The Language of Eyes in Arab Culture
By: Meriam Helal/ Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab countries in the Middle East have some differences, but one thing they have in common is the significance of eyes in their culture. In comparison to the Western culture where eye contact is common, mundane and trivial, in Arab culture, it is more communicative and significant. However, women are expected to avoid too much eye contact with men because it can be misunderstood and mistaken for flirting. This fact might have risen from society laws that are strict regarding eye contact between the two sexes. Also, continuous eye contact is a way to show sincerity and honesty. This is similar to the American saying, “look me in the eye and say it.” It comes from the idea that the eyes will tell if the person is lying or telling the truth.
Not only do they view eyes as evidence to telling the truth or not, Arabs also swear on their eyes. They swear they are telling the truth or that they will do something by saying “Wehyat ainak” وحياة عينك which means “I swear on the life of your eyes (or mine وحياة عيوني ). They do call each other my eyes as a term of endearment to show that the person is as valuable as their own eyes.
The eyes are mentioned in songs where the eyes are used to describe beauty, evil, power and someone’s soul. A lot of songs highlight the dark color of eyes. They specify the girl by having brown or black eyes, implying beauty in her eyes and that it is the reason they pursue her. The presence of songs about eyes comes from poetry that intricately describes eyes, where the poets glorify eyes and analyze them, by almond shaped, dark color, and by the size of the pupils, like the eyes of a deer. As in the song above, the singer says, “Is that a moon or is that your eyes?”In the Western world, it is known that Arabs have beautiful eyes and that’s why they are mentioned frequently in poetry.
The eyes are used also as a way of flirting. The eyes are the most telling body part and are the most expressive even more than words and gestures. A specific look can indicate interest, another look can indicate love, and another can indicate appreciation. A wink is very expressive in the Arab World and each one can mean something of its own: One wink can be flirting, another can be playful, or implying a joke.
Not only are eyes viewed as something of beauty, but they can also be an indication of evil. It is often written in books and poetry that a villain had evil in his eyes (Al Sharar be aynay الشرار بعينيه), or fire is coming out of the eyes of an evil person. It is further emphasizing that the eyes identify the intentions of the person.
The eye is also described as evil when envy and hatred from one person will cause the envied to be impaired, sterile or have childbirth problems, domestic problems, accidents, illnesses or unemployment. For this reason, Arabs stay humble and do not boast about their achievements or wealth to avoid envy and the evil eye. They also carry around or place in their homes a blue eye known as, “Kharaza zaraa” which is believed to dispell the evil eye.
Despite the notion of the “evil eye”, eyes, in general, of Arab people are considered beautiful and that’s why the eyes are intricately described in Arab literature, songs, and poetry; addressing your beloved one as: “you’re my eyes” (ya eyouni) يا عيوني ) is a common expression.