And I was surprised to learn that bonobos are the only other primates that kiss.
When a Kiss Is More Than a Kiss: Richard Gere, Shilpa Shetty and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: May 6, 2007
RICHARD GERE, while not the first person you’d think most likely to invoke the wrath of a conservative religious mob by kissing somebody in public, was at least a passably recognizable symbolic target for Hindu demonstrators last week, when they burned his figure in effigy in cities across India.
If not a wavy-haired, pretty-faced, prostitute-patronizer-portraying American actor, then who are religious firebrands supposed to burn in effigy when a man violates a cultural taboo by kissing a woman in public, as Mr. Gere did? (He planted several lingering kisses on the neck of an Indian actress, Shilpa Shetty, at a televised charity event in Mumbai.)
Surely not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But think again. When Mr. Ahmadinejad, the ultraconservative president of Iran, kissed the gloved hand last week of an elderly woman who had once been his school teacher, at a ceremony for a national teachers’ day, he, too, received sharp rebukes from clerics.
Islamic religious leaders accused him of “indecency.” Islamic newspapers noted that under Shariah law contact with a woman with whom one is not related is a crime sometimes punishable by death.
Mr. Gere apologized to those he had offended.
Mr. Ahmadinejad did not. (And left town instead for a scheduled visit with the pope.)
But anthropologists and philematologists (people who study kissing) say the harsh reactions to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s and Mr. Gere’s kisses underline a certain cultural and political mystery about the seemingly simple act of kissing.
Kissing in public (private kissing exists in a different universe of discourse, and for the most part will remain there for the duration of this discussion) is quite often a public statement, they say: Witness the use of the public kiss in the lore of organized crime (to mean soon dead). Or in the political world, the moment in the 2000 campaign when Al Gore passionately kissed his wife, Tipper, (to signify his Alpha-Maleness). Or the mostly forgotten but once infamous kiss Hillary Rodham Clinton planted on the cheek of Yasir Arafat’s wife (signifying many things, not least of which that she would spend a good deal of time repairing relations with Jewish voters).
Vaughn M. Bryant Jr., an anthropologist at Texas A&M University, said that contrary to the lyrics of “As Time Goes By,” a kiss is almost never just a kiss. It is a language with a grammar all is own, which is as strict as the syntax of international diplomacy, he said.
“When people kiss, there are all kinds of hidden rules in play,” he said. “Where they are; who they are to each other; what the relationship between the sexes is in a country; all that gets considered.”
Robert Albro, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., who specializes in the role that culture plays in international relations, said Mr. Gere’s faux pas was an example of a cultural “border clash” that is increasingly common in the era of globalization.
To plant a kiss on the face of an Indian woman in public, he said, would be seen by conservative Indians as a trespass on “the cultural space” of their country.
“Women, in particular conspicuous women such as the actress, bear the burden of cultural identity in many parts of the world,” he said. “They are like the social skin of society itself.”
Kissing is more or less universal. People in all but a few, tiny cultures do it. And wherever people kiss, they practice the same categories of kissing that the Romans first identified: the “basium,” for the standard romantic kiss; the “osculum,” for the friendship kiss; and the “savium,” the most passionate kind, sometimes referred to as a French kiss. (Mr. Ahmadinejad’s was a classic osculum. Mr. Gere’s was probably an osculum playfully masquerading as a basium that, unfortunately for Mr. Gere, may have looked a little too much like a savium on TV.)
Monkeys do not kiss. Apes do, but usually only on the arm or the chest, to show respect. “Except among the bonobos, there is nothing like sexual kissing among the apes,” said Frans B. M. de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University. “Apes do not practice foreplay.”
The earliest written record of humans’ kissing appears in Vedic Sanskrit texts — in India — from around 1500 B.C., where certain passages refer to lovers “setting mouth to mouth,” according to Mr. Bryant.
There is debate among scientists over whether the kiss is an innately human practice, or one that we fortuitously acquired along the way. Some trace it to the mother who made the first mouth-to-mouth transfer of pre-chewed food to her child; others to prettier biological Eureka-moments. But in general it is agreed that people kiss in private mainly because it is nice.
So what does it mean when people, especially public people like the president of Iran or the world’s second most famous Buddhist, commit kisses in public places?
In the case of Mr. Ahmadinejad, according to press reports, his respectful kissing of his teacher’s hand was a gesture of conciliation with Iranian school teachers, who as a group have recently complained of low wages.
In Mr. Gere’s case, no one seems to know much more than the obvious. They were on national TV, promoting AIDS awareness together. She was pretty. He was Richard Gere. The results are on YouTube.
Robin Hicks, a cultural anthropologist at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said that when the kissing involves people of different ethnicities — especially a Western man and a local woman, as in the case of Mr. Gere’s kiss in India — the cultural sensitivity of conservative-minded people is often greatly heightened.
“Frankly, I was shocked at his behavior,” Ms. Hicks said. ”He’s been to India so many times. He should have known better.” Mr. Gere, a practicing Buddhist and supporter of the Tibetan cause, visits India frequently to meet with the Dalai Lama.
“On the other and,” she added, “I guess this is one way for cultural anthropologists to get jobs.”