Nose kiss, anyone? How the Gulf Arab greeting has evolved
Those who don’t know what a “nose kiss” is may actually think it’s an intimate act
Last March, the “First Kiss” video was released on YouTube attracting more than 80 Million views so far. Not many people in this region were excited about it. For many here it symbolized the decadence and corruption of the West. Yet there were those who considered it interesting enough to inspire them into making a parody of it: “First Nose”. In it you have a set of guys ready to give each other a ‘first nose’.
In the “First Kiss” video the participants are embarrassed and nervous; it’s an awkward moment particularly because of the intrusive effect of the camera. And the same feelings were acted in the “First Nose” video.
There is a difference of course between a “first kiss” and a “first nose.” A kiss is an intimate act and so to kiss an absolute stranger in the presence of a camera can be quite awkward. But a “nose” is merely – or mainly - a handshake using other means. There’s no intimacy at all there. It would be hard to imagine anyone feeling awkward because he/she had to shake hands with complete stranger; camera or not. Even though the video is a parody it led to some misunderstanding.
Those who don’t know what a “nose kiss” is may actually think it’s an intimate act. Some locals, who know what it is, considered the video an insult to an authentic Arab tradition; some went as far as to consider the video a promotion of homosexuality. But in actual fact, the nose greeting is not only an Arab tradition.
Last month, we saw Britain’s Kate Middleton giving a nose kiss during part of her tour in New Zealand’s capital. The Duchess of Cambridge had given what is known there as the “Maori hongi,” – but it’s more of a nose rub than a kiss.
Recently however, the nose kiss has been brought to light for a more serious reason. As the number of MERS (a SARS-like viral disease spreading in the Middle East) victims increase in Saudi Arabia, some health practitioners started to raise concerns about the dangers of this age old tradition. Putting two noses against each other isn’t exactly the healthiest behavior when there is an airborne epidemic going around. There were those who shared this concern, but for many traditionalists this was merely another way of attacking the social identity of the Arab Peninsula.
What is nose salutation?
Greetings come in all colors: touching the shoulder, kissing the shoulder, shoulder to shoulder, handshaking, hugging kissing and then there is the nose salutation … which is the greeting style in a number of regions in the Gulf countries and Yemen. No one really knows when it started, or whether it emanated from the region or was imported from other places. What we do know however is that the nose has been charged with symbolism for at least 15 centuries.
The Quran speaks about branding the ‘nose’ of the arrogant: a metaphor of punishment. To say in Arabic “I will rub his nose in the sand” means “I will humiliate him”. Or: “He will do it with his nose in the sand” means “he will do it whether he likes it or not”. “On my nose” means “I will do it with pleasure”. An arrogant person is described as one whose “nose is high”. An angry person is one whose “nose is swollen”. And dreaming of a nose is a sign of gaining pride or becoming humiliated.
For some people this symbolism explains the reason people “nose salute”. When you “nose salute” someone you are not merely greeting him/her; you are also saying something about how you relate to each other. The nose is a symbol of pride; thus putting noses against each other is to say you are peers. If you are not peers, then he/she who is younger or of a lower status would kiss the nose of the other.
Using the nose to greet is also a custom with people in the world: Mongols, Polynesians, Malay, Indians, Africans, and Eskimos among others. But while in the Arab Peninsula people stub noses against each other, in other places they smell or sniff each other.
A hundred years ago a social scientist was writing about how in the Indian region of Assam “smell/sniff me” was employed instead of “kiss me”. Some say that the purpose is to create familiarity and confidence in the one being sniffed. As the classic poet of 5th Century India Kalidasa said: "Every man has confidence in those of the same smell."'
Others say that the purpose is to exchange breath a metaphor of sharing life. Social biologists prefer to consider this is remnant of our pre-evolutionary animal behavior. Animals use sniffing as a communication mechanism and they say this continues to be with humans; though we assign to it other meanings.
In the meantime, about 200 years ago the Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol wrote a short story “The Nose”. It’s about a nose which leaves its owner and takes a character of its own; even refuses to return to its body.
The nose goes on to gain a social status higher than its owner and starts looking down at him. It is eventually forced to return to its owner who walks with it ‘on’ proudly. Here the selection of the nose seems to be random. The story has nothing to do with the nose per se.
The writer was not influenced by Arabs who considered the nose a metaphor for pride, neither by other people who considered sharing breath to be sharing life. The story is merely about the absurdity of social life where even a nose can become a creature of status, even higher than its body. In the random use of the nose by Gogol we may find a clue about the origin of the use of the nose in greeting amongst some Arabs; ie: by randomness or accident.
It doesn’t really matter why the nose was chosen, and perhaps we never will know when and how. What matters is to see it as a greeting; a random means to acknowledge the presence of someone else.