Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The gesture - Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

There is a gesture we make in Italy, with the fingers of one hand pointed upwards, fingertips joined. It can express different things: doubt, confusion, disbilief, disagreement and sometimes even mockery. I found out by chance that in the Arab world they use the same gesture, with a completely different meaning though.
The first time I noticed it I was in Kuala Lumpur, sitting at a Lebanese restaurant, with some Saudi students of mine. While the Egyptian waiter was serving our courses, two of the guests asked him something at the same time. He looked at them while he kept arranging the dishes on the table and then, after saying nothing, as soon as one of his hands was free, he turned towards each one of them making that gesture. I was surprised, I thought it was quite shamefaced of him to use with his clients a sign that might well mean: "What the hell do you want?" I expressed my doubts to my students and they explained to me that in the Middle East they use it to ask somebody to wait a moment, and it is a rather polite expression.
A few days ago, still in Kuala Lumpur, I was standing on a sidewalk, watching people swarming around the bars and clubs of the city center. A Chinese old lady was walking by, begging with a cup. An Arab man stopped her and showed the hand-sign to her face, then he turned towards a friend and asked him some cash. Finally he went back to the lady and put an enormous tip into her cup. He obviously wanted to tell her: "Wait a moment little old lady, you won't regret that". Not as they would have thought in Italy: "Hey you, cranky old witch, what are you doing? Get the hell out of here!"

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