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.

Iran to Sweden

It being our second visit of reasonably good length to the city of Istanbul, and as long-term travelers perhaps not as energetic in re-visiting all of the typical sights, we thought that we would make our way to an Istanbul neighborhood described in the Lonely Planet as being the staging post for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from points east looking to go to points west, a key stop on a modern day underground railroad for those trying to escape persecution or simply looking for opportunity not offered in their homeland. Such migrant ghettos have intrigued me for a while, and I had no doubt that Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood would be an uncommonly interesting place, with its diversity of ethnic makeup and the transitory nature of its population. But I did not expect from our visit the richness of the experience that we ended up having.

I timed our visit with market day, and produce and other goods filled the streets. While most of the vendors and customers were Turkish, we saw in the mix children from Uzbekistan and young men from various African countries. Stores advertised passenger and freight services to Russia and the Ukraine. We had a light snack at a local lokanta and walked through the market, taking pictures as we have in so many others this year.

Phone centers hint at the national origins of Kumkapi’s diverse residents.

But our Kumkapi experience was to be much more personal. It was about lunchtime when, while snapping some pictures of a vegetable vendor, we exchanged a few words with a gentle Asiatic-looking man in his late 20s or early 30s who spoke a fair amount of English. This smaller man was with a much heartier western-looking man of similar age and an older western-looking man. The three spoke to each other in a common tongue, Farsi, giving away their national and ethnic origins, as the three confirmed to us in our brief conversation. The smaller man was Hazara Afghan, but from Iran, while the other two were Iranians (though of Turkic descent, it turned out). They were an unlikely threesome, and after we heard a little about what each was up to in Istanbul, we could hardly resist when they invited us for lunch.

We followed them to their cheap pension a few blocks away, six beds to a room but comfortable enough. For lunch the five of us shared a pot of ghormeh sabzi packed in from Iran by the elder and a couple chickens bought from across the street, together with rice and a thin Afghan-style bread. They gave us the choicest meat and kept our glasses full of soda, treating us as guests in their room despite the fact that we were all travelers away from home. As we ate, they told us their stories.

We learned that the younger Iranian had been living in Istanbul for two months, seemingly a libertine escape from his unemployed and dull existence back home. He is in his mid-twenties, but looks a bit older, as Iranians often do. His father had come to Istanbul to retrieve him, not only dismayed by his son’s phone calls for more money but to ease the concerns of the mother, who was crying for her son to return home. The father was concerned, too, at his son’s apparent lack of maturity–“No wife, no job!” he said, shrugging–but did not seem disapproving of his son’s lifestyle in Istanbul, which evidently revolved around women and alcohol. The father was no fan of the Islamic Revolution, frequently interrupting himself mid-sentence with a heartfelt “goddamn Iran,” and saw no harm in his enjoying a beer or two (or, for that matter, his son’s seeing a prostitute or two) while in Turkey. “No beer, no whorehouse, Iran is very bad. Goddamn Iran! Goddam Iran!” he told us, shaking his head.

But more interesting than the story of the prodigal son and the liberal father was the story of the Afghan. But perhaps even to refer to him as an Afghan is misleading. Like so many people of Afghan descent living in Iran, Iran is the only home he has ever known–his family left war-torn Afghanistan when he was still a baby. Like other Afghan refugees in Iran, his family has lived very much among the Iranians, after all speaking a similar native tongue, but never became fully integrated, instead suffering much discrimination at both personal and official levels. Finally having had enough, and after some legal troubles arising from an interview he gave to a reporter, the Afghan decided to leave, parting with his elderly father and the only home he knows in order to find a better life in Europe. His model, a nephew who made it to Sweden and was living happily there.

Of course, and it was with some shame and a sense of helplessness that he acknowledged it to us, his journey is not “legal.” From Iran he paid $1300 to be smuggled across the border, in a truck full of other Afghan refugees, and the use of a fake passport (or rather a real passport but with his picture tampered into it), complete with Turkish entry stamp, to use in Turkey (the passport eventually had to be returned, presumably to be used over and over). He left Iran a month ago–the first time in his life. From Turkey he would go by fishing boat to Greece, then from Greece to Italy, then from Italy to France, and eventually hopefully to freedom and documents in Sweden. He didn’t want to break the law but felt he had no choice, no chance for a life in Iran, especially after his run-in with the Iranian authorities (an event that might help him qualify for asylum somewhere, I imagine). He was clearly bright, educated and proficient in English–no doubt a productive citizen for any country that would accept him. But first he had to get there.

