From a reader:
News footage keeps showing Iraqi men and boys giving our troops the “thumbs up” sign. Yet, seems like I saw somewhere that, in the the mysterious ways of the Levant, this sign is the Arabic equivalent of what an American expresses with the lone, extended middle finger.
Can Middle East guy give a definitive answer, which you could post for all of us non-Middle East expert guys?
So, I asked him:
I was pondering this myself the other day. I don’t know if there’s a right answer here. Your correspondent is right in most of the Middle East, the thumbs-up is a f-u gesture. (It’s not in Turkey, where it’s used for hitchhiking.) That said, Iraqis do watch a lot of Western movies and TV and are likely hip to the fact that it means something different to us. (I’m sure it’s a big joke among 13-year-old Arabs that all those buddy-movie guys “flip each other off” after the bad guy is taken down.) So, I think it’s probably a question of context. If the guy’s definitely jerking it upwards, it’s more likely insulting. If they’re smiling and appear pleased to see you, they may be making a cross-cultural gesture of friendliness. Might there be some wags who smile and “flip off” the “dumb Americans”? I don’t doubt it. So alas, I don’t have a definitive answer on this.