Let's face it, the irate Iraqi journalist who hurled his size-10 shoes, one at a time, at President George W. Bush during a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad on Sunday had pretty good aim. If it weren't for the President's quick duck and weave, he might have had more than just a surprised look on his face. "So what if a guy threw his shoe at me?" Bush said, brushing off the incident. Perhaps we should chalk that statement up as yet another of the President's cultural misunderstandings of Iraq. (See the top 10 awkward moments of 2008.)
While it's clearly not a mark of esteem anywhere in the world, in the Arab world, tossing your shoes at someone is an act of extreme disrespect. Shoes, and feet in general, get a bad rap in Arab culture. The language is peppered with insults referring to feet. To say that someone or something is "like my foot" or "like my shoe" means that the person or object is of no importance and beneath you. Sitting cross-legged in a manner in which the sole of a foot is pointing toward an Arab is also a grave insult. U.S. troops in Iraq are often lectured on the importance of not exposing the soles of their shoes in public.
It's become almost a clichéd gesture to hurl shoes at a poster, a flag or a statue during demonstrations in the Arab world. Perhaps the most iconic example was when U.S. troops helped bring down a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdous Square on April 9, 2003. Hundreds of Iraqis assailed the giant metal corpse, beating it with their shoes in one of the defining images of the fall of Baghdad. How ironic then that President Bush's farewell trip to Iraq will be marked by the image of an angry Iraqi and his shoes. (See pictures of the fall of Saddam's statue.)
The Iraqi television journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi hurled a verbal insult at Bush as well as his footwear. "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog," he shouted as he threw the first of his projectiles. Seconds later, he hurled another, saying "this is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq," before being wrestled to the ground by security guards and removed from the room. Little has emerged about the journalist, a correspondent for al-Baghdadiya, a satellite TV channel that broadcasts from Cairo. According to some reports, he was kidnapped by an unidentified group in November 2007 and rescued by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. It's not known if al-Zaidi has any political affiliation with al-Sadr's group. His employer has demanded his immediate release, but according to the Prime Minister's media adviser, Yasid Majid, al-Zaidi will be charged with insulting the Iraqi state and sent to trial.
Al-Zaidi was pummeled and kicked by the guards who dragged him out of the conference area. Other Iraqi journalists in the hall were apologetic to the U.S. President and the Americans. Still, Iraqis who despise the U.S. leader for waging war on their country will no doubt applaud al-Zaidi's rapid-fire gesture. On Monday, demonstrators rallied in support of the Shi'ite journalist in Baghdad's Sadr City slum and also in the southern Shi'ite bastions of Basra and Najaf. Already jokes are going around that shoe companies are now offering the assailant a lifetime supply of footwear. He may have missed his mark, but he certainly made a point.