Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5 Issue 9, Tuesday, March 1, 2010



Universal language

If one is asked, 'Which is the universal language?' what would the answer be- English, French, Chinese? Well, I have another answer …'gestures'!

Gestures have helped me innumerable times, especially during my visits abroad. Parents took me to Europe during the early seventies, when I was quite young. We first went to Switzerland and subsequently to France, Germany, Italy and Greece. We also went to England but talking in gestures doesn't count over there.

As we didn't know any of the languages spoken in those countries, we kept on asking if the people we wanted to talk to knew English. Most of the time, they would say (in their own lingo) that they didn't. Some of them even stated exasperatedly, “No English”. Ah...that's where gestures came in! And every time we managed to move our hands, make faces, produce sounds, the recipient of our conversation managed to understand what we wanted.

Many years later when we wanted to go to our hotel near Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, after repeated attempts at trying to tell the cabbie our destination, I finally showed him a cross using both my pointers. He understood at once and took us there muttering something in Thai and making the cross with his fingers quite a few times.

When we went for Hajj, we met people from all over the globe. After each prayer, I found out, it was the custom to turn around and shake hands with the people sitting next to you. Thus we started many beautiful short-term friendships. Every time I finished my namaaz, I would turn around and see the ladies sitting next to me. Either she or I would extend our hands as a gesture of comradeship.

Often in between prayers, I'd strike up a conversation with these ladies. If they were from Bangladesh, India, or Pakistan, there would be no problems. My Hindi is reasonably good and my Urdu is passable. And there's no question about Bangla. But when the people were from Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, the Arab world, or any other place, what did I do? That's where gestures came in.

Many a time, I'd talk to my fellow pilgrims about where I was from, about my daughter and how old she was at that time, and other mundane things that ladies talk about. They, in turn would tell me about their countries, their families and many other things. And what language did we communicate in? Gestures, of course.

In Madina I met a doctor from Cairo. We got talking and we met a few times during prayers. At some point she asked me in English if I knew the language. I thought for a few seconds and realised that this was a language I was acquainted with. I laughed while the Egyptian lady looked at me with a puzzled expression. I answered back in English that, indeed, I knew it.

By Fahmeena Nahaas



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