Hands | Rebecca Ruth Gould

What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them. When they first met, he shook her hands boldly and directly, as if it were a normal thing to do and not a violation of the law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Taken aback, she forgot to respond. Her hand hung limply in his palm, until he dislodged it.

Just the day prior, she had read about a poet who had been arrested after returning from abroad, for shaking a woman’s hand. She wanted to warn him: You shouldn’t do that. You might end up in jail for shaking my hands. But he must know what he was doing, she reasoned, and who was she to tell him how to behave in his own country?

His hands didn’t fit anywhere, not in his pockets, or at his sides. They dangled oddly from his arms. The lines on his palms were long, stretching from his wrist to his index fingers. If a fortune-teller had been asked to read his palms, she would have predicted for him a long life, a fulfilling marriage, and many children. His hands were like an autonomous body. She imagined them keeping her warm at night, soothing the aches in her back, providing a resting ground for her lips, caressing her hips.

She touched his hands again in Tbilisi, a city they had arranged to rendezvous in in order to get to know each other better. There in the Georgian Republic, they could say things, about politics and to each other, that could not be said so long as they were within the confines of the Islamic Republic. Funny how law interacts with morality, indeed with honesty: what is licit in one country is suddenly an offence when the jurisdiction shifts. Funny how acts of affection, expressions of love, can be made a crime. Her hands pressed hard on his body. Certain parts of him yielded in certain ways, though not every crevice and not in every way. Her hands traced a continual arc on his back while they worked together, stimulating the flow of words, summoning and cementing memory.

She saw his hands again in Abu Dhabi, but this time it was different. She was cautious and more curious to see what his hands would do with her body when left unprompted. Nearly all of their contact had been initiated by her hands in Tbilisi. This time, she decided, she would let his hands determine their movements, harkening back to when he shook her hands unbidden, in full public view, in violation of the law, in Tehran. Looking back on that moment, it almost seemed a performance, not for her sake, but for the state, a form of civil disobedience that dared the government to punish him. Shaking hands is a sign of respect, he seemed to her to be saying in retrospect. Surely you will not imprison me for showing respect to a visitor?

He dreamed of doing magic with his hands, of making magic potions and aphrodisiacs based on ancient Iranian traditions. Perhaps, she decided, he was testing the limits of the legal system in which he lived when he extended his hands to her, seeing how far the regime was willing to go in its persecution of the innocent. Maybe he extended his hands to her unbidden on that day in order to show the world—and himself—that he would not be cowed. Asserting his dignity in an authoritarian state.

Or maybe shaking hands with a foreigner was as routine for members of his generation, in their secular milieu, as speaking English. Surely there were many worlds she had not been introduced to on her guided tours, led by scholars of Islam from Qum to Mashhad. Constant accompaniment by these state-approved escorts was one of the many conditions of her entry into the Islamic Republic. As a result of such barriers, there was much she did not know about him or his native country.

Now that they were alone together for the second time in Abu Dhabi, his hands were more reticent than she had ever known them to be. It was as if they belonged in another place, on another body, or in another time. She decided she would wait until they said goodbye to question why his hands were so restrained, so hesitant to touch her body. And then, in the airport, there was a crush of people, as there always is. The lines extended out into the arrivals hall as the boarding time approached. All passengers for Tehran please approach gate 6D, the intercom blared. It was the wrong time to speak—she wanted to first touch his hands.

The endless deferral of discussion meant perpetual, potentially permanent avoidance of the most pressing issue: when would their hands meet again? He asked her to watch his luggage while he went to the bathroom. When he returned, he had to rush to catch his flight. There was no time to say goodbye, no time to repeat the gestures that brought them together in Tehran and Tbilisi, no time for her to take the measure of his hands, to impress his knuckles on her memory, to lift his fingertips to her lips and to tell him how much she wanted his hands—but actually the entirety of his mind and his body—in her life. Perhaps, she decided, the crush of people was the best way of deferring this impossible speech. Maybe silence was the preferred option. Not knowing what to say in the little time remaining to them, she closed her eyes and imagined his fingers stroking her hair. When she opened her eyes, he was gone.

Rebecca Ruth Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels (Yale University Press, 2016) and the translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and The Death of Bagrat Zakharych and other Stories by Vazha-Pshavela (Paper & Ink, 2019). She is Professor of Comparative Literature and the Islamic World at the University of Birmingham.