When Two Ayatollahs Kiss
Image Credit: Uniphoto Press

When Two Ayatollahs Kiss


Anyone who has read Western tabloid newspapers will be familiar with one portion of the typical diet they serve up for readers—extramarital affairs by actors, sportsmen and politicians. In the UK for example, readers' attention is these days being steered toward the alleged affair between Manchester United superstar Wayne Rooney and a call girl who claims to have slept with him last year while his wife was pregnant. 

The Iranian press, in contrast, almost never reports on such news. Indeed, the last time any similar such tidbit was covered was back in 2008, when Gen. Reza Zarei, then head of Tehran's police force and responsible for enforcing anti-vice laws, was caught in the act with six prostitutes. Aside from this, talk of suspected extramarital affairs engaged in by Iranian politicians and members of the clergy never make it past the public's lips to the newspapers.

So it's interesting now that a recent friendly peck on the cheek between two men has managed to attract the attention of the media. Who is it that's had the media chattering? Ayatollahs Mesbah Yazdi and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

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In Iran, a kiss on the cheek between two men is simply a sign of respectful friendship. Many Iranian men kiss on the cheek when they meet (as Arab men do). Before the revolution, the custom was two kisses, one on each cheek. After the revolution, though, this turned to three. No official explanation has been provided for the change, although some Iranians—especially monarchists—believe that the extra kiss was a sign of defiance to the previous regime.

So why has something that millions of Iranians do on a regular basis been getting so much attention now?

Iranian satirists would say that it's because it was the first kiss of its kind—between a crocodile and a shark. Crocodile (temsah in Persian), is the nickname that was given to Mesbah Yazdi by renowned Iranian caricaturist Nikahang Kowsar, who included him in one of his sketches in the mid-1990s. The drawing showed Yazdi the crocodile suffocating Iranian journalists with his tail, an image that was enough to earn Kowsar seven days in jail. But the nickname stuck, as not only does temsah rhyme with Mesbah in Persian, but because many also believe that it's a fitting image for a messianic ayatollah known for his often violent ultra-conservative ideologies.

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