After lunch we left the pension and walked south to the coast, stopping by at a store to pick up a few tall cans of Efes Xtra beer (none for the Afghan, who doesn’t drink), which we sipped while watching the sun go down on the Sea of Marmara. Derek took some pictures of some hefty giggling Sudanese ladies exercising on the playground equipment nearby. The night was getting chilly, and the Iranian son insisted I wear his sports coat.

We talked about our experiences traveling in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. When we mentioned the Iranian pilgrims in Damascus, the father explained that there were two kinds of Iranians, those who traveled to Syria for pilgrimage and those who traveled to Turkey for alcohol and sex. The father thought (as we heard so often in Iran) that the whole of Iran was clinically depressed, and he looked forward to eventually retiring, selling his house and emigrating. The father explained how, when the Revolution came, everyone thought they would be free of the tyranny of the Shah, only to realize six months later that things were getting incomparably worse instead. The father explained that he was afraid even to be seen talking to us, Americans, that the “Iranian FBI” kept a watchful eye on the movements of Iranian nationals outside the country. He held out his hand to show that it was actually shaking.

After finishing our beers, we walked with the two younger men back toward town. We walked with them first to an employment agency, where they were due for a meeting that ended up not happening. The Iranian was helping the Afghan find work, so that he could save some money for the next legs of the journey. This involved temporarily surrendering his passport, what for us would have been a nerve wracking amount of trust in people that, judged by their profession–finding under-the-table jobs–may not be too trustworthy. (The Afghan would go on to find a job as a shoemaker, his trade, for $400 a month plus room and board, the first $150 of which would have to go to the employment agency as a finder’s fee.)

The young Iranian asked us if we’d been to Taksim, Istanbul’s nightlife district, perhaps assuming, as non-westerners from conservative countries seem apt to sometimes, that coming from the rich and licentious West our lives must be all about booze and discos. He seemed disappointed when we said that we did not go out much, and he took us on a little detour to the nearby street where Iranian and Russian men go for alcohol and prostitutes, a dreary assortment of bars and restaurants with multilingual touts and bored-looking women of all ages. The Afghan explained how he’d never even spoken to a woman before, and was intrigued enough to visit one of these restaurants. After trying without success to explain that he wanted only to talk to one of the women, he admitted that he had no money and was thrown out. The evening getting late, the two walked us to the tramway and we headed back to our Galata hotel.

We’re about to leave Istanbul and Turkey, headed for a long journey of our own, but one on a straightforward series of trains and with our U.S. passports in hand, a journey with no doubt as to our eventual arrival at the destination. When the Afghan feels he has saved enough, he too will move on, but who knows what luck he will or will not have. When we first told him that we were American–he never having been outside of Iran we were probably the first Americans that he had ever met–he explained to us how his English textbook said that Americans were warmer and more open than Brits. “And it said that America is the Land of Opportunity–I never forgot this.” He can’t go to America–it’s too far and, despite the millions who manage to make it in every year, our doors are still not open enough to accept all of even the most deserving immigrants. And so for him, his journey is from Iran to Sweden.

(We will try to stay in touch with him, by email, to see how things turn out–look back here for updates.)

Mosaics

Our trip may be focused on the world of Islam, but our route took us through a great deal of the former Greek and Roman worlds, from the birthplace of Aphrodite on Cyprus and the Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria to the Roman ruins of Baalbek and the Byzantine Dead Cities of Syria. Traipsing through such ruins, one sees a great deal of columns and inscriptions–carved in heavy stone, masonry stands the test of time. But another form of ornamentation is apparently delicate and durable in equal parts, and comprises a core bulk of ancient artwork that survives today: the mosaic.

