Creative Non-Fiction by Golnoosh Nourpanah
‘…a hand she had kissed a hundred times – not in slavish devotion – but kissed for the pleasure of it, for its scent.’ – Colette
Amongst one of the many things I miss most since moving to London is the concept of hand-kissing. In Tehran, kissing someone’s hand is a normal gesture of gratitude and in most cases it’s not even remotely sexual. In fact, it is rather common to kiss the hands of one’s mother or grandmother. I regret not having kissed my mother’s hands more often when she was alive (note to self: next time I see my father in person I need to kiss his hands more before it’s too late.)
In the Persian language, hand-kissing or dastboosi is also a metaphor for visiting someone in order to pay respect. For instance, this is a common greeting which might be exchanged between two polite acquaintances: Happy Eid! When shall we come over to kiss your hands?
Like many other things I did not realise how sublime it was when I was living in Iran. I did not even notice it. It was a normal but formal part of my parents’ generation’s jargon.
However, it is not just this expression that I have missed. It is the act of literally kissing someone’s hand on impulse as an expression of respect, appreciation, and love.
I used to kiss people’s hands quite a bit when I was living in Iran. I have only noticed lately, having been a Londoner for seven years, how cautious I have become with touching people. How I don’t ever really touch people and how I am wary of being touched by them too. How I am conscious of touch and how I am now slightly terrified of it. For touch, even a kiss on someone’s hand could have many negative even salacious connotations here. Now I only kiss my love’s hands – profusely, but privately, because I’ve noticed whenever I did it in public, I attracted surprised and terrified glances. Even though it was hardly sexual, perhaps it was slightly sensual. Just a quick kiss below her knuckles, whenever she is upset, or annoyed, or happy, or whenever I have an urge to express my love and devotion without any fuss; swiftly but wholly.
I remember in Iran, how it was part of my life for my hands to be kissed by people. Mostly by my friends. Especially by my best friend, on numerous occasions, in all the hipster cafés in Tehran, on the pavement whilst strolling. One of the most memorable times was when I guiltily confessed to him I was in love with one of his boyfriends. And to my utter surprise his reaction was just holding my hand over the café table and kissing it whilst telling me, ‘then you should reach him.’ Reaching. Residan. I still remember his beautiful diction, always the most sophisticated, precise words, as dry as his kisses on my hands. No wonder his favourite poet was Shamloo. And when I got over my solipsistic and ludicrous feelings towards his gay boyfriend, but ended up becoming good friends with him, he often kissed my hands too. They both had different boyfriends by then and I was happily in love with no one. We kissed each other’s hands a lot, whilst greeting each other, or soothing or admiring each other. Hand kissing felt like an ecstatically friendly gesture.
Apart from friends, sometimes my hands were kissed by a stranger I had just met. And I loved kissing other people’s hands too.
One time, my hands were kissed by a young man I’d just met in a gay party in Tehran who’d just read one of my short stories – the story was about a beautiful young man abusing his lover who was an older man. He came up to me, sobbing, kissing both my hands several times. Even though, I was surprised to the point of becoming speechless, I enjoyed every second of it, as I deeply felt his appreciation for my story and the way it had been cathartic for him – at that time, that was the only short story I’d ever published – I was twenty. I held him and I was tearful too, for that was the defining moment I realised that my writing could move people and thus was not completely useless.
The other time I instinctively kissed someone’s hands in Tehran, was when I was in a cab with one of my close friends. She was telling me she’d understand if I didn’t want to accompany her to visit her father in the mental hospital. Her father had sexually abused her when she was thirteen. I could see she was fighting forceful tears because she hated herself for wanting to be in touch with him, for being drawn to him despite loathing him, for lying to her mother about cutting him out of her life. I couldn’t find the right words; even though I abhorred her father, and I was furious on her behalf, I did not judge her for having complicated feelings. It was impossible to articulate all this in the cab, in public, in the presence of other passengers. Therefore, I just kissed her hand, and her tears dried, and she smiled.
I knew she knew by that swift kiss I meant I wanted to accompany her. That I was not judging her – it also meant we had to lie to her noble mother about our visit. I loved her mother too, but I wanted to be there for my friend. And we did not discuss it any further.
We had a long day at the university, but we just went straight to the hospital. I was worried that her father might call me ‘pretty’ or be sleazy and, in my youthful ignorance, I was also worried other ‘crazy people’ might assault us. And I could feel she was worried too. However, unlike my muddled imagination, the mental hospital was clean and quiet and the few patients that I glanced at seemed so vulnerable and melancholic that I felt nothing but warmth towards them. Upon entering her father’s space, he left his metal bed, read us his new poems and then told his daughter, ‘your friend has clever eyes,’ which rather pleased me because that was what I was desperate to hear at the age of twenty. That I looked clever, not cute, or even beautiful, although those were nourishing compliments too.
I remember a few instances of hand-kissing but because it was such a normal and common act I don’t recall every time it happened. I know since I moved to the UK, it’s been happening less and less.
The last time somebody kissed my hand out of the blue: one of my close friends in London. An older gay man. Kissing my hand was his reaction to me telling him how I was hurt by another friend. He was intoxicated and was telling me how he never thought that particular friend of mine was worthy of me whilst kissing my hand tenderly, as though my hand were a rose bud and I, a queen on my high throne, not little old immigrant me emotionally and verbally abused on the London tube by a patronising white friend. That kiss on my hand instantly boosted my mood and alleviated my vibrations. There were other people in the room, who were also consoling me, even embracing me, because I had just arrived in such a state. But none did the trick like the hand-kissing. And in return, I kissed his slender hand too.
The other time that I remember my hand being kissed since I moved to the UK was a few years ago when I was invited to perform some of my poems in a literary event in a town in Yorkshire. Afterwards, a shy-looking white man came up to me and after admiring my poems, gently took one of my hands and swiftly kissed it. And then looking embarrassed, he apologised. I was so touched and moved. I could feel he was worried about coming off as salacious or sentimental. But it was not salacious. It was not even flirtatious. It was an honest act of admiration – something I had hardly received from any audience in London, where even excited praise sounds like competitive acknowledgement.
Then there is me, missing my ability and impulse and permission to kiss certain people’s hands when they inspire me with their compassion, intelligence, and art. And there are also my hands missing feeling randomly kissed, and my language, hyperbolic, saying, ‘We’re coming to kiss your hands!’ when what we actually mean is I respect you and I acknowledge you.