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Body gestures
The accent in your sign language

February 14, 2005

A lot of you have seen this picture. I think the kids' disguised BeeLakh is a lot more interesting than the American soldier's cruel sense of humor. Although the purpose of profanity is to insult someone, which basically implies you will have to make sure they understand what you are saying, the facial expression on the participants in this photo makes it a classic for me.

One of my Iranian friends, to this day and after having lived in the states for some 25+ years, still extends his thumb instead of his middle finger, to bad drivers. He says he loves the puzzled expression on the recipient's face, while he is enjoying, just like these kids do, the fact that he is in fact putting a finger on them.

The sign language, what is using for communicating with deaf people or folks who are hard of hearing, is pretty much standard. It was invented only in the 16th century by Geronimo Cardano, a Northern Italian Physician in Padua. He was the first doctor to publicize that deaf people could be taught to understand different combinations of symbols by associating them with the things they represented.

Hand gestures however, differ dramatically and hardly any effort has put into making them standard, the best example of which is the photo above.

There is no research that proves Cadano was also the forefather of hand gestures, friendly or vulgar, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was another Italian long before him -- keep in mind that it is only in Italy where in a conversation, a stale arm, one that is not moving, basically means that person is dead!

Italians are notorious for having the most extensive vocabulary of signs and hand gestures, enhanced by using additional parts of the body such as both arms, the neck, even the leg for expressing different levels of anger or frustration and upset (e.g. I am sure you understand why I said leg and not legs -- Because if they use both legs, they would fall! Dah!)

Iranians, enhance that even further with facial expressions. Blowing a kiss, winking an eye, or even a slight movement of the head, can make a romantic gesture into a loaded "fuck you", particularly if applied to the members of the same sex! Never try it unless you are in a fast car and can quickly get away, or are near a police station!

We don't use body gestures to profane. We use them in our day to day interactions, and even those, are not standardized.

When my in-laws visited a few years ago, we were still going to school and to work and busy, like everyone else, over our heads. Although we enjoyed them immensely, we did not spend as much time with them as we should have: They were on vacation, we were not!

To keep themselves busy and entertained, she helped with cooking and even picking up the kids, and he decided to attack our garden/yard and help trim some of the flowers, the trees, etc.

He was working in the backyard one day and my wife was standing further away on the other side, at the patio door when he called her: "Taban jan, Inn Gaaz Annbor ro Na DeeDee?" [Dear Taban, Did you see the pliers?] to which Taban nodded, shaking her head left for right and right to left, basically saying no!

He asked again, shouting this time: "Taban jan, Shoma Inn Gaaz Annbor ro Na DeeDee Dokhtaram?" [Dear Taban, You, Did you see the pliers sweet heart?] - Taban nodded her head no, again.

He asked for the third time, this time shouting off the top of his lungs, rather frustrated, rather angry, and a bit hysterically gesturing as if he was using a huge imaginary grass cutter, pacing towards us, which I thought he was going to hit us: "Taban jan, Azizam, Gaaz AnnBor, Gaaz AnnBor, Migam Gaaz AnnBor - Shoma Inn Gaaz Annbor ro Jayee Na DeeDee?" [ Dear Taban, Sweet heart, did you see the freaking Pliers! ]

Taban, now more upset than her dad, shouted back: "Naa Baba, NaDidam, Chand Dafeh Begam?" [No, I didn't see it, I did not see any pliers, how many times should I say it?]

Her dad, mumbling some not so pleasantries in French first, responded: "Naa DeeDee? Dokhtaram agar Na Deedee, Begoo NaDeeDam", and he nodded his head up and down, "Chera MeGee NashNeedam", as he shook his head left to right! [If you didn't see it, say so, why do you say you can't hear me!]

Taban said: but I didn't squint my eyes.

He said: I noticed - I was wondering what was so embarrassing that you were nodding "Whay Whay, Ab e Room Raft" I wasn't shouting at first to embarrass anyone!

One group of people, one common background, and one simple gesture, yet so many different but relevant interpretations! You can imagine how much more complex things get when other cultural issues are introduced. Take the interrogation one is subjected to while ordering food from how it cooked (poached, scrambled, fried and/or rare, medium rare, medium, and well done) what kind of salad dressing (... and here is the endless list), or what kid of beer (tap, bottle, and here comes the endless list of different brands.)

I always memorized my order, while waiting in line at fast food restaurants, and I would deliver my request in one breath in one single blurp -- The first few times however, I did not anticipate one final question: HERE OR TO GO? The first 2-3 times I didn't even understand what he was saying, and just walked out without my order -- the following 2-3 times, I heard him, but I still didn't understand what he was asking, and it wasn't until I went with a group of others that I finally found out...

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Bahram Saghari



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