Kiss tests social limits

Recently, two very interesting chapters were added to the long and storied history of the human kiss. And, in keeping with the times, in which civilizations and trends collide, mix, reach an accommodation and coexist, the two very different kisses cast some light on the abyss that exists between the shows of affection that we are accustomed to in the West and the strict regulations which govern human contact in many parts of the East. Last Wednesday, the arch-conservative Iranian newspaper Hezbollah issued a scathing condemnation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, accusing him of «indecency» because he stooped to kiss the hand of his elderly former teacher at a public event. The woman was wearing a coat, a headscarf and thick gloves, but that did not spare the president from the newspaper’s ire. «Such indecency progressively has grave consequences, like violating religious and sacred values,» Hezbollah fumed in a front-page commentary. «The Muslim Iranian people have no recollection of such acts in breach of Sharia during Islamic rule,» it noted grimly. According to Islamic law, which came into effect after the 1979 revolution, no man may have any physical contact with any woman who is not a relation. Seen in this light, Ahmadinejad’s show of humility and respect is, technically, a violation of the law. But it is, at the same time, on the border of human feelings and social restrictions. Ahmadinejad is a deeply conservative Muslim, but he is also a talented populist and also appears to be a truly humble man. This combination made him popular as Tehran’s mayor and propelled him to the presidency, where his populism has rung alarm bells among the ultra-conservatives. A while back he caused another furore by proposing that women be allowed to attend soccer matches (segregated from male spectators, of course). The proposal was ferociously attacked and quickly withdrawn. Clearly, the president is not naive. On the contrary, he may be building his electoral base in the area between the need for human expression and the constraints of conservative tradition. The anger triggered when he kissed his teacher’s glove shows how much room there is for this area to expand. A week earlier, in India, in a very different society, the American actor Richard Gere found himself at the center of a storm because, at an AIDS awareness event for truck drivers, he planted a theatrically passionate kiss on the cheek of Indian movie heartthrob Shilpa Shetty. Hardline Hindu activists held angry demonstrations in several cities and a judge in the city of Jaipur ordered the arrest of the two stars on charges of public indecency. Gere was forced to apologize for his transgression. Whereas in Iran the president was testing the limits of his country’s harsh regime, in India, the stars of Hollywood and Bollywood were balancing on the borderline between two cultures. It is doubly ironic (or perhaps simply appropriate) that Shetty won a celebrity Big Brother contest in Britain last year amid major controversy after becoming the object of a racist rant by another contestant. There again, she was on the border between two cultures. Of course, not many years have passed since Western societies would get very excited by a kiss, as in the case of the 1896 American film, «The Kiss,» or Rodin’s sculpture of the same name which was first displayed a century ago. Today, in Western societies (and in some more than others) same-sex kisses are the only way to get any number of people excited. But in each such instance, the underlying reason for the ensuing controversy is that the kiss serves to test a society’s limits. But why should something so deeply rooted in human behavior, which expresses such individual need and contentment, be so controversial? Perhaps it is because societies fear the energy that is released when two people cross the strict line of accepted behavior. A kiss leads to explosions that no one can predict. It is the point where two individuals join and form the critical mass that can shake lives, societies and civilizations.