Nonverbal Communication

I have previously said on the blog that you can get by nearly anywhere in the world using just English, but of course that’s not wholly accurate–yes, you can get by, but you’ll still find yourself in situations where you or a local will want to say something that the other will not be able to understand. Fortunately, for those instances, there are unlimited possibilities in circumlocution and pantomime, in order to communicate. I thought that it might be fun to note some of the more amusing examples of nonverbal communication that we have encountered on our travels–if you have any you’ve enjoyed, be sure to add them as comments.

The Moose Call. Traveling in Muslim countries, one often (but perhaps not as often as one might think) runs into people’s prayer schedules. Our passenger train, in Iran, stopped for the evening prayer so that people could alight, properly orient themselves, and pray. We have had buses and share taxis do the same, although not as often as we might have thought. Or, a shop may be unattended for a few minutes, while the proprietor or employee is praying. In order to convey to us, the foreign infidels, what exactly is going on–why the bus is stopping or why the counter is empty–locals will raise two hands, palms open, to the sides of their heads, sometimes with their thumbs in or very near their ears, and make a small bowing gesture. Of course, this is intended to mimic the act of bowing for prayer, but to us it looks like a moose imitation, which is why we call it the moose call. It can also be used to find a nearby mosque.

Anticlerical Gestures of Iran. Discontent with Iran’s government, or more generally Iran’s system of government, is rife in Iran, and we encountered several different gestures used to mock or criticize the religious hierarchy used by Iranians eager to communicate their grievances to us. The most common was a hand tracing an imaginary turban on one’s head, a symbol for the theocratic elite of the country. Repeatedly, people would make the gesture, sometimes accompanied by the other hand stroking an imaginary beard, when trying to signify that it is the mullahs who have control and are mismanaging the country and restricting freedoms. The second was the throat-cutting gesture, hand across the neck, which was used surprisingly often not only to describe what would happen to you if you tried to exercise a freedom that was not provided under local law, but also as a general symbol for the government–nowhere else have we seen people associate their government so closely and so repeatedly with execution/murder. One person told us that the only thing stopping the Islamic government from restoring stoning as a form of punishment is international pressure. (We were also once given the throat-cutting gesture as a sort of threat in Nizwa, Oman–surprising given the highly respectful and hospitable treatment we otherwise got from the Omanis.)

Cluck of Approval. We first noticed this from our hoteliers in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, who would click their tongue against the roof of their mouth to signify approval, in our case appreciation of our photographs. Once we noticed it there, we heard it over and over again, particularly in Turkic regions from Turkey to Xinjiang, China.

Picture Please. People around the world vary an incredible amount from wanting their pictures taken to not wanting their pictures taken. In parts of West and North Africa, people can act like you’re trying to steal their soul; in Turkic countries and India, people will chase you for a photo. Especially in the Subcontinent, but elsewhere too, we frequently saw an odd gesture for “Take a picture of me, please”–something like a person looking through an imaginary pair of binoculars formed by their thumbs and pointer fingers.

Mixing Tea. Mauritania and Morocco (and the Tuareg parts of Mali) have a tea tradition that is somewhat peculiar, especially in the way that it is prepared. The tea leaves are boiled on a fire for a very long time, and then sugar is mixed in by pouring the tea back and forth from the pot to a glass, until long after the tea is blended, frothy and ready to drink. In those countries, this mixing gesture–that of pouring a liquid between two vessels repeatedly–was used to indicate tea (whether we would like to drink tea, that someone is about to make tea, etc.).

Sex. There is of course no shortage of hand and other gestures that one can use to mean having sex, but we find that the most common one–used all around the world from an Uzbek explaining Ramadan’s many restrictions to a Moroccan boy apparently selling sex services (!)–is a closed fist pounding the air, with the thumb toward the body (so that it’s somewhat different from the usual masturbation gesture).

