Apr 17, 2020
As a painfully shy child, I invariably had my nose in a book.
Touching the cover of a new book always holds the promise of being let into interior lives and other worlds contained within its pages, making you see your own life with fresh eyes.
With teachers as parents, my siblings and I were brought up to treat books with reverence ‘Never have your feet anywhere near a book … It’s disrespectful!’ was a refrain from our elders that I now admonish my sons with when I see them with their feet on the coffee table near a pile of cookery books (which is their preferred choice of reading!).
As a child, we even had to cover all our schoolbooks — cutting and folding the brown paper around newly crisp and empty exercise books is a powerful tactile memory. Little did I know then that I would end up being a writer, filling notebooks with everyday words overheard ….
In Tanzania where I spent my early childhood, I would devour fairy tales from different countries, Sherezade and the Thousand and One Nights, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books and dream of England as a place of adventures I was too timid for, and midnight feasts!
Reading is still an oasis in this turbulent period of lockdown.
I am one of the lucky ones. Still safe.
I have just been transported to the world of the Sufi poet Rumi and his intense friendship with Shams of Tabriz in Elif Shafak’s, ‘The Forty Rules of Love’.
A life without books would be like a parched desert without water. A memorable quote from Alan Bennett’s play, The History Boys comes to mind.
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling– which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
So, when I suggested to Imrana Mahmood, Revoluton’s Community Activist that she and other members of The Dar Aminah Book Club devote one of their meetings to talking about themselves rather than a new book, I knew I was treading on sacred ground.
A Book Club meeting without discussing a book?
Luckily, they took up my invitation to take part in The Touch Test and use that as a catalyst for conversation, along with significant objects that they brought with them evoking memories of touch.
Navigating our new online platform, the women appear at the appointed hour, their faces a ‘mosaic’ portrait on my screen.
Children join and leave at will and mikes are ‘muted’ and ‘unmuted’ as the noise of our domestic worlds collide with our conversation. These fragments of their composite Touchstone Tales are in their own words and respect anonymity ….
We begin with introductions — a ‘hard’ fact about yourself and something ‘soft’ that others may not know about you. I begin.….
I am 57. I share a birthday with Lady Diana. As a teenager, I once didn’t take off my coat for 2 years in public, wanting to be invisible. It had the opposite effect!
I’m a primary school teacher. I used to like the band Queen, when I was younger … and Bon Jovi ….
I’m an art therapist. I found out I was dyslexic two years ago.
I’m 18 and a fashion student. I don’t know a weird fact about me.
You have a skateboard, but you never use it.
That’s my mum.
I’m a twin. I like jigsaw puzzles. 2000-piece ones.
I get bored easily, despite having many things going on and five children. I’m at a crossroads in my life.
I’m a mother of two. I was once caught speeding. It was my daughter’s first day at nursery. I thought she’d be crying.
I live on a boat. I’ve been trying for 10 years to go to a yoga class. Every year I say I’m gonna go, but every week I don’t….
I was attempting to log on so I can see your lovely faces. Can you see me?
But I can’t see you.
I talk about my practice of ‘verbatim’ theatre. My interest in mementoes and anecdotes as a way into listening. Our lives unravel.
What does ‘Touch’ evoke for you?
A sensory experience.
For me it’s things like love and security.
Feeling comfort and support.
Sometimes I think touch can be ‘pain’
Intimacy and affection.
I’m a bit annoyed I can’t see you. I’m on my laptop. It’s taking too long to connect. I can’t see you It’s annoying me.
It’s okay, we can see you. You can hear us. It’s okay….
We share the objects we have brought. Things we like to touch, which ‘touch’ us.
So, I have a crystal. I’ve got this crystal. Clear quartz, which is quite beautiful, it’s created, it’s like a wand shape … crystals have an energy and it’s nice to feel connected to a more positive energy or to feel more positive about oneself yeah … It’s the coolness and smoothness of the surface, it’s quite grounding.
I’ve got this. Can you see it? My robe. I wear it in the house, whenever I’m cold. Just like for me. It’s just like it makes me feel comfortable. I love the feel of it. A nice kind of fluffy kind of feel to it. It’s like an aqua colour.
I had a lot of trouble thinking of something. I don’t identify with things. I came up with a hat. It’s so soft. You can fold it, put it in a bag and it’s there when you need it and I associate it with a trip I made to New York. It was my daughter’s 21st birthday. It’s pliable and it’s comfortable. I love it. I’d forgotten about it. It’s been in the drawer.
