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Iran and the US Learn How to Flirt Diplomatically

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Veteran British diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says that handling a meeting with Iranian diplomats “after a deep chill” will require patience. Western diplomats will need to “avoid the temptation to cut straight to the chase. It’s very important to spend time on what are much more than opening courtesies.”

It would important to display a knowledge of Iranian history and civilization—but watch out for little gaffes, “like calling the [Persian] Gulf the ‘Arabian Gulf.’”

It’s also not a good idea to overpraise, especially in public. In 1977, then-president Jimmy Carter went to Tehran. At a dinner with the Shah of Iran, Carter raised a glass to his host, and then raised his rhetorical glass even higher.

“Iran—because of the great leadership of the Shah—is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” said Carter. “This is a great tribute to you, your majesty and to your leadership and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”

A few days later, street protests began in Iran, leading eventually to the revolution, and decades of enmity with the United States.

There are, though, plenty of skillful ways to send a message in a diplomatic setting.

Nancy Soderberg, a diplomat under President Bill Clinton, remembers when the Administration agreed to receive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House. For Arafat it was big coup to get invited to the president’s home. But there were limits.

Arafat wasn’t allowed to bring his pistol, which he took everywhere with him. And then there was the hugging: Arafat was a big hugger. It just wouldn’t do to have him photographed hugging the president of the United States.

“Right before the meeting President Clinton was being taught by his aides this jujitsu move where if you grabbed Arafat’s elbow, pushed your hip out, there was no way he could hug him,” said Soderberg. “That’s exactly what Clinton did to avoid a picture of him being hugged.”

Arafat did eventually did get his man—seven years later. He and Clinton were finally captured locked in embrace, on neutral territory—Switzerland.

Not that you’d expect quite such warm body language between Obama and Rohani this week. One step at a time.


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Gezi Park’s Linguistic Legacy: Words, Chants and Song Lyrics

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul  (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

T shirt, Taksim Square, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Here’s a guest post from Istanbul-based Big Show contributor Dalia Mortada

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called protesters çapulcular (pronounced cha-pul-ju-lar), he wasn’t paying them a compliment. The term translates roughly to “looters”, “marauders” or “bums”.

“For him çapulcular was an insult,” community organizer, Ezgi Bakcay, explains. “However, for the protesters, similar to the way some threw back the gas canisters at police, we threw this word back at him.” Although people all over Turkey have been protesting for different reasons in the past two weeks, they came together under this term.

To make sure people around the world knew how to use it one protester made a tutorial video. He starts by teaching viewers the simple present tense, “I chapul everyday…he chapuls everyday.” He moves onto the present continuous tense, “I have been chapulling for six days.” To protect him from teargas while “chapulling”, the instructor dons a surgical mask and some swimming goggles.

Tent labelled ‘Çapulistan’, Gezi Park, Istanbul (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Turks now have been using the English -ing form, “chapulling”. It means “a resistance to force, or to demand ones rights.” Some protesters wear t-shirts with “chapuller”, or the Turkish form “çapulcu” , scribbled across them. Others labeled their tents at Gezi Park things like, “No. 1 chapul street”. With this word it seems like a wave of creativity and humor was unleashed amongst the protesters.

A choir from the Bosphorous University took a traditional Turkish song and outfitted it with some new lyrics. They sing of gas masks and protests. They sing that the teargas is sweeter than honey.

Community activist Ezgi says protesters used ironic humour every chance they got. Graffiti scribbled across walls and sidewalks as well as signs played with Turkish words and Erdogan’s name.

Instead of writing “Recep Tayyip Erdogan”, protesters played with the prime minister’s name. “Cop” means baton, “tazyik” means pressurized water, and “gaz” refers to teargas (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

One night, a group of football fans even commandeered an earth digger and charged it at one of the police’s “public intervention vehicles”, or TOMA for short. They called it the POMA, for “police intervention vehicle.” To add insult to injury, protesters later painted it pink to soften its look. “The earth digger was lying here like a killed beast,” Ezgi says, “as if a captured enemy.”

The humor was also present in the chants and songs protesters created. Ezgi gave the example of a group of women came up with a slogan that said “Dear Tayyip [Erdogan], thanks to you we will look great this summer, because pressurized water is good for our cellulite!”

Women in an Istanbul apartment, making noise in support of the protests (Dalia Mortada)

In Taksim Square guys chanted, “Let’s see you use that pepper spray. Take off your helmets, drop your batons and let’s see who’s the real man” Meanwhile, feminists warned Erdogan to “run away, because the women are coming.”

Not everyone could make it out to the street to have their say, so they did so from home. Every night at 9pm for the past two weeks, neighborhoods throughout Istanbul have erupted with the clanking of wooden spoons against pots and pans, silverware against plates.

