Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Greetings with a kiss from Algeria

The Bay of Algiers at dusk
The method of greeting people in Algeria all depends on whom you are greeting, male or female, whether you know them well or hardly at all.  I still haven’t got used to the resounding ‘Walaykum asalaam wa rahmatulah/wa barakatu’ in answer to any greeting of ‘Asalaam alaykum’ whether it’s on entry to a shop, passing a policeman at a traffic stop or stopping to buy fruit and vegetables at a stall holder in a market.  However I was informed by my children that this reply greeting was more than likely inspired by my husband being an ‘akhina’ (a man wearing both a camis, the long dress like garment of the Muslim man, and a beard) or by my being a woman.  My son said usually the reply is more muted with a simple ‘walaykum asalaam’ in reply, and my daughter said that among women she has found that other women will often go the extra mile and return the greeting with the extra tagged on. 

It’s funny how being an akhina or an ‘ochtina’, (a woman wearing hijab, but often more specifically the jilbab which is more like a cape from head to toe, and the niqaab, which is the face covering) elicts a more respectful attitude in public.  Some people have this idea that if you are one or the other then you must be more religious, more knowledgeable, more spiritual, or just downright better, which of course we all know is not at all the case. To be fair in some cases people recognise that someone wearing this type of clothing will feel uncomfortable in certain cases, giving handshakes, listening to music, or being seated on public transport beside someone of the opposite sex as just some examples, and will make allowances accordingly.  But, of course, there are always those who think that, by wearing the right ‘gear’ they need do no more, and act in ways that are so ignorant and abhorrent to Islam while wearing the camis or the jilbab, and then many others get tarred with the same brush. As a result, sometimes, you will find someone who will test your patience to the limit by being deliberately obtuse or rude simply because you do dress this way.  However, a lot of the time I feel like the ‘nun in the family’ as my aunt was a nun and, as such, was always given the utmost respect within the family, mostly just for being a nun. I will admit that, the mischievous leprechaun in me likes to lull unsuspecting Algerians into thinking I’m an Algerian ‘jilbabi’ and then start yabbering away in English just to see the confused looks on their faces.  Hey, us ex-Pats have to get our amusements where we can find them! God knows we give the Algerians plenty to laugh about!

If you are greeting someone (of the same sex of course!) for the first time you might, if you are a woman give  her one kiss on each cheek, and if you are a man, then a handshake is sufficient.   However if it’s someone you know well you would greet them with a kiss on each cheek if you are a man, and TWO kisses on each cheek if it’s a woman.  But, being Algeria, nothing can be that simple and there are times when the kisses are three and not two or four.  So my advice is to just go with the flow and just keep going with the kisses as long as they do.  I have heard that if you work with women then it is customary on the first day of the working week to greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, which can make the notion of being late for work on that particular day rather attractive.  But then I’ve been reliably informed that if you go to school or university then it’s customary to greet all your friends with either a kiss on each cheek or a handshake or a wave in the morning, and then again on parting in the afternoon.   A very tactile lot these Algerians!

And if you think that the distance of across the road, or even the other end of the street means you have a get-out clause for greeting any Algerian acquaintance, you can think again. In that case, you give them a quick wave of your hand which is the stand-in for ‘asalaam alaykum’ and then press all the tips of your fingers to your thumb and wave that up and down signifying ‘washerak/i’ meaning ‘how are you’, and they just do the same back to you until something like a big bus, or an earthquake comes between you and you make a quick escape.

Between family members most Algerians will greet their in-laws, whether male or female with a kiss on each cheek, unless, again, you are an akhina or an ochtina.  But then there are times when it all gets to be a bit too much and common sense prevails, as is the case when a person enters a gathering with one ‘asalaam alaykum’ and a wave of the hand encompassing all those present.  My favourite greeting is the one I have seen done more usually between men, but sometimes also between women, where they shake hands and then put their hand over their heart.

I have heard it said that all this kissing contributes to health bugs being passed around, and that a handshake is healthier, but I honestly can't see how this is the case - the kisses are merely a quick press of cheek to cheek while God only knows where that hand has been before you pressed yours to it.

So when it comes to greeting people in Algeria the general rule is....there is no general rule, and just go with the flow.  When it comes to some gestures, however, there are those that are perfectly innocuous everywhere else but a complete 'no-no' here such as anyone or anything.  Now I was brought up to believe that pointing at someone was rude, but pointing out a house, a nice view, a bird in a tree.......NO, not in Algeria, 'someone might think you're pointing at their house'.  Sorry but that excuse won't wash with me.  But ......I don't point, or rather I do but get my finger knocked down every time.  Another one is the beckoning of the finger when you want someone.  Now this one could be just unique to my husband, I'm not sure, but he absolutely hates it if we're out somewhere in public, and we've been separated and I want him to come and look at something near me.  I suppose it does have rather superior connations with it, such as beckoning to a minion, but sometimes it's just so handy!  I did suggest, as a alternative, that I just stop, cup my mouth with my two hands and shout 'COOOEEEEEE', or alternatively, jump up and down and wave my hands to get his attention.  Those suggestions went down really a lead balloon. 

My favourite memory that illustrates how kissing as a greeting is intrinsically a part of the society is the day we were sitting stop still in traffic, and my husband remarked ‘only in Algeria does the traffic come to a standstill to wait while the policemen kiss each other during the changeover in duty!’

A typical street in the suburbs of Algiers


  1. Don't you know you have to beckon with your hand upside down and use all your fingers not just your index finger? Tut tut. Oh and raise your eyes. Like swishing water towards yourself. The c'mere jesture has caused huge rows in the past. It's a big no no. Although nit, in my opinion, more rude than being tutted at when I ask a question - humph. Tutting to denote no takes some getting used to.

    That's it now... I'm all up-to-date. I just binge read your whole blog!! Some I even listened to in text to voice while I did the washing up which provided some comical moments! 😂😂

  2. I had to think about the tutting for a minute and then I tutted to myself and realised what you meant! The kids hate my sighing - when I enter a shop because I hate shopping, or if I'm hanging around waiting in a shop, I make a sigh, and the girls swear that everyone in the vicinity turns to look. I haven't noticed myself, but that's what they tell me......what do I know! It's not as if Algerian women don't sigh - it's just that they do so while saying 'astaghfirallah'. I tried that one too, but it seems I just don't have the right tone or length or.....something! I cannot imagine anyone listening to my blog - I bet it doesn't come through in my Irish accent!