There has been a meme floating through the left flank of the blogosphere that has been driving me up the wall, and I am going to try to spend a minute here partially debunking it. If you have any helpful information to add, please put it in the comments section.
The first mention I saw of this meme was at Sean Paul’s Agonist on Monday at 12:22 and then 12:31:
12:22 EST Can anyone verify for me that the “thumbs up” gesture is actually an insult in the Arab world?
12:31 EST Ok, so it is safe to say, per my Arab and Persian readers that the thumbs up is a big no-no in the Arab and Persian countries. So, next assignment: can anyone find photos on mainstream media sites that show Iraqis happy to see us and greeting us with the thumbs up?
The comments were riddled with a number of different interpretations of the thumbs up gesture, but only the most negative connotations seemd to be appealing to the author. I remembered being given the thumbs up sign by grateful Kuwaiti’s when I was in the Persian Gulf, so I googled it, and I found this at the Defense Language Institute’s website:
Thumbs up- This gesture, expressing connotations of “I am winning,” historically is offensive to many Arabs. After the Gulf conflict, however, Middle Easterners of the Arabian Peninsula adopted this hand movement, along with the OK sign, as a symbol of cooperation toward freedom.
I posted this at 2:20 PM, but the damage had already been done. Four minutes after Sean-Paul’s second post, Atrios, the largest spreader of memes for the fringe left, had this post:
Thumbs Up is Thumbs Down
The Agonist informs us that in the Arab world, the thumbs up sign is not a good thing. So, all the tales of Iraqis greeting our soldiers with that sign may or may not be a good sign…
Again, the comments were riddled with a number of interpretations of thumbs up, including the following comments:
Hey geniuses, maybe the Iraqis aren’t so stupid as you think. Maybe they have learned that the thumbs up signal is a GOOD thing for our culture, and they are trying to adapt to our culture. The reports also say that the people are smiling, which doesn’t quite fit with the idea that they are trying to insult the soldiers.
I just spoke with my native born Iraqi brother-in-law and he confirmed that a thumbs up is an innocuous gesture. There seems to be plenty of contradictory evidence, but the bottom line is that some comentators may be making too much of this.
I also posted the same DLI link that I had posted earlier at the Agonist. As before, this killed the thread- neither Atrios nor Sean-Paul responded. In Sean-Paul’s defense, he has been posting like the Instapundit on crack, so he may have never seen my comments. Atrios, however, simply ignores what he doesn’t like. At any rate, we just witnessed the birth of a meme.
Twenty-Four minutes after his original post, Sean-Paul posted this:
12:46pm- Thumbs Up?
As you are all aware by now, the thumbs up in the Arab world is not a sign of happiness. I have had this verified by several Arab and Persian readers.
The kids in these pictures are obviously smiling. But, what about the photos we haven’t seen?
You tell me?
The comments this time seemed to be more heavily loaded to those who lived in the region, and here is a sampling of what was said:
who said this! thumb up means in Arab world and Iran same as everywhere else! OK or good thing or Fine not a bad thing.. I am currently in Cairo EGYPT and lived 15 years in the Persian gulf NEVER HEARD that this means bad or hated.- Tarek Ali
and this from a poster who went to the Navy Taboos Webpage:
Hand Gestures: By and large Bahrain is cosmopolitan enough that most of its inhabitants have been exposed to Western ways. Still, there are several hand gestures used in the U.S. which could have a different meaning if used in the Middle East. There are the “thumbs up”, “peace (or victory), and the “okay” signs.
These comments also seemed to also make the case that ‘thumbs up’ was not an insult anymore in this region, if it ever was:
Having lived in the Middle East and in Napoli, thumbs up could be good or bad, depending on its trajectory upon being elevated.
Seriously, these kids are mimicking the GI’s.
I just spoke to my Iraqi brother-in-law and he confirmed that the thumbs up was innocuous.
He also said the they flip the bird upside down (finger down, not up).
as a middle easterner (persio-arab) i can say you guys are making a big deal about this. I’ve yet to meet an arab or iranian who takes offense to the ‘thumbs up’ gesture. I use it all the time. totally innocuous. i don’t why kamran is so sure it isn’t.
I’ve asked my co-workers, who hail from Tunisia, Kuwait, Egypt, and Iran about the thumbs-up gesture and have been told that it’s only equivalent to the middle finger in Iran. The arabs knew nothing about it.
I am not sure what Sean-Paul verified, but his comments certainly don’t seem to verify his conclusions. Again, in his defense, he has been posting like a madman and probably doesn’t have time to read all of his comments. Once again, I posted the DLI information I had googled, but it was too late and the thread was essentially dead. At any rate, let’s watch this meme spread like the ebola virus.
