Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Appendix to "la quenelle" : the "Rabi`ah"

[Update Jan 2014]   There is a ludic, aesthetic dimension to this, which you notice immediately in the case of the ungainly quenelle (at least you do if you are not humor-impaired, like Valls and Hollande), along with a certain modest pride in coming up with a gesture that never previously existed.   Here is a somewhat subtler case:

This gesture is new to the global political landscape, and could only have been born in Arabic, in particular in Egypt.   For it depends upon an Arabic double-pun.

The hand is holding up four fingers (thus the visual pun in "R4BIA").  The reference is to Râbi`ah Square in Cairo, where protests against the military coup that overthew the elected President Mursi were held.  The square is so named after a medieval saint,

رابعة العدوية

“Huh?” you say.   Well, although Râbi`ah was her name, like many names in Arabic  it has a literal dictionary meaning:  in this case, the feminine form of the adjective meaning ‘fourth’.   Reinforcing the four-ness of it all is the fact that Râbi`ah Square, unlike its more famous Cairene sister Tahrîr, a large, roughly round arena,  is a quadrangle, fed by four streets, in which the demonstrators massed.   So something of a pun.
Or actually, a double one, or else none at all, depending upon whether you think the next link in the etymology reinforces or reverses the sense of word-play.  For the saint herself was named, not by randomly selecting a girl’s-name out of a hat, but because she was the fourth born in order.

[Update]  The Director of the Latin Divison at the World of Dr Justice (headquarters:  Geneva), Dr Keith A. Massey,  weighs in with this:

Romans also named their children by ordinal numbers, hence things like Julia Secunda, Quintus, etc.

Somehow, to our present perspective, that seems sort of impersonal.  But -- autre temps, autre moeurs.

[Update 2]  For a tendentious piece, but with lots of intriguing information, try this:

[Update 3]
It is a  matter of current debate, to what extent this Rabiah symbol, born in a broad-based protest, has been hijacked by extremist jihadi groups.   The matter is not entirely academic;  it could affect actual choices in CT.
My hunch is that, simply as a matter of psycho-geometry, the symbol is ill-suited to serve Salafists, let alone out-and-out takfiris.   It is too inclusive, like those four streets all leading into the square, as though from all four corners of the Earth.  Quadruplicity, as we know from Russell, drinks procrastination;  it does not quaff Hotspur.  (Inside joke, folks, you get it or you don’t;  moving along.)   And if Jung is correct (which he probably is not), this implication common among Westerners  should be universal.   

Indeed, if any number were to be a symbol for Muslims, it would have to be one, since Muslims are such rigorous monotheists.  As, accordingly, the finger-gesture:

Kamal asked, “When is he going to forgive you?”
The mother gestured upward with her index finger and murmured, “Forgiveness comes from God.”
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (transl. of Bayn al-Qasrayn, 1956), 1990, p. 210

(That gesture has also been common in recent years  among evangelical Christians.)

Note further that, for those using the gesture, it is not simply “holding up your open hand” (as opposed, say, to a militant fist), as it might strike a Westerner;  it quite definitely contrasts with a five-finger symbol that antedates it by centuries in the Mediterranean region:

To ward off the evil eye, Khadija spread her fingers apart  and held up her hand with the palm facing Yasin, reciting “And from the evil of the envious person in his envy.” (Qur’an 113:5)
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire (transl. of Qasr al-Shawq, 1957), 1991, p. 34

If someone flashed you that symbol, it would be an insult;  much as the Quaker/hippie two-fingered “Peace” sign, if performed palm-in and in England, means something very bad.   And, just as with that last example, if you turn the palm inward for the Muslim five-finger gesture, it changes the meaning, in this case from hostile to friendly:

He spread his hand across his chest to express his thanks.
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of Desire (transl. of Qasr al-Shawq, 1957), 1991, p. 138

For more on the khamsa  خمسة‎, see


Let us dwell a bit upon the semiology of gesture in the Arab world.

Some gestures are apparently instinctual, and hence seem transparent, and probably universal.  As:

… flogging the ground with his camel-stick  to give emphasis to his words
-- Wilfred Thesiger,  Arabian Sands (1959; repr. 1990), p. 160

He shook his head rather forcefully  as if to expel these thoughts.
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Sugar Street (transl. of al-Sukkariyya, 1957), 1992, p. 30

Others are clearly more culturally conditioned:

We squatted down to drink, for no Arab drinks standing.
-- Wilfred Thesiger,  Arabian Sands (1959; repr. 1990), p. 165

She held her hand out to him  after wrapping it in a corner of her cloth, so she would not nullify his state of ritual cleanliness.
-- Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (transl. of Bayn al-Qasrayn, 1956), 1990, p.

I once put my hand on the back of bin Kabina’s neck, and he turned on me and asked furiously if I took him for a slave.
-- Wilfred Thesiger,  Arabian Sands (1959; repr. 1990), p.  163

Ibn Sa’oud had ridden up to his enemy’s tent, and laid his hand upon the tent pole  so that the prince of the Shammar had no choice but to let him enter.
-- Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown (1907, repr. 2001), p. 47

Antiquity breathes through such gestures.   Intrigued, I queried the official Latin and Theological authority of this site, whether there were any parallels from Roman history, and received this reply:

Roman citizens always reclined to eat or drink. The slaves always stood.
In fact, one of the accepted rituals for manumission was to ask the slave to recline and join you at table. If you did this in the presence of witnesses, you had de facto set the slave free.

It is for this reason that the default stance at Liturgy in the Historical Church has always been standing. At Liturgy we are hoi douloi tou Theou, the servants of God, standing ready to serve him.

Early on, people began to feel that, at particularly "high" moments of Liturgy, the reading of the Gospel, the Consecration of the Eucharist, the Lord's Prayer, they wanted to kneel.
The Fathers of the Church were so concerned at this incorrect impulse that they passed a Canon at the 1st Council of Nicaea, banning kneeling on Sunday, period.
When people persisted in violating this Canon, St. John Chrysostom wrote into the Liturgy the correction:

"Let us stand upright and listen to the words of the Holy Gospel."

And yet, in most Orthodox Churches you will still see people drop to their knees, precisely when the Liturgy reminds them that they are forbidden to do so.

Rome has recently also waged a war on this point, reminding the faithful that the only stance that is always correct in Liturgy is standing.

For further thoughts on psychogeometry, in a mathematical/theological context, try this:
On Symbols.

[Update 13 Sept 2014] Another visual Muslim symbol, this one banned in Germany:


 [Update 3 Oct 14]  For a lovely gallery of recent political hand-gestures, now this:


One might add the "one-finger" gesture of ISIL, but that is not so much protest as triumphalism.

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