In more non-news, Yahoo! tempted me to read the titillating headline about Michelle Obama somehow forcing a religiously conservative Muslim man to touch her.

I probably wouldn’t have been interested except that I once found myself in a similar position.

Istanbul is huge city. A confusing mix and match of shiny polyester- headscarved-women in Turkish hijab, non-religious city dwellers who look like they could be from New York or Seattle, transvestites walking the streets after midnight, Arab tourists wearing full, white robes, and women with tight jeans and high heels as can be found in any Eastern European city. And of course, there are religious conservatives.

I had not met one, knowingly, until I went into a bookshop and was introduced to the owner. I noticed that prior to this introduction he avoided looking at me. He also kept his hands behind his back. When finally he acknowledged me, it was to produce a small book as a gift, entitled “What is Islam?” I assumed the book was published at his shop. In a gesture of thanks I extended my hand to shake his. His hands remained behind his back and I awkwardly put mine back down to my side. It was later explained to me that his religion forbade him to touch women. Apparently, if he were to touch me, he would be unclean and would have to wash before he could pray again.

Being previously unaware of this custom, I was a little taken aback and offended. A woman can make a man “unclean?”

Washing in Islam is a big deal. If followed properly, washing oneself occurs at 5 times a day if not more, before prayer and after certain activities. Put into an historical context, perhaps there were serious reasons to encourage personal hygiene — like during the pre-hand-sanitizer, 14th century plague that wiped out half of Europe perhaps?

But in this case, the video shows it all: the Indonesian minister was clearly eager to shake Michelle Obama’s hand. Who wouldn’t be?

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