Mosaics are the main representational artwork that survives from ancient times; when paintings have disintegrated or faded, they provide insight into the styles, tastes and beliefs of the day. In this post, I thought I would show you photographs of some of the most impressive or otherwise noteworthy mosaics from our trip, from all over the (expanded) Greek and Roman worlds.

From Palmyra, now in the National Museum in Damascus

Some masterpieces from the Syrian Hauran:

The cities of Suweida and Shahba possess some of the most remarkable mosaics of the Roman world. The second picture below in particular struck me for its sophisticated sense of light.


From Bosra. Bosra and Palmyra may have been part of the Roman Empire, but, in speaking Aramaic and Greek, and using camels, life in the Syrian desert certainly wasn’t the same as life in Rome.

The “Map Mosaic” of Madaba, Jordan, is famous for its depiction of the eastern Mediterranean. The second image is a close-up of the Jerusalem portion of the map, showing not only the major gates and streets but also churches, many of which have survived to this day.

Other works from Madaba. The second image shows “editing” that was done during the iconoclastic period, when depiction of living animals was held improper (as in Islam)–the equivalent of the modern black box over nipples or *bleep* over swear words.

Some masterpieces from Paphos, Cyprus:

These two mosaics from the House of Aion featured some of the smallest tesserae we’ve seen–they are high resolution mosaics.

The house in which this mosaic was found is called the Villa of Theseus; this grand work shows the Minoan labyrinth of Theseus, complete with Ariadne’s thread and the Minotaur in the center.

This mosaic in the House of Dionysus is a true standout for its sense of the third dimension and perspective.

Mosaics were not always original creations, but were often ordered from a catalog of designs. This Rape of Ganymede mosaic was apparently larger than the space for which it was intended, leading to the eagle’s clipped wings. In another instance in Paphos, a tableau was bungled by the mistaken placement of a wrong character (of the same name as the right one), presumably picked, like clip art, from a stock selection of representations.

From the Sassanid city of Bishapur, Iran, on display at the National Museum in Tehran. The Persian Sassanids were, for a period, Rome’s greatest enemy, once capturing the Roman Emperor. Some say that this mosaic in the Sassanid capital of Bishapur was made by Roman captives.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque was built during the Islamic era, but it is said that its construction was very much in the Christian Byzantine tradition, perhaps utilizing Byzantine artisans (and was in fact built on the site of, and perhaps utilizing some remains from, a Christian church). Almost all of the mosque’s surfaces were covered in mosaics, although few of the original works survive today. (See also post of 4.10.)

I can speculate on several reasons mosaics survived so well over time. First, most mosaics were designed to be walked on, and so must have been able to take a fair amount of wear and tear. Second, mosaics were already made up of small pieces, and so there is nothing really to break apart. Since they were already on the ground, they had nowhere to fall, and the collapse of walls and other debris thereon served as protective layers. Finally, another reason that mosaics survived was that they are made of stone–the colors are not pigments that are quick to fade with exposure. Given the beauty and durability of this art form, it seems a shame that we don’t make more mosaics today. Madaba today has a mosaic school, and great quantities of mosaics are produced for the souvenir trade. What do you think are the most memorable mosaics of the modern era? The ones that come to my mind include the mosaics of the New York subways, the Tiffany mosaics inside the Marquette Building in Chicago and the mosaic of 1980 Hong Kong inside Wan Chai’s Hopewell Centre.

Modern mosaic in Penjikent, Tajikistan

Waria, or Transgendered around the World

In much of the first world, the battle for “gay rights” is largely won. Gay men and lesbians can legally marry (or enter into some contractual facsimile of marriage) in many Western European countries, as well as Canada and some of the most important of the United States. Even if public acceptance is not yet totally here, and some anachronistic laws remain, the overall trend seems clear, and young people today find little astonishing or controversial about sexual orientation (as Derek’s then nine year-old niece remarked, even SpongeBob is gay). This is of course not the case in many other parts of the world. Even if east Asia lacks much of the religio-moral condemnation of homosexuality, most gay men in Japan, Korea or China are deep in the closet, with “Brokeback” marriages the norm. In the macho-er parts of the developing world, gayness is perceived as weakness and shunned. In some parts of the Islamic world, homosexual activity can be a capital offense.

