What’s in a Kiss?

On a late October day in 2016, police detained 17 journalists in a raid on the Istanbul offices of Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, as part of the post-July 15 coup attempt purge. It took eight months for the Cumhuriyet trial to begin, with the first verdicts given in late July. While some journalists were released, others had to wait for upcoming trials. For the veteran Turkish journalist, Kadri Gürsel, that meant two more months in jail.

Gürsel’s 11-month pre-trial detention came to an end on September 25, 2017. He celebrated his first moments of freedom by giving his wife a passionate kiss on the lips. “I was not expecting a kiss,” wrote the AFP photojournalist who captured the scene, adding others who were released embraced their loved ones but did not kiss them.

“The Kiss” Gustav Klimt.

The kiss as a calculated act

In Turkey, the kiss comes in many forms. It also involves numerous calculations. One kisses the elderly on the hands first, and raises the back of the hand to the forehead next as a sign of respect. One kisses friends on both cheeks to greet them. In conservative circles, unless the recipient of the kiss is close kin or is passed a certain age, kissing the opposite sex is considered taboo. Kissing a significant other also involves a complex calculation: It signals intimacy (mahrem) of a different kind. For example, in conservative weddings, kisses tend to be performed by the husband touching his lips to his wife’s forehead. In secular weddings, the kiss can be administered on the cheeks or the lips. With the exception of certain neighborhoods in Turkish urban centers, any act of public affection, let alone a kiss, may be considered immoral or shameful, especially among unmarried couples.

While no law regulates displays of public affection, neighbors often take on the task of moral regulation. Their surveillance extends to the streets and what may appear as more private spaces, such as apartment buildings. For example, in the Central Anatolian town of Kayseri, where I have done fieldwork in 2014, a young woman recounted to me how she was threatened with eviction from her apartment for having a young male friend over for a study session. When she challenged the accusations, her neighbor pointed out that the young man was likely captured by the security cameras located at the apartment’s entrance.

In public, the kiss is a highly regulated and sanctioned act. It is, to draw on Durkheim, a moral fact—one that tells us something about the “state of the society” in which it surfaces. For most men and women I met in Kayseri and Strasbourg, affectionate performances in public were to be avoided. Avoidance, however, rarely translated into abstaining from such transgressive acts. Instead, it led to painstaking calculations. Many young couples sought venues outside the public gaze—places far away from the reach of their relatives, friends, and family to meet romantic partners. Sometimes this meant finding a secluded area in a McDonald’s or a shisha café. They also made sure that these excursions did not surface in the social media in the form of a rogue picture or comment.

The Gürsels’ kiss encapsulated a powerful narrative that could not otherwise be told.
It is not surprising that the Gürsels’ embrace in front of the cameras made some Turks uncomfortable. Such an act had to be avoided. This discomfort was evident on social media. One Twitter user argued that the kiss demonstrated how estranged Gürsel had become from his people and culture, adding, “Both his happiness, and sadness are foreign to us.” Another declared that such a public mode of affection “has no place in our culture.” “A man keeps his honor at home, and does not display it to others,” another user responded. “A Muslim man does not kiss that which he keeps private private [mahrem] in front of everyone,” added yet another.

The counter-critique soon followed: “Go directly to Arabia [Yallah Arabistan’a],” stated one tweet: “This is our culture. Take yours and get lost.” Others drew parallels between the users with conservative responses and rapists and murderers of women, reminding them of their silent consent when rapes took place in religious congregation (tariqa)-sponsored dormitories, honor killings, and other instances of violence against women.

Regulating the kiss

This was not the first time that a kiss evoked such a public response. In May 2013, hundreds of passengers gathered in a subway station in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, for a collective kissing protest in response to a warning issued by a subway official. Earlier that week, the official spotted two passengers kissing via closed-circuit camera, he invited passengers “to act in accordance with moral rules.”

As hundreds of lips touched on one side of the police barricades, on the other, a group of counter-protesters bonded through their tekbirs (“God is Great”). The youth branch of the ruling Justice and Development Party had assembled this response, arguing that immorality could not be equated with freedoms. “This [is] a Muslim street.” The street had its own rules and norms that had to be followed.

Unlike some other Muslim countries where the regulation of public and private conduct is spelled out under the Sharia law and is enforced by a special police unit, Turkey is a secular (laik) state by constitution, and the boundaries of moral conduct are legally undefined. Even the most recent attempt “to protect social order, general morals, general health and economic order,” namely the 2005 Law on Misdemeanors (No: 5326) makes no mention of public displays of affection. At the same time, rules regulating moral conduct are not left unenforced. In the most recent instance, a couple was fined 109 liras (approximately 30 USD) for kissing in public. The “perpetrator” objected to the fine, arguing that nowhere in the law was kissing mentioned as a misdemeanor. In his tweet, he described how the police used the reliable technique of “Googling it” to attempt to categorize his kissing as misdemeanor. He was ultimately fined for violating Article 37 of the law, which concerns solicitation for the purposes of selling a commodity or service.

The Gürsels’ kiss, though defiant, was unexpected. There was something so out of place, but also so in place about it, which transformed their kiss into a powerful symbol. For some, it was the perfect response to state authority and power. Like the “kiss couple” of Occupy Vancouver, the Gürsels’ kiss encapsulated a powerful narrative that could not otherwise be told. The kiss, however, was also transgressive. And for some, it represented values that had no place in Turkish culture or mores.

One could argue that the televised kiss of the Gürsel family reveals major cultural fault lines in Turkey. Yet, I urge the reader to be careful not to essentialize the kiss as a defiant act that tells us something about one group of people (secularists, white Turks, etc.) alone. Instead, I ask us to consider the kiss as part of a wider moral discourse, one that only begets further moralizing. At a time when excluding a secular mode of conduct from the conceptual boundaries of “Turkish culture” holds great sway, the moral judgment spells out more than words. It has practical consequences.

Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.

Cite as: Alyanak, Oguz. 2017. “What’s in a Kiss?” Anthropology News website, October 27, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.657

 

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