Make No Mistake, the Shoes Were an Insult

By Joharah Baker – The West Bank

US President George W. Bush can downplay the incident as much as he wants, but at least let us call a spade a spade. When Iraqi journalist Muntathar Al Zaidi lobbed his Turkish-made size 10 leather shoes at the "Leader of the Free World", he was aiming at one thing (other than Bush’s head), which was to insult the president. Palestinians can appreciate this sentiment, given that it was not long ago that shoes, slippers and flip-flops were used as their own weapon of choice in a battle against an unpopular leader.

But first, let us be reminded of the US President’s reaction to the unorthodox method of protest practiced by Al Zaidi during Bush’s last press conference in Baghdad on December 14. Extremely swift and well-trained, the president dodged the thrown shoes, one after the other, without once betraying any show of anger. On the contrary, Bush remained calm, cool and collected, smiling nervously as his secret service men sprung into action along with Al Zaidi’s fellow journalists, tackling the 28-year old to the ground.

Bush, who will now forever be remembered in Iraq as the US President who was bid farewell with a pair of shoes, has claimed the young and passionate reporter was a mere "attention seeker" and "did not represent the sentiments of the Iraqis". Really? Then why has there been such an outpour of support for Al Zaidi from Iraqis themselves, not to mention the throngs of Arabs who have come to his defense? According to one online article posted on Michael Moore’s website, the Turkish shoe company that produced the now-famous shoes has been swamped with orders for the same pair. According to Ramazan Baydan, his Istanbul-based factory has received orders for 300,000 pairs of the shoes, which he says he might name in honor of the occasion. The Turkish shoemaker is thinking along the lines of "The Bush shoe" or "Bye-Bye Bush".

If Westerners are still clueless as to just how insulting a shoe in the face is in Arab culture, let me explain. In the one single event that sparked the Aqsa Intifada, then Likud-leader Ariel Sharon was bombarded with Muslim worshippers’ shoes when he entered the Aqsa Mosque Compound on that fateful September 28, 2000. In his provocative visit to the Muslim holy site, Sharon more or less achieved what he had set out to achieve, which was to provoke the Palestinian populace. Flanked by thousands of Israeli security police and border guards, Sharon made his way into the compound where he knew Muslim worshippers would not stand idle.

Much like Al Zaidi, whose only weapon at hand were his shoes, hundreds of Palestinians began lobbing their shoes, taken off so as to perform the noon prayers, at the right-wing Israeli leader. It was not only a way of protesting his unwelcomed visit but to show just how little respect they had for him.

In the Baghdad press room, Al Zaidi achieved the same effect, only magnified tenfold. In contrast to the spacious outdoor area of Al Aqsa compound, in the midst of this quiet room came the booming voice of the 28-year old Iraqi reporter. "You dog!" he yelled at Bush, which by the way is another enormous insult in Arab culture. "Here is your goodbye kiss," he spat before throwing one shoe after the other at the surprised American leader standing next to the even more surprised Iraqi Prime Minister Nur Al Maliki.

Granted, Al Zaidi was hardly professional. As a journalist, he would have been trained to ask questions politely and calmly no matter how sharp the undertones. However, his professionalism is not the issue here, rather, his passionate sentiments that drove him to his actions.

As a Palestinian, I can understand the fire within Al Zaidi that would have pushed him over the edge. We are not directly under an American occupation but rather one by proxy. If it were not for the US’s enormous financial, diplomatic and moral support of Israel, we would not be in the situation we find ourselves in today. After Israel’s leaders, I can safely say the president of the United States (especially this last one) is the most reviled leader amongst the Palestinians. Hopefully, that sentiment will change once Barack Obama takes his place in the Oval Office, but for now, scores of Palestinians stare at their television screens, secretly watching the shoe-lobbing incident over and over with a profound satisfaction that poetic justice has been served.

It is not only Palestinians who feel vindicated by Al Zaidi’s act, however trivial it may be. Throughout the Arab world, protesters are demanding that the reporter be released, proudly holding up symbolic pairs of shoes in solidarity. Here in Palestine, people smile when Al Zaidi’s name is mentioned and never miss an opportunity to see a repeat of the famous press conference on television or the web.

Still, we Palestinians and I am sure Iraqis as well are painfully aware of the fact that Al Zaidi’s act of rebellion only served to satiate a sense of justice all oppressed peoples have within us, but nothing more. The enormities of the injustices meted out by the American occupation in Iraq or the Israeli occupation here in Palestine are far beyond anything a little shoe throwing can ever remedy. However, on a very elementary, almost primal level, we underdogs, who grow weary of always being at the receiving end of the punch, find blissful joy in the harmless yet symbolic act of a single courageous soul who dared to make himself heard.

– Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Program at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – on December 22, 2008)

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