It’s not the first time pots and pans have been used to express discontent in Turkey or abroad. But this time, the sound has inspired musicians.

Kardes Turkuler, or Songs of Fraternity, are a well known ensemble. This song they just released has become a sort of anthem for the protests. “Enough with the headstrong decrees and commands,” they sing, “We’re really fed up!”

Music has played a major role in the Gezi Park protests. Throughout the park, many played instruments, from beating their drums to blowing into bagpipes. Others danced to the music and chanted. Some created new songs based on the protests, and while others sang traditional ones that passersby joined in on.

Many of the protesters say they want to hang onto this spirit of humor and creativity especially now that their argument with the government seems to be entering a more complicated phase.



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Elite Italian University Meets Resistance As It Tries To Go All-English

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Politecnico di Milano (Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from Italy-based contributor to the Big Show Megan Williams…

Across continental Europe, more college and university classes are being taught in English. In making the switch to English, institutions in non-English-speaking countries believe they are better preparing students for a globalized workforce. They’re also seeking to attract more foreign students.

But sometimes, there’s fierce opposition to these moves. That was the case when lawmakers in France recently proposed increasing the number of university courses taught in English.

In Italy, a court has barred the Politecnico di Milano, the MIT of Italy, from switching to English as its sole language of instruction. The university is appealing the decision.

Already some Politecnico classes are taught in English. Drop in on computer science professor Giuseppe Serazzi’s weekly lecture and you can witness the change. Serazzi starts with a brief introduction in Italian. Then, he switches to English. The plan was for all professors teaching Master-level courses to do that.

Politecnico rector Giovanni Azzone boldly announced last year that by 2015, all post-graduate courses and some undergrad programs would be offered only in English.

Azzone said the switch to English is needed to keep attracting top Italian students who want the option of eventually working outside Italy.

“You need an international environment,” said Azzone. “You must attract international students. English is fundamental. Italian at present is an entry barrier.”

But it’s a move that met with vociferous opposition from many of the Politecnico’s 1,400 faculty members. They launched a petition calling the switch to English unconstitutional, saying it limited the freedom to teach and study in Italian, and put Italy’s cultural heritage at risk. And now they have found an ally in an Italian regional court.

Professor Hans de Wit, an expert on the internationalization of higher education at the Cattolica University in Milan, said that argument has been used many times— in France, Germany and the Netherlands.

De Wit called the Italian court’s decision “a shock.” He thinks what’s really happening is that some older professors understandably fear that a switch to English will sideline them professionally. But according to de Wit, research it’s what students want.

Politecnico Di Milano may have made a tactical mistake. De Wit said its announced change may have been too dramatic. The universities that have made the switch to English successfully have done so slowly and discreetly, thereby avoiding uncertainty and resistance.

As part of the plan to switch to English, all professors and support staff not already fluent in English have been taking weekly ESL classes. But some are there against their will, and others say a lesson a week just isn’t enough to be able to work in English.

Students agree. Computer Science student Javier Hualpa, who’s from Argentina, says it’s ironic he had to pass a stringent English exam to get in, when many of his professors would flunk it. “You have two kinds of teachers here,” says Hualpa. “The ones who have done a PhD outside Italy—they speak clear English; and the Italian ones who learned English locally with an Italian cadence. Even for the International students we say, ‘You don’t speak well.’”

Despite the problems in switching to English, students like Hualpa and the Politecnico’s rector agree that not switching to English would only limit their future choices.



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Observing the Tiananmen Anniversary with ‘Big Yellow Duck’

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

China’s Internet users tried to keep memories of the Tiananmen Incident alive through use of popular memes like the Rubber Duck. (Weibo via Tea Leaf Nation)

Here’s a post from my Big Show colleague Traci Tong…

June 4 was the 24th anniversary of the bloody crackdown by Chinese authorities against student protesters in Tiananmen Square.

China’s leaders go to great lengths to prevent people from remembering what happened.

That includes banning online searches for words or phrases like “Tiananmen,” “tanks,” or “June 4th.”

Today Chinese censors added another phrase: “Big yellow duck.”

Rachel Lu, editor at Tea Leaf Nation, an e-magazine that analyzes China’s social media, said the big yellow duck refers to a giant rubber yellow ducky, similar to the bathtub toy.

"Tank man" blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.  (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

“Tank man” blocks a column of Type 59 tanks near Tiananmen Square during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (Photo: Jeff Widener /AP/Wiki Media)

The duck is 54 feet high and is an art installation that’s been floating in Hong Kong’s Victoria harbor for the past month.

The floating duck has become a minor celebrity. An anonymous poster on the Chinese social media network, Weibao, took four images of the duck and superimposed them on that iconic image of the four tanks during the Tiananmen Square pro democracy protests.

Lu says the duck has now become a symbol to remind the Chinese people about the Tiananmen Square event in 1989.



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