Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Politics of Kissing*

Aah, kissing in Kabul. It leads you to think of many sweet things, perhaps of roses, shy giggles or maybe even Indian movies with women in suggestive wet saris, dancing around trees in Switzerland (what, did you think that was filmed in Gujarat or something?)

Nah, this post won’t be about that.

By kissing, I mean cheek to cheek, almost air kissing – it’s how Afghans say hello. But who gets the Afghan hello?

As a young Afghan in the U.S. and socializing only with my extended family and close friends, everyone was kissed. Twice - one kiss on each cheek. Sometimes a person would go in for a third kiss, which makes things awkward, ‘cuz how do you know? You don’t want to be left hanging there, it’s embarrassing… Then there would be the elders who wanted their hand kissed, elders who didn’t want their hand kissed. Elders who did want their hand kissed but had to pretend like they didn’t and so you didn’t and they never really liked you as a result.

Then I got older. And that’s when things got more complicated.

Kiss everyone? Kiss old people only? Which male relatives are you supposed to kiss? Could someone make me a chart?

I finally figured it out, kinda: male cousins I grew up with and are older - okay, older uncles - okay, newly introduced male cousins that are my age – shake hands. Male Afghans that aren’t related and I don’t call uncle - back away slowly dude, my dad is watching.

When I went to Afghanistan the first time, everyone got a nod, not even a handshake. I had to be careful. Coming from the West, I already had ‘ho’ on my imaginary business card.

This time around in Afghanistan, it’s still an issue but now it has become a bit of a rebellion.

I do intentionally kiss the cheeks of my older uncles. They’re Afghan Diaspora uncles but not necessarily related by blood. But they are family. I didn't grow up with them but they know my parents. They remind me of my Afghan-American home, with laughter, food and family jokes. It’s never easy to be in what is ostensibly my homeland and ache, just ache for my extended family.

A few months ago, I kissed the cheeks of an uncle that 1) wasn’t a blood uncle and 2) it was at a notoriously conservative Ministry. I sent him an email and apologized profusely. He graciously responded with, “It was an honor, you’re my daughter and we’re here to teach them manners.”

I don’t know about manners but I think that creating a mini-family across ethnic lines is a step in the right direction.

A local co-worker recently mentioned that before the wars, Afghans often had friends they considered family. This meant that once adopted into the family, your families were bound together. This wasn't a trite saying; you really were family. According to him, this practice went across ethnic lines. He said that friendliness is gone now. I see remnants.

So maybe it’s not completely within sharia but my intentions are pure. These people are my family in Kabul. They are my connections, my bonds to the country and my family’s history and naysayers, you can kiss my-well, never mind. I’m still trying to keep up with my New Year’s Resolution.

*Leave it to the Sunday Scribblings to pick ‘kissing’ as my first post topic, for more kissing, click here. Thanks to Frida for the link to Sunday Scribblings!

25 comments:

Laini said...

Wow, that's completely fascinating! I've experienced the awkwardness of not knowing exactly how many cheek kisses were coming, but not with the added stress of a conservative religion. I'm really glad to find your blog, and Frida's, to get a window into Afghanistan. Thanks for Scribbling!

Lisa said...

That's very interesting! Thanks so much for sharing. Posts like yours make me realize there are a lot of cultures in the world that I know very little about. Thanks for helping me learn just a little bit more. :-)

Michelle said...

I remember the odd feeling of kissing people in Mexico, and trying to feel normal walking down the street holding a female friend's hand. Once I got used to it, it was nice. :-) Thanks for sharing, your post facinated me.

Janie Hickok Siess, Esq. said...

I agree with Laini and Lisa. Thanks for letting me learn some new things today.

[a} said...

People do the same thing here in Saudi...yes, the whole uncle thing can get so confusing!

Paris Parfait said...

It's not dissimilar to Europe, particularly France - kissing on each cheek, sometimes three times is very common and expected. But there's not the underlying tension as in Afghanistan. Interesting post.

Crafty Green Poet said...

Interesting post, thanks for sharing.

Frances said...

Thanks for a peek into your culture. You write well.
I like the part about your father watching ;)
Thanks for sharing.
Isn't Scribblings great? - this is my second week.
Take care,
Frances

Frida World said...

Thanks for this post, it made me giggle, cringe and nod at various points. But maybe you are right, I should still write about kissing in Kabul from the Haraji perspective. It is different again, of course, not having any uncles or cousins as such.

What about my best friend's husband? Considering he invited my American boyfriend in to sit on his marital bed to talk with his wife and meet their new born baby? They are about as close to family as I have in Kabul...

Regina Clare Jane said...