Some in the world may still try to deny the existence of hard-wired homosexual orientation, or its “legitimacy” to exist and manifest itself, but some facts of life are impossible to deny, and it is sometimes quite surprising to see how well-established the transgendered identity is in seemingly unlikely locales, including three on our itinerary: India, Iran and Indonesia.

Homosexuality as an identity in India may be just barely nascent–even the megalopolis of Bombay does not support one proper gay bar–but there is an ancient class of transgendered persons, known as hijra. Either male or intersex at birth, hijra assume essentially feminine identities, going so far as to “marry” men (either with or without having undergone castration). Some hijra work in the sex industry, but they are also known for performing a sort of exorcising role at births and weddings, to ensure the masculinity of male children and promote fertility. While hijra are not exactly “accepted”–they suffer a great deal of discrimination and are also feared as a sort of cursed race that may, if you offend them or refuse their services, curse your children to suffer their fate–they are a well-established community, a category of person, which has its defined (albeit difficult) niche within Indian society.

The second place on our itinerary that has a sizable and recognized transgendered population was, believe it or not, Iran. While Iran executes (or at least Iranian law calls for the execution of) gay men, Iranian doctors and theologians apparently have found no religious reason to deny the existence of transgendered people. Even if being a transgendered person is not exactly “well accepted” by society, the state recognizes it as a medical condition that can be “remedied” by the surgery of the sex change operation (partly covered by the national health insurance), and Iran is, after Thailand, a world center for that procedure.

Southeast Asia as a whole seems to have an unusually large transgendered population. In Thailand they call them kathoey or ladyboys, and many a male heterosexual traveler has mistakenly fallen for one (they can sometimes be, as U2 would say, even better than the real thing, in terms of sheer knockout beauty). The visibility of the transgendered population of these countries may have some genetic component or, as likely, may be due to widespread public acceptance, especially in Thailand and some of its neighbors. Indonesia may be the largest Islamic country in the world, but in terms of its transgendered population, and seeming acceptance of their gender identities, it is very much a part of Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia they are known as “waria,” which is an amalgam of the words for woman (“wanita”) and man (“pria”). I have read one estimate of fewer than 30,000 waria, but in a country of over 200 million it seems likely that the real number is far higher, and simply traveling about Indonesia one sees them everywhere, from the seedier parts of Bali nightlife along Jalan Dhyana Pura to quiet Labuanbajo on Flores to Islamic Makassar on Sulawesi. I have also read reports suggesting that many or most waria are sex workers or have at least engaged in the trade, and while of course there are some (such as the ones on Bali) who are, most waria I have seen in Indonesia seemed like regular people doing regular jobs. Waria are often quite friendly and outgoing with travelers. Labuanbajo had a sort of waria hangout (the Matahari–two English guys in our dive group seemed to hang out there quite a bit). We saw some mild teasing of waria by other locals but no open hostility, given the warias’ very open presence.

I am inclined to think that transgendered people, in India, Iran or Indonesia, or in some Native American cultures (whose transgendered people were at one point called berdache and now, “two spirits”), are accepted in part because of the indubitable existence of people who are born intersex. It is a fact of nature (up to 1% of all human births, according to some studies) hard to deny the existence of, that it forces the creation of a category. Presumably, once the category is created, it admits not only those who are born physically ambiguous but those who, psychologically, are transgendered.

I wonder: In societies where the transgendered identity exists and is tolerated, is there any pressure on non-transgendered homosexuals to try to squeeze themselves in? That is, if you are a gay male, would you be tempted to identify as a hijra or waria to be able to express your sexual preference? I would think not, because gender is a much more core aspect of identity than mere sexual preference, but it is clear to me that there are different “kinds” of homosexuals, and it is possible that some may be tempted by an open identification. If indeed culture helps shape sexuality, to what extent can sexuality be affected by the gender/sexual roles available in a given culture? Does the existence of the category of waria or hijra affect the number of people who may come to identify, in their adolescence or adulthood, as transgendered or homosexual? These are difficult questions, of course, but one thing is clear: “deviance” from the male/female heterosexual norm is incredibly widespread, and recognition of this fact has existed from time immemorial.