Super Best Friends

by Peter Gray | 2/15/06 6:00am

The Djemaa el-Fna, the great square of Marrakesh, is home to some of the strangest sights, sounds and smells in the world. Sheep's brain, a henna-camel-dung blend marketed as hashish, and the healing powers of dried animal parts are all up for sale.

After a few days in the city, the shock value had worn off, and my friend and I were just two Americans in a Muslim city, getting hustled, lost and waiting for the food to re-enact Sherman's path to the sea in our intestinal tract.

One night, as we were sitting out on the square, we were hit with a new shocker: two conservatively-dressed Muslim men, complete with skull-caps and djellabahs, on an evening stroll, holding hands and talking affectionately with one another.

As much as this would immediately suggest a gay couple in our own country, we couldn't imagine that a society which often cloisters its women would condone such public displays of homosexuality. And yet we were the only ones staring.

This same scene of male affection was repeated again and again: school boys walking home, one patting the other on the chest as they walked, and old men sitting together in cafes.

Where did this phenomenon fit in with the case of Nur el-Din, our guide in the Sahara, whose parents will choose him a bride at age 25? Or Beleid, who did not once introduce us to his wife during a week-long stay with him?

We began to theorize. The only alternative interpretation of these sights to homosexuality was something unknown to us in the United States, some form of elevated friendship status among men.

Yes, folks: Super Best Friends.

Our suspicion was confirmed on a one-day stopover in Istanbul. In the shadow of the Hagia Sophia, we asked Ilker, a Turkish friend of ours, about it. "Oh, yes," he replied matter-of-factly. "I have one of those."

This comfort with platonic male affection possessed, in retrospect, a broader scope, manifested in the kisses comfortably planted on another male's cheek and hands nonchalantly placed on another male's back, arm, or chest during conversation.

As a matter of fact, my friend and I ourselves struggled to bungle through the customary four Moroccan kisses with our different male hosts.

Despite the leaps and bounds that "Brokeback Mountain" is imposing upon all elements of male America, our American males get their same-sex interaction sensibilities from Clint Eastwood in "Magnum Force." Expressions of affection preferably occur during shoot-outs, mining disasters and nuclear holocausts, and even then, no hands -- it must be a very dry and wooden business.

It's also better if the whispered "sweet nothings" are mono-syllabic ("You're a good friend, Wayne!"), or shrouded in a specific compliment ("You tranquilized the crap out of that charging water buffalo, Cornelius!").

Elements within the West are constantly beaming a "chill out and lighten up" message to that flawed term, the Muslim World. Last year, much was made of traditional female dress and its restrictive nature. Most recently, the cartoon spectacle has delivered the same fundamental message of cultural freedom.

It is a fascinating taste of irony that this same message could be applied to our own society when it comes to male affection.

With this in mind, next time you're in the trenches with your buddy, take a page from the wise men's book, give him a hug, and tell him how you feel.