Shallow Depths

February 18, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

I recently wrote to Faysal Mikdadi, a tireless worker for peace in Israel and Palestine, suggesting to him that his piece on Bahrain (LPJ, Saturday 3 November, 2012) was unkind because it did not give the Arabs a chance when they were working so hard for freedom.

He replied courteously and actually apologised to me for having appeared unsympathetic. He quoted the Israeli journalist Gideon Levi on the need for voices to be there regardless of how uncomfortable the truth might be.

I understand his motivation. But I still believe that the ordinary Arab should be better understood in his/her aspirations for freedom from oligarchies, dictatorships and religious oppression.

Having said that, there are a lot of very uncomfortable truths about the Arab World that should be faced if it is ever to achieve its street aspirations.

I am writing this article from Dubai, a country that I have grown to love dearly because of its vibrancy, its ambition and its culture of striving, seeking and succeeding against the odds.

In front of me is a copy of today’s Khaleej Times. Its front page story is about a speech by His Highness Shaikh Mohammed who is the Ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. His book,”My Vision”, is an aspirational and inspiring evocation of ambition, hard work and achievement. His poetry is oddly touching and natural. His work on cultivating a knowledge economy is widely admired and includes a huge fortune spent on translating a massive library of international works. He is creating a modern day Andalusia.

Yet. Yet.

Yet, his speech reported in today’s paper is embarrassing. The newspaper’s eulogistic and fawning flattery of the commentary entitled “A Man for All Reasons” is sickening. His picture demonstrating his newly adopted three finger sign makes me cringe. It is a mixture of the Victory sign plus one other digit. Asked if it meant “Victory”, he replied that he did not approve of aping the West in everything. He said that the three finger sign was his invention and it represented the three words “I love you”!

There are three reasons why it made me cringe.

1. The gesture is rather shallow. Indeed, I had assumed that His Highness was joking till a local friend told me that he was serious, that joking was not his thing. He meant it. This special three finger gesture was a proud invention of his. I overheard someone in my hotel foyer saying, “The Americans are heading for Mars. And this man is inventing useless gestures”.

2. The gesture might appear useless but many in Dubai are taking it very seriously. On my next visit, when a driver does the customary aggressive thing of overtaking the car in front, I expect that the angry driver will be pacified with the three finger “I love you” gesture.

3. It is a shallow gesture because of its exegesis. The Churchillian Victory sign had a long and varied history. Churchill first gave the sign in the East End during the Blitz with his two fingers up turned away from the crowds. The BBC explained to him that many people took it to mean the customary “up yours” or even worse. He explained that it was meant to be a gesture of defiance going back to the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt when the English bowmen held up two first fingers at the defeated numerically superior French forces as a sign that the French promise to chop their fingers off would not be happening. Real defiance. The BBC agreed with the irritated Churchill but suggested that perhaps he could turn his hand around to have its back facing away from the crowd to distinguish the gesture from the old offensive one. This became Churchill’s world famous V sign although he maliciously still enjoyed holding his two fingers up and looking to one side at his supporters and then, keeping his fingers up, turning only his head to the other side facing his detractors or opponents. The V for victory sign was then widely adopted during the anti Vietnam demonstrations and by the Palestinians during the various Intifidas. Why does all of this make Shaikh Mohammed’s three finger “I love you” gesture shallow? Churchill’s gesture had a long and glorious history. His Highness’s new gesture has absolutely nothing behind it apart from a feeble attempt at being witty without much success.

I hope that this criticism does not close my door to lovely Dubai. Perhaps His Highness’ advisers could tell him the truth instead of what he wants to hear. Or maybe his visitor during this speech, Gordon Brown, could stop paying his host country’s education system endless meaningless complements and suggest ways to substantiate the fledgling state by seeking to successfully package its long and exciting history.

My local friend and I laughed at the whole episode but we were uncomfortable somehow. I said that the Western press would make merciless fun of the whole thing. My friend, from neighbouring Abu Dhabi, smiled sadly and said, “You Brits really think that you are free to write and say anything? No one would dare make fun of any Gulf leader because they are all your pay masters…”.

I raise three fingers to everyone in Dubai especially my Abu Dhabi friend because she speaks the truth. And because I genuinely love the place. I criticise in the spirit of loving friendship.

Like Mikdadi did in his piece on Bahrain which had, at the time, annoyed me so much but now no longer does so because he was right. As I believe that now, I, too, am.


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This post was written by Elizabeth Ellis

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