The shoe toss heard round the world

Cultural Insights — By on December 15, 2008 at 11:07 am

By now, everyone has heard of the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George Bush during a press conference. Almost all of the press coverage has dutifully reported that throwing a shoe at someone is a grave insult in the Arab world, a comment that has sparked countless other individuals to respond with something along the lines of: “Duh, you patronizing