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Ask Ali: Why it is rude to show the soles of your feet

Why the action is perceived as an insult and the history of calligraphy in the UAE.

Dear Ali: A friend of mine who has been living in the UAE longer than me and my family has often warned me not to display the soles of my feet in front of an Emirati. I still don't understand why. Could you please explain? GA, Dubai

Dear GA: Yes, it's true that displaying the soles of the feet doesn't come across as a good gesture. One of the main reasons why such an action is perceived as an insult is because the feet are often perceived as unclean, especially the soles. If you show them to Arabs, they would generally get offended, but from my experience of communicating with people from different parts of the world, this is also considered impolite in many other cultures. In the Arab world, a shoe is perceived as dirty. This is why we always take off our shoes before we enter a house or mosque. In Asian cultures too, you have to always take off your shoes before entering a home. As an Arab, you can use the shoe to offend someone else. Examples: the famous incident where a shoe that was thrown at the US president by an Iraqi journalist in 2008 and hitting the shoes against the statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Now, if you accidentally did show the soles of your feet then you can apologise. Every Emirati would understand that you didn't have the knowledge and didn't mean anything wrong by it, but it could come across as really negative if you felt the Emirati was uncomfortable and you still didn't conceal the soles of your feet or at least apologise. Just be aware of the meaning of this gesture when you interact with everyone - not just Emiratis. Believe me when I say, I used to feel shocked on seeing some students at my school back in the States put their legs on top of the desks while the teacher was teaching. It was a scene I never appreciated. What made it worse was that many teachers didn't care, but I can assure you that in our region, this would be taken negatively and people can be judged by their impolite attitude and behaviour.

Dear Ali: What should I do if I am supposed to sign an Arabic document but don't understand Arabic? BT, Dubai

Dear BT: Thank you for bringing this up. Even if the document is in English you would have to read it thoroughly and make sure you agree with the content before you sign it. Now, I don't know the circumstances or what document you are dealing with here. Usually, documents needed for court cases are always in Arabic because that is the only way they can be used for the court process. I do recommend you ask for an accurate and trustworthy translation into your native language before you sign anything. We refer to them in the country as "mutarjim qanoni", meaning "legal translator or translation office".

Dear Ali: I am an art teacher and am very fascinated about the calligraphy I have seen in the UAE. Could you tell me more about it? RT, Sharjah

Dear RT: In our culture, calligraphy is one of our favourite and valuable aesthetic pieces of art, which you can find on or in buildings across the UAE, particularly in mosques, such as in the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque or on objects that are often placed in homes as a form of decoration. Calligraphy has been used throughout the history of the Arab world. It expresses the desire to portray the beauty as well as perfection of the Holy Quran in an appropriate art form. At the same time, it is fascinating how it has its own language - with the way the artists use their talent to create such beautiful works. The Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization has regular calligraphy exhibitions. There is also the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha that is worth visiting.

Ali Al Saloom is a cultural adviser and public speaker from the UAE. Follow www.ask-ali.com to ask him a question and to find his guidebooks to the UAE, priced at Dh50.

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