of welcoming words to anyone whom you meet in lonely paths or streets. Greeting is you God. You don’t just pass a person in a deserted street without saluting him or her. You are more or less saying: peace be unto you. And any passerby expects similar words from you and from themself.
As for the ones who come to your house, the tradition prescribes a type of greeting and reception similar to the one practiced by the people of the Old Testament. In fact, many a wayfarer who is invited to enter the dwelling of strangers cannot afford not to mention the proverbial receiving of guests of our Father Abraham and his wife Sarah. Give me the same or approximate treatment is what he is saying deep down.
The culture of receiving guests in the manner of the Patriarchs is of course disappearing from the Eritrean traditional landscape due to several factors: the adulteration of our culture following successive colonial regimes; the urbanization of the countryside, and the impact of globalization and progression of lifestyles.
Nowadays, the Westernization of our culture is visible among the young millennials who don’t seem to give a damn to the proper manner of greeting. Bowing is out of the question. Kissing is confined to close family members, if any. Old people are to be avoided as much as possible. And the art of conversation is also declining accordingly.
“So, how is life.”
“Give me five!”