THE BLOG

Tale of A Handshake -- Obama and Rouhani

So much emphasis was placed on a handshake. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Would they shake hands? Where would they shake hands? Who would or should or could see them shake hands? The non-hand shake took months of preparation. The speech was a missed opportunity, the luncheon another missed opportunity.

So went the story of Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly. It made for good news when little other news was being generated. But the whole brouhaha, the anticipation and the subsequent -- and I must say, inevitable -- letdown once again serve only to show us and the rest of the world, how little the United States knows of the Middle East. How little the United States understands.

From start to finish Iran was in charge. For the United States, setting up a hand shake was serious diplomatic business. For Iran, it was all a game. And when, instead of a person-to-person handshake a phone call was placed from the Oval Office to a limo driving on its way to the airport, Americans were so excited. Little did they know.

The United States really made an error on the handshake scenario. You see, Iranians don't do handshakes -- not when they are serious about something.

In the Islamic world, handshakes do not mean anything. They are seen as Western, pagan, influences. They have no place in Islamic culture. In some ways they are like the wearing of neckties. Something you wear if you must in Western circles, but totally uncomfortably and merely as a necessary, unavoidable, formality.

The handshake was introduced by the Greco-Roman empire.

The right hand -- always the right hand -- is extended in friendship. The right hand is used for two reasons. Most importantly, one's dagger was always held in the right hand. By extending that hand it was immediately clear that the gesture was a gesture of peace. It was obvious that the dagger was safely positioned in its permanent place on the left side and not an extension of the hand.

The second reason is linguistic. The word for left handed person in Latin is sinistra. The same root as the world sinister. A lefty, in ancient lore, was an evil person. A righty is called dextra. And that is why someone who can use both hands with equal dexterity is called ambidextrous -- a person with two right hands.

The Persians never had, and still do not have, a culture of shaking hands. Rouhani would find it insulting to even pose for a picture shaking someone, anyone's hand. The gesture would not only be meaningless, but the photo would become fodder for all of his enemies and detractors at home in Iran.

The Muslim world has problems with Western gestures. In some Shiite traditions a person who touches a non-believer must undergo ritual purification. Forget about shaking hands with a woman, this applies even when a man touches another, non-believer, man.

This is not to say that there is no formal, public, appropriate touching in the Islamic world. In Islam it is common to see a two-armed shoulder hug. The cheek to cheek kiss is also appropriate, even more than the one cheek kiss. Depending on the stature of the participants, one person might kiss the hand or the sleeve of the tunic sleeve of the other more senior, revered, religious person. These gestures are all akin to different forms of bowing in Japanese culture.

So, back to the tale of a handshake that was never going to happen.

An official news agency in Iran, FARS quoted Rouhani as saying that even before he arrived at the United Nations for the General Assembly he had shrugged off five pleas to orchestrate a meet with Obama. And while in New York several other requests, all of which he declined, were placed before him.

The Iranians manipulated the situation so well that they had the U.S. diplomatic team, literally and figuratively, running after them and allowed themselves to be caught only as they were about to leave U.S. soil. The way the Muslim world saw it, and trust me they, too, were monitoring the handshake hustle, the Iranians were in total charge and they gave the United States a courteous nod, in the form of an accepted phone call, only as an afterthought. After all, the conversation took place on the fly on the way to JFK.

And who informed the world of the content of the conversation? It was Rouhani. And how did he get his message out? He tweeted -- and by the way, all social media is blocked in Iran and hacking or gaming when perpetrated by the citizens of Iran is considered a punishable offense.

Rouhani tweeted the contents of the discussion, almost every detail including an apology by Obama who said that he was sorry for the traffic in New York City.

Another cultural faux pas. Never apologize for traffic in New York City.

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