Muntadar al-Zaidi will go down in the annals of popular protest as the man who kissed the Bush presidency goodbye by hurling his shoes at the outgoing president. On Sunday, the Iraqi journalist who works for al-Baghdadiya television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, stood up during a joint press conference with Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Malaki, and threw his shoes at Bush on behalf of the "the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq".
While throwing your shoes at someone would be considered insulting in any culture, in the Arab world, the gesture has a special potency: footwear is commonly used to deliver both verbal and physical insult. In Egypt, for example, many popular and colourful insults include the mention of shoes: "You son of a shoe", "You have shoes for brains", "You'll follow me like an old shoe", etc.
Although their offensiveness is largely lost in translation, delivered in Arabic they are a sure-fire way of getting people's backs up. But why this obsession with shoes? Does it reflect a weird foot fetish? One shoe-lover I know found the whole episode a terrible waste of a pair of perfectly good shoes.
The offensive power of shoes probably has something to do with the lowly status of the shoe, which resides, downtrodden with its face in the dirt, all the way at the bottom of the clothing hierarchy. That's why worshippers leave their shoes outside mosques.
That is probably why hot-blooded working-class Egyptian women sometimes take off their shoes or slippers to hit men who harass them on the street: to show that the man belongs in the gutter and is not worthy of contempt. Bizarrely and inexplicably, slapping someone on the back of the neck and calling them a "nape" ('afa) is also a huge insult.
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"This is your farewell kiss, you dog!" Zaidi yelled, delivering a second insult, popular in Arabic. In English, there is a gender distinction. While "bitch" is an insult, "dog" has less impact in English. But the same does not hold in the Arab world: if you call someone "ibn kalb" (son of a dog), you're insulting both the person and his forebears.
The reason could be a difference in cultural perceptions, while dogs in the Anglo-Saxon world are widely seen as "man's best friend", in the Muslim world, dogs are regarded as impure animals and usually not kept as pets, except for security purposes. Other popular insults involve mothers and fathers, genitalia and graphic sexual acts, as in many other languages, and, as the word "swearing" in English implies, religion, such as "Curse the religion of your father".
While this "shoe incident" is little consolation for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have suffered under the crush of the Bush administration's boots, many Arabs are applauding Zaidi's audacity while others believe he overstepped the bounds of decorum. Let's just hope that journos will not, as a consequence of this isolated act, be forced, under new Homeland Security regulations, to remove their shoes before entering White House briefings and other presidential media events.
Zaidi has been arrested for his act. Of course, had he caused Bush physical injury, he could have been charged for that. But his action was essentially one of freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to cause offence. If President Bush believes in any of his own rhetoric, he should join the chorus of voices calling for the journalist's immediate release.