Diving Gestures. We learned to dive a couple of years ago before a trip to the island republic of Palau, and now occasionally use diving gestures–a standardized system of underwater and surface communication for when words are not an option–to communicate with each other nonverbally. We find the “surface” versions of the “ok” and “not ok” gestures (arms forming a large circle or a large “X,” respectively, above the head) quite handy when we are distant from each other, because they are highly visible from far away. Diving gestures also constitute a nonverbal language that people around us are not likely to understand.

Wind-Induced Headache. This is a rather odd one that we encountered in Ethiopia. Although it can get quite warm in parts of Ethiopia, locals do not like to open windows on buses because they seem to believe that the wind pressure on their ears causes some sort of pain or headache. If you try to open a window, they will ask you to close it by placing the palms of their hands a couple of inches from each ear and shaking them a bit.

Hunger. Now, you’d think that putting your hands on your stomach or putting imaginary food into your mouth would be a pretty simple and effective way to demonstrate hunger, right? It’s certainly worked for us in the past, but when we were in Khiva, Uzbekistan in 2008, a cab driver took us not to a restaurant but to a clinic, thinking that we had gotten some sort of food poisoning! Imagine our confusion and then amuseument when we pulled up to an unmarked building we thought would be a restaurant and all of the servers were wearing white hopsital coats.

Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Andalusia / Al-Andalus

In the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba, an Arab-style waterwheel, or noria, like those found in Hama, Syria

Washington Irving in his famous Tales of the Alhambra mentions that the Moroccans of his day (the late 1820s) spoke of eventually retaking southern Iberia and restoring Moorish/Arab/Muslim rule to Andalusia. In the current world order such a Moroccan encroachment into Spain and the European Union is not realistic, but the spirit of Moorish Andalusia is very much with us today, not only in terms of the Moorish influence on Spanish culture generally (see post of 2009.02.01), but a definite awareness of the uniqueness of Andalusia as a historical blend of Christian and Muslim. Not only do Arabs and non-Arab Muslims feel a connection to Andalusia that they do not feel to the rest of Christian Spain, but also Spaniards (perhaps through Andalusia) seem to have adopted sympathies to Arabs that are a far cry from their ancestral rulers who led the Inquisition.

Andalusia’s ties to Morocco and the Middle East are often used to orientalizing effect for tourists. In the first image, Moroccan leather goods for sale in Seville. In the second image, advertisements for Arab-themed entertainment in Granada. In their defense, many of these establishments are run by Arab immigrants, not only from Morocco across the Strait but from the Middle East as well.

This hammam has been restored as a ruin/museum, but others have been restored for actual bathing by tourists. We visited one in Granada and were disappointed–a fairly sad facsimile of a hammam if scoring for authenticity (and coed–the sacrilege).

Muslim tourists–even non-Arab ones–are drawn to Andalusia for its Arab Muslim history. In the first picture, British tourists of South Asian Muslim descent at the Medina Azahara outside Cordoba. In the second picture, Malay students at the new Granada Mosque taking a break from sightseeing.

The memory of an Arab Iberia very much lives on in the Arab world.

Moors evicted from Iberia after the Reconquista settled in an entire district of Fez known as the Andalusian quarter (first image). The second image is of the Sahrij Medersa in the Andalusian quarter, perhaps the most beautiful in Morocco.

Al Andalous is the inspiration for this barbershop in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, as well as the brand of underwear being sold in Fez.

Half a world away in Doha, Qatar, this curtains and furniture store commemorates Arab rule over Iberia.

One of the most puzzling little aspects of the global taking of sides in the Middle East conflict is the very common phenomenon of pro-Palestinian Spaniards. Pro-Palestinian graffiti is more visible in Spain than anywhere else I have been, keffiyeh are popular accessories among Spaniards and in parts of Palestine the only other tourists other than us were Spanish. I think the real reason for this is the popularity of leftist politics in Spain (perhaps a backlash against Franco) that tend to favor the underdog cause that is Arab Palestine, but perhaps two more interesting factors are also causes: 1) that modern Spaniards feel guilt for their ancestors’ anti-Arab crimes during and after the Reconquista or 2) that modern Spaniards recognize that, genetically, they are part Berber and Arab, descendants of the Muslim Moors who chose to stay in Iberia and convert, and therefore have sympathies for their Palestinian kinsmen. (I do recognize that these theories are somewhat ridiculous, and would really appreciate if someone could enlighten me on the phenomenon.)