Yes, thanks for posting! It was so enlightening!
I remember when I went to Holland, they would kiss a certain amount of times (I forget how many) and then when I went to Belgium, I tried the same thing on a lady and she freaked on me! Keeping it all straight is a tremendous amount of work!
Welcome to Sunday Scribblings!

Jerri said...

Fascinating. Welcome to Sunday Scribblings. I look forward to many more peeks into your world.

my backyard said...

I enjoyed this, too.

I found that in Quebec, Canada, even my relatives on non-French origin had to kiss on both cheeks.

Karen Travels said...

I devoured just about your entire blog, from all the way back in March! Love it!

I consider my close friends family too. Even spent Christmas with them!

Karen

SuperfluousA said...

Dude what's with this famous you? You getting too big for your britches now?

I just wanted to say britches.

I know exactly what you mean about the kissing unrelated men on the cheek. I always go for the handshake with men. As for the handkissing, if the person is quite a bit older I go for the hand kiss. However, I expect the person to not let me kiss their hand and convert it to a handshake and cheek kiss. And if they don't I despise them forever.

Zohra said...

Ha! Girl I know all about that being "left hanging in the air when you go in for the third kiss and the person already turned away" feeling. It ain't pretty.

I recently spent a number of days with family who have spent alot of time in Pakistan as well as other Pakistanis. They were so disturbed by my multiple kissing. Even one was too much at times - they were more about shaking hands. I wonder how they would have dealt with some aunties here who give you FIVE smooches after a long trip.

homeinkabul said...

Thanks to everyone for their kind comments. I'm looking forward to participating in future Sunday Scribblings...

Frida: I think the question is entirely situation-specific. I know there are locals who are comfortable with it and then some who are not...

Superflousa: My britches and I would like to thank the academy...I actually refuse (and still do) refuse to kiss the hand of elders, except for 4-5 people, mostly in Afg. My trick is to make a half-hearted attempt where I completely miss their hands...

Zohra: Yes, the exuberant 5 kisses is sweet. I just stand there, smile and tell them how much I've missed them. They just fling me back and forth and there is little counting to do? Afghans shaking hands, even with the same gender? Weird...

pfr said...

Wow, now there's going to be some serious competition for first comment! Great post. I think you describe the awkwardness of kisses perfectly. Nobody wants to look loose and you can't look rude either. Maybe high fives would be easier?

omg said...

17 comments. This is what they call a rise to stardom. Don't forget the little people who were with you from the beginning... ;-P

That was a wonderful post. Loved your humor ("my dad's watching!"), as usual.

The Cubans in Miami kiss cheeks. Many kiss cheeks even the very first time you meet someone, regardless of genders. It's usually only one cheek, and you go in with your lips sort of pursed away from their cheek, so it's more a brushing of cheeks. And if it's family that you see often, you might do the kiss without a hug. It's all very complicated.

I remember being at my cousin's house. She was a few years older, and she had this friend who was drop. dead. gorgeous. He was a beautiful man. And charming. The first time he came over, I was sitting at the dining room table just after dinner. He was introduced to me and I (hoping I wasn't drooling) turned in my seat to put out my hand to shake. Meanwhile, he's leaning down and in for the kiss, and his head is inside the space where my hand was, so it ended up very awkward with me basically kissing this guy with my hand in his (amazing) hair. First time we met. Oh yeah. Awkward.

But you get used to something like that, don't you? And then if you do it for a while, you go back home and get introduced to someone not of that culture and you almost kiss them on the cheek and it's embarrassing all over again.

Must make a note to check Sunday Scribbling.


I'm serious. He was like, HOT.

chaoyang said...

I'm gone for a week and you turn into a super-star - you already were one, but now everyone else is catching on.

and i lost my "first-post" spot :(

well, little and late as it may be, here is my comment:

why did you email to apologize? did you not know he wasn't blood and was conservative when you dipped in for the double kiss?

or did you know, think it was okay, then suffer remarks from those who wanted to make you feel bad?

homeinkabul said...

P: Yeah, but some people high five too hard. I'm dainty

O: Yes, I'm surprised by the way Sunday Scribblers rally too. I like it.

You made me laugh - I've done plenty of things like that.

C: I apologized b/c I didn't want to embarass him.

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Tarous said...

Hilarious. Great post, you just got yourself a new reader. I have been dealing with that whole kissing thing since I was a kid. It was never a problem until I got old enough to make some of the women feel uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable at each Afghan greeting line that I was caught in after that. Still kinda do, but I know how to handle myself a bit better now. At least I think I do. Tarous

homeinkabul said...

Tarous, Welcome and thank you for the compliments. I can imagine that it's hard for men/boys also!

none said...

change the heroin plants to growing carrots. get some carrot harvesting machinery.

homeinkabul said...

dear none.

Thanks for your deep analysis. I wish we had thought of that earlier.