At 1:47 EST, Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy posts the following:
THUMBS UP: The Agonist reports that the “thumbs up” gesture is actually an insult in Arabic, and that Arabs giving American soldiers the “thumbs up” is therefore not what we might think it is. A seemingly official military site — apparently aimed at introducing American soldiers to possible peacetime misunderstandings caused by cultural differences — confirms this, saying:
And then he cites the Navy Taboo page, but comes to this conclusion:
Now this doesn’t tell us for certain what the thumbs-up Iraqis mean. They may well be aware that the thumbs-up signal is seen as positive by Westerners (Western TV makes that clear enough), and might thus be practicing some cultural understanding of their own. They may be trying to say “fuck you,” either not realizing that westerners will misunderstand it, or not caring, because they’re just doing it for their own sake or the sake of their Arab friends who don’t like the allies. Or they may just be enjoying the mild absurdity of the mismatch in meanings; these things can be a bit funny to some people, just like some people enjoy saying foreign words that sound dirty in English but are perfectly normal in other languages. But in any case, it is probably worth remembering that the gesture may have multiple meanings, and its likely meaning may be hard to figure out without considering the other cues that one is seeing — e.g., are the people cheering, smiling, or the like? — though of course some of those cues can be unreliable in certain ways as well.
Except that by now, there is more than just anecdotal evidence that thumbs up in Iraq means something different from thumbs up in Iran, and other places. I think the comments from the readers from the region and the DLI manual have made that clear by now. I should note that Eugene posted this one hour and 1 minute from Sean-Paul’s last post (Eugene’s post says 10:47, but he lives on the West Coast). But, we are on a roll- where else will this meme go?
Well, in the short run, nowhere. At 2:06 PST (5:06 EST), or, little over six and a half hours since Sean-Paul’s initial post, Eugene has a second posting on the issue, complete with some reader feedback:
I’m an Egyptian-American immigrant (moved here when I was 1, but still semi in the know) and I’ve heard nothing about the thumbs up sign. I figured if there was an issue with it, I would’ve gotten it during one of my many, “This stuff is ok at home, but you’d better not do it here,” speeches that my parents gave my siblings and I before one of our biannual trips back to Egypt. At the very least, they should recognize it as the American signal of “all good”, a la the “Ok USA” guy in Bloodsport. Hand signals may vary from culture to culture, but you can always read facial/body expressions. Those people don’t look like they’re giving us, the equivalent of, the finger. Of course, I wouldn’t take this as gospel, since my cultural ties are pretty loose nowadays, but it seems not to be something that we need to be too concerned about.
Eugene then elaborates:
Interesting point, and further evidence that we can’t infer too much from the thumbs alone. (Though since we’re sharing cultural data, let me just advise people who go to Russia not to make a fist with the thumb sticking out between the index and middle fingers. This probably isn’t necessary advice, since Americans don’t normally do that — except, as reader Dan Shmikler pointed out, when stealing children’s noses — but I pass it along just in case.)
UPDATE: Reader Michelle Dulak points out that the gesture has a long history in Europe; it’s mentioned in Dante and Shakespeare, where it’s called a “fig” or “figo,” which is still its name in Russia.
At this point, I am almost 100% convinced that the thumbs up sign being flashedto GI’s in Iraq is being interpreted correctly, and Pejmanpundit’s response to Eugene (which, btw, came 2 hours and 48 minutes after Eugene’s post at 7:54 EST) seems to confirm the Persian interpretation of the thumbs up as negative, but does nothing to define the meaning in Kuwait, Iraq, and the other Gulf States.
This inaccurate meme, IMHO, is not dead, and I have seen independent musings about it at MaxSpeak:
Liberated population gives U.S. soldiers thumbs up. Turns out this means ‘fuck you’ to Arabs
In the Arab world, the “thumbs up” gesture doesn’t mean what you seem to think it does. If I see this again, elsewhere, I will post an update.
1.) Thumbs up has multiple meanings, but in the nationss we are currently involved in, the meaning seems to be either innocuous or exactly as GI’s are interpreting it. In Iran, it is pretty damned clear this is an insult.
2.) Memes, regardless of accuracy, spread pretty damn fast.
3.) If you have a comments section, read the damn thing. Blog readers have a lot to add to the discussion.
4.) Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. In fact, it could turn out that I am 100% bass-ackwards on this, and the thumbs up is an insult.
*** UPDATE ***
My sister, who works for a prominent firm that deals with international communication, called the Iraq Foundation and spoke with a member about the meaning of the thumbs up. Here is what she learned:
just actually called the Iraq Foundation and spoke to a gentleman (from Iraq) who told me that in Iraq the thumbs up is good–just like in the states, Thumbs down is bad, and the middle finger still means ‘F— You.’ (So it is all the same.) If the pictures are from Iraq, the kids are happy to see us.