As you were talking, you were constantly touching it.
The thing I’ve got is a little bird. Like a present from a friend and he gave it to me when I left India … a dear friend. It’s got a beautiful body it kind of fits in the hand really nicely but then it’s got this spiky em claws … It’s almost a bit like Ooh!. I remember thinking it’s got these spikes but then somehow really loving it as well, loving the beauty of it … the little bird and how it is but also these spikes which are the opposite ….
I was trying to think and think … sitting in my usual comfortable position which is my lovely sofa.
This is my favourite thing to touch — my sofa. It’s so old. Ten years old and through all the posh, high class, low-class furniture shops and nothing replaces it.
The other thing I like to touch, and I’ve got one near me is my children’s hair. Sitting, I do like stroking their hair a lot. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do when they fly the nest and I’ll have no hair left to touch. I’ll chop it all off and keep it on a stand or something weird like that.
There’s a few things that I would pick but my final one is this steel cup. My mum gave me this. She said if I drink from a plastic cup, I’m gonna get cancer. She sent these from Pakistan, I think. When I touch it, I like the coolness of the touch when the water’s inside it and it reminds me of her.
I have a photograph I took of my grandad with my girls when they were younger. That was the last photo, literally the last time I saw him when … He didn’t like having his photo taken — the idea of a camera and how that made him feel — quite uncomfortable. For the first time in all these years, he said to me, why don’t you grab your mother’s camera and take a photograph? I didn’t know it would be the last time. Obviously not a physical … I guess a heart-to-heart kind of touch.
I’ve got this like little like wooden dolls house doll that I used to play with. I mean it’s like quite important to me but at the same time there’s a huge gap between when I played with it and when I found it again, when I didn’t even remember it. I think a lot back to when I was younger and how it was to read books and watch children’s programmes and not see anybody that looked like myself. In some ways I’m still trying to rectify now is that feeling of not having positive representation when I was younger.
We talk about reactions to doing The Touch Test survey
The options were a bit weird like I agree/strongly disagree/I’m neutral.
Then there was this statement and the options were never/rarely/sometimes/often.
I was thinking I don’t know if I’m picking the right … it was like a negative statement — ‘I don’t like something’ and rarely/never/sometimes/often.
I am not sure whether I should have put ‘rarely’ or should have put ‘often’.
Some of the questions I felt made assumptions about people’s lives in the sense that a lot of questions were to do with em a relationship and some of them were, ‘Okay If you’re not in a relationship, imagine if you were’. That’s quite difficult. Every relationship you’re in is different, responses you would give differ according to the person you were in a relationship with. I mean I live on my own so answering questions about relationships that I’m trying to imagine? I didn’t know if I was giving a true reflection. I never give much weight to touch I think is what I discovered about myself. It’s not something by which I judge people’s affection.
I found it really really interesting and thought-provoking. It just made me realise how important touch is how it varies across your different relationships. You’ve got your friends, you’ve got colleagues, your partner, your children. I probably would use it more as a result of the test. Yeah … yeah I would touch more.
Is there enough touch in the world?
In some ways there’s less touch now cos of social media, online platforms, less interaction but by the same token I actually felt that because certain cultural sensitivities have changed, for example professional settings, I feel that when I was younger, a handshake was enough and now it’s like literally they wanna give you a hug and a kiss. As a teacher it was okay to touch a student, a reassuring pat. Now students can turn around and say, ‘Don’t touch me’.
Did the concept of ‘Touch hunger’- the absence of touch and intense longing for it resonate?
The field I’ve worked in you can see it. When a parent does not show affection to their children, be it through hugs and kisses and sharing their feelings, even though they may be the most amazing parents, that’s a crucial part of that child’s development, their self-esteem, everything, their resilience.
For me, after my daughter was born, she was born caesarean, so I didn’t get to touch her or hold her. I got to hold her after a week. That touch, I can honestly say that’s the only time I’ve felt like that feeling of touch hunger. I wanted to hold her, but she was in this box. My need to hold my baby when I did, it was quite profound for me, I think.
I didn’t grow up in a family where we were hugging and kissing and doing all of that. I was clearly loved. I knew I was loved. I found the whole thing about hugging and all that is a very British sort of thing, a western sort of thing. I did a lot of growing up in Africa. It’s quite clear that apart from the aunties who all want to kiss you when they come to visit people didn’t spend a lot of time hugging and kissing each other. I don’t feel it’s a whole new way to measure a person …. what touch means to them.
