GESTURES THAT COUNT
By Micah Halpern
Wednesday August 5, 2009
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was officially appointed to his second term as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in a nationally televised ceremony that came complete with pomp and circumstance. The Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, presided over the ceremony. After being graced by The Supreme Leader, the new second term president kissed the Ayatollah's robe and then kissed his shoulder.
This gesture by the president to The Supreme Leader displayed a very formal, very reserved, sense of respect.
Flashback four years.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was officially appointed as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran in a nationally televised ceremony that came complete with pomp and circumstance. The Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, presided over the ceremony. After being graced by The Supreme Leader the new president kissed the Ayatollah's hand and cheek.
In the Middle East, much more so than in the Western world, gestures make a difference. In the Middle East, gestures tell a story.
More than time separates these two ceremonial events. Four years ago Ahmadinejad was able to show respect to The Supreme Leader coupled with warmth and closeness. Four years later, he showed respect. The warmth is gone, the closeness is no longer there.
A kiss on the hand and a kiss on the cheek demonstrate closeness and warmth. A kiss to the shoulder and to the robes demonstrates distance. It shows fear. It shows hierarchy and deference.
During the first ceremony the president was saying through gesture and gesture alone that together we - The Supreme Leader and I - will rule. Days ago, as he was inaugurated for his second term, the president showed acceptance of the true reality of his position. The true ruler of Iran is the Ayatollah and the Ayatollah truly rules alone. He, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retains his position purely through the graces of The Supreme Leader and for no other reason.
Communicating through gesture is not unique to the Middle East. The difference is that in the Middle East body language does not need interpretation, it is intentional and specific. Leaning forward during a conversation is as significant as leaning back - and it is intentional. Crossing one's legs and showing the sole of one's shoe during conversation is a sure and deliberate sign of disrespect - and when done it is done with intent and with malice. Crossing one's legs with the toe pointed down, however, is a relaxed expression that says lets continue talking, it is especially cordial if accompanied with the gesture of leaning forward and placing one's hands on knees.
Kissing on one cheek or on two cheeks or two kisses on the right hand is a shorthand form of conversation in the Middle East. They are ways in which Middle East Arabs and Persians convey both a sense of affection and an appreciation of status and stature.
A kiss on the cheek means that you are close to that person in soul, in blood and in stature. You kiss the hand of someone who is your superior and you kiss the cloak of someone who is your superior. The cloak is significant in the Middle East because it symbolizes the dust, sand and dirt that would be picked up on the hem of the desert ruler's robes. The hands of the leader are clean and should not be tarnished by a commoners' kiss.
Hand shaking is not a part of Middle East culture, it is a tradition that became incorporated into Western tradition because of Roman tradition. The Romans were all right handed and held their daggers in the left waist of their togas. Their right hand was their dagger hand and so extending it to shake meant that it was a greeting, it meant that the right hand was unarmed and there was no intention to do harm.
In the case of The Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad we are seeing a president who is clearly contrite. Ahmadinejad was, through gesture and gesture alone, asking forgiveness. The Supreme Leader was creating significant distance. He was letting the entire population of Iran know that he was unhappy with Ahmadinejad's behavior. It was clear to all of Iran that Ahmadinnejad had disregarded a direct order from The Supreme Leader in regard to his vice president. And despite his support of Ahmadinejad in the elections, challenging The Supreme Leader at any time is unacceptable.
Their relationship will mend. Over the past four years Ahmadinejad has on several occasions attempted to wrestled decision making and other powers from The Supreme Leader. At times he succeeded, other times he failed, but in the end it was always success because he Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah, permitted his president to succeed.
The Ayatollah is in charge and Ahmadinejad knows it. We should know it, too.
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