Arabic Language Blog

Body Language with Specific Meaning in the Arab World Posted by on Jun 6, 2011 in Arabic Language, Culture

We read before about kinds of communication in the Arab culture. Today, we are going to learn some body language or body signs with their specific meanings in the Arab culture.

  • An open hand at the ear level is equal to Assalamu Alykom (the Muslim greeting) or hello. It usually accompanies the verbal greeting or replaces it if the persons are a bit far away.
  • Right hand shakes are very common at the beginning and end of a visit.
  • Close friends or colleagues of the same sex hug and kiss both cheeks upon greeting. However, in very liberal environments, one can see friends of opposite sex greeting like that.
  • Placing a hand on the heart or chest and tapping two or three times with a slight bow is a sign of respect usually done after greeting someone. It also can mean “Thanks” or “I am grateful”.
  • Shaking the head left and right usually means “No” or “I disagree”.
  • Shaking the hand with the forefinger pointing upwards and other fingers closed means “No” or I disagree”.
  • A quick snap of the head upwards with an accompanying click of the tongue also means “No” or “I disagree” or “This is unlikely or unimportant”.
  • Shaking the head up and down two or three times means “Ok” or “Yes” or “I agree” or  “I hear you” or “I understand”.
  • Placing the right palm of the hand to face the person in front of you means “Stop” or “Be careful” or Enough” or “I don’t want to hear anymore”.
  • Placing the hand out with the palm down and fingers brought towards oneself repeatedly in a clawing motion means “Come here” when you are calling someone or want him to come closer usually to say something in private or a secret.
  • Placing the hand out with the palm to the side and fingers referring forwards and backwards repeatedly means “Get out” or “I am busy now”.
  • Holding the fingers in a pear shaped position with the tips pointing up at about the waist level and moving the hand slightly up and down signals “Slow down” or “Wait a little bit” or “Be patient”. This gesture can be seen extensively when driving in the crowded streets of the Arab cities.
  • Placing the right hand forefinger under the lower eyelid means “watch out” or “I see” or “It is in front of me”.
  • Placing the hand forefinger at the back of the ear means “Raise your voice” or “I can’t hear you”.
  • Grasping the chin with the thumb side of either hand means “I am thinking”.
  • Scratching the head several times means “I am thinking or trying to find a solution to a problem”.
  •  Placing the hand in front with the forefinger pointing upwards and other fingers closed can be a sign of threat or warning.
  • Biting the forefinger tip may be a sign of threat or regret or deep thinking.
  • Showing soles while sitting is considered rude especially when sitting with elders.
  • Hitting the left palm with the right hand fist means “I am getting angry, worried, bored or impatient”.
  • Shrugging shoulders means “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”.


– Adapted and modified from: “Arab Cultural Awareness : 58 Factsheets”.


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About the Author: Fisal

Well, I was born near the city of Rasheed or Rosetta, Egypt. Yes, the city where the Rosetta Stone was discovered. It is a small city on the north of Egypt where the Nile meets the Mediterranean. I am a Teacher of EFL.


  1. Yomn:

    One more meaning for putting the forefinger under [both] eyelids: In Egypt we have an idiom: من عينيه (lit. from my eyes) which means that I am obliged to answer your request.

  2. Scheich Josef:


    I guess من عينيه (lit. from his eyes)


    • Fisal:

      @Scheich Josef @ Scheich Joseph,
      Actually, the expression من عينيه /min ‘ina’yyah/ = (lit. from my eyes) is not a fus’ha one, it is colloquial. It is equal to “You are more than welcome” or ” my pleasure” and is said when you are happy to help someone or agree to help him or answer his request. It (figurarively) means you and your request are dearer than my eyes or I would sacrifice my eyes to answer your request or do whatever I can to help. The appropriate reply to such expression is often تسلم /tislam/ which is “I pray to Allah that you (and your eyes) be safe and sound.

  3. Scheich Josef:

    مرحبا يا فيصل

    of course, I was mislead by the ه at the end. Writing an ا instead would have helped me: من عينيا

    Concerning the meaning, my Egyptian colleague tells me, that one should not expect too much (actually, nothing at all) from the person saying this 😉

    سلمت من كل سوء /salimta min kulli sou’in/


    P.S. Joseph is my father. I’m Josef. But you are not the first person “translating” my name into English 🙂

  4. Fisal:

    yeah, the reply you mentioned is the Fus’ha formal one (Do’aa), I just mentioned the colloquial short reply as I guess it is better to reply to Amm’iyyah (colloquial) using Amm’iyyah … 🙂

    P.s. Was Josef the prophet who ruled Egypt?

  5. Scheich Josef:


    According to the holy scriptures Joseph/Yusuf (يوسف) was the 11th and favorite son of the Patriarch/Prophet Jacob/Yaqub (يعقوب‎), by his wife Rachel. He became a prominent advisor to the pharaoh of Egypt.

    The Hebrew name Yosef (יוֹסֵף) migrated through the Old Greek Iosephos (᾿Ιώσηφος) and the Latin version Iosephus into the modern western languages as Joseph/Josef.
    Therefore the first syllable “Jo” is pronounced in most languages like the Arabic يو except in English (جو) or Spanish (حو).

    However the widespread use of the name Joseph/Josef in the western world derives from Saint Joseph (يوسف النجار), the biblical husband of the Virgin Mary/Miriam (مريم العذراء). His Flight to Egypt (الهرب إلى مصر) is described in the Gospel of Matthew (إنجيل متى).

    Interestingly, both have spent part of their life in Egypt!


  6. Fisal:

    شيخ يوسف
    Thank you so much for the useful information. In our Holy Qur’an, we have a Surah (Chapter) called “Joseph يوسف ” and it tells his full story. We also have another Surah called “Mary مريم ” and it tells her story as well.

  7. Jouni Sakari:

    Thank you so much for this article and also the discussion. It opened my eyes to another culture. I met two Arabic speaking men today, and they used a gesture I felt I didn’t quite comprehend, yet we could communicate with Google translator. Peace.