Pro-Palestinian / Anti-Israeli graffiti, in Seville and Granada



Reuse of Religious Sites (Part II)

In my post of 2008.11.10, I discussed a common phenomenon: the reuse of religious sites. In that post, I covered the Umayyad Mosque, a Pagan to Christian to Muslim conversion in Damascus; the Ayasofya, one of the greater Christian churches ever built, and now mosque/museum; and the Selimiye Mosque, an almost comical cathedral-turned-mosque in Cyprus. (That post is probably worth reading for some background and general thoughts on the practice.) Now a few months further into our trip, I thought I would revisit that topic, with some more examples.

Andalucia, Spain, where we are now, is one of the relatively few regions in the world where Islam (a relatively recent religion, compared to others) was at once dominant, but then overwhelmed by another faith. (The part of Palestine that is now Israel and parts of India come to mind as the only other major examples–other places that went Muslim stayed Muslim.)

Arab/Muslim influence on Spanish culture is not to be underestimated. In architecture, the decorative arts, language, music, dance and countless other aspects of civilization, the footprint of the Muslim period–after all, more than seven hundred years of history–is almost everywhere in Spain (and the New World, through Spain). Such iconic elements of Spanish culture such as ceramic tiling, flamenco and the cheer “Olé” are from the Muslim era in Iberia, as are words such as alcazar (al qasr) and ojalá (Allah). The mix of Christian Spanish and Muslim Arab brought us the great scientific and philosophical flowering called la Convivencia, which some believe helped usher in the European Renaissance through its introduction of classical and Eastern teachings into Western Europe. The Inquisition was successful in destroying this peaceful coexistence and its benefits, but even if essentially no Muslims (or Jews) were to remain in Spain, the brick and mortar of countless mosques survived the transition–as churches.

I am saving the greatest example of mosque-turned-church, the Mezquita or Great Mosque of Cordoba, for the next post, but below are pictures of other mosques and religious structures from the Muslim era, reused through to the present.

The church of Santa Maria la Mayor in Ronda may originally have been a Roman pagan temple and then a Christian church, but its most recent past life as a mosque is immortalized in the remains of a mihrab, visible inside.

Many church steeples in southern Spain clearly had past lives as minarets. The most celebrated is the tower of the Seville Cathedral, called La Giralda (first image), which is almost identical, save reornamentation on the uppermost levels, to the other minarets built by the Morocco-based Almoravids, such as the Koutoubia in Marrakesh (second image).

Below, a lesser minaret/steeple at San Sebastian church in Ronda

The minaret/steeple of San Juan church in Cordoba clearly reveals its much older age, compared to the rest of the church.

The minaret/steeple of San Marcos church in Seville. There are countless more examples.

Minarets are often the most recognizable survivors–presumably because the Christians found it convenient to keep such significant and majestic features, while they were willing to build a new church alongside–but other features also remain. Near the Giralda in Seville, a domed “koubba” of clearly Moorish origin (first image). A similar Almoravid “koubba” in Marrakesh that was part of the Ben Youssef Mosque complex was used for ablutions (second image).

The courtyard of the Seville Cathedral, known as the Plaza de las Naranjas (note that the Spanish–and English–words for the orange, like the fruit itself, came to the West through Persian/Arabic) clearly occupies the remaining open part of the main courtyard of the old mosque (compare to the courtyard of Cairo’s Mosque of ibn Tulun in the second picture below).

The use of the Moorish style in the interior of this chapel in San Pedro church of Seville argues that such styles can be said to be very much Spanish and in some sense native to Spain–as suitable for use in decorating a church as a mosque. Mozarabs (Christians living in Arab Iberia) and Mudejares (Muslims living in Christian Iberia) bridged a synthesis of culture that resulted in some of the greatest notes of la Convivencia, such as the Alhambra (post to come).

The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).

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Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).