I also hated the invasion of the aunties with their tactile presence, the smell of their talc, their sweat stains under the armpits of their saree blouses or kameez. Now I’m the aunty ...
What’s the role of technology in relation to Touch, especially in Covid-19 lockdown?
I live in a marina, in a community, people have come together by Whatsapp. It’s a scary time. If someone’s ill how we’ll look after each other. We’re not meeting but it’s been amazing. The boat becomes, you have to look after it. It’s a bit more vulnerable than the house. Like having your bag on your back all the time. You’ve got to care for it like a living thing.
Technology maintains connection but it’s a different way of touching.
Cultural differences in attitudes to touch?
They do ask for your cultural identity in the test. You don’t have to give it. I wondered if one of the reasons they ask was to see if there was a discernible difference.
Possibly I wouldn’t like somebody, a male, touching whereas in Britain’s cultural it’s alright to shake hands.
I was brought up in Muslim community from all backgrounds. When you greet, you kiss/hug … women-to-women and men-to-men. My relationships with friends who are not Muslim, even though we’re very close, it will be very unusual to do the whole kissy/kissy thing.
I thought it was really interesting the question about your kind of level of attractiveness in relation to touch? It was almost asking, ‘Is there necessarily like a correlation? Is it an idea of self-worth?’ Something like, ‘Is your attractiveness associated with how much someone would touch you?’
Do you mean, Is being ‘touchable’ a kind of affirmation of that?
I think sometimes people think if someone’s attractive, it gives them agency over their body.
It’s more about beauty standards.
Is the amount of touch that you receive an affirmation of your worth, your attractive worth?
It isn’t. It shouldn’t be. What kind of message do you give out? If you’re quiet is it a message that you’re not somebody that can take touch, like a pat on the shoulder?
I invite the women to think about their life like a flowing river, through the gaze of touch. We share collective memories in the first person ….
I remember when I was supporting a friend who had a very difficult time in their life and I felt so inefficient and powerless to help her and she actually said to me, ‘Can I give you a hug?’ So, I hugged her, and it was like a long hug and that taught me that it’s not about saying the right words, it’s sometimes just the physical part of touching, showing I’m here.
I remember when I was in a crash, a car crash, well it was a bus when I was abroad, and it was really dramatic. It was the middle of the night and I remember coming out of the bus and it sort of rolled on its side once and trying to get my bearings and feeling quite overwhelmed. I had an injury, yeah I remember going into an ambulance — there were lots of people and suddenly feeling quite panicked so suddenly the person in front of the ambulance just turned around and held my hand and it was just extraordinary how I felt from that touch. Like I just … I needed it … I’d never sort of had that strong experience of the sort of need, the vitality of it, I’m really grateful for that person just reaching out, being brave enough to hold my hand, you know not knowing me that well.
I remember em, I was living with my mum. We had to … we shared a bed actually. I remember her running her hand on my arm and my leg and talking very affectionately about me. She thought I was asleep, and I wasn’t. I used to be really hairy, I’m not hairy now and she was talking about, ‘Oh the hairs on my legs’. It was a surreal moment because she didn’t know I was awake and she was expressing her love for me, how she felt about me I guess as her child and yeah that’s a treasured moment.
90 minutes had flown by in a flash and I invite everyone to share a last feeling they will take away with them.
However you relate to touch, it’s okay.
It doesn’t have to be physical, it has to be a way that one feels nourished by a sense of connection, so it can be like this (ie the workshop) through technology, self-isolation.
Self-isolation, I’m not fulfilling it well. I need it. A hug and a kiss. That connection you want or need and provide as well. A bath would work, I’d sink into it or a massage.
Since I got divorced, I made it a habit to have a monthly massage because for my own well-being. Being touched was really important to me….
The Dar Aminah Bookclub has evolved from a group of Muslim women having spiritual gatherings relating to faith, to a mother and tots’ group and it’s now a women-only neutral space open to all faiths and none.
They meet every two weeks at Sacred Beans Coffee house.
I want to thank them for making space for this valuable conversation. They are now reading Girl Women Other, by the awesome Bernadine Evaristo — a rare book where ‘women of colour’ of all walks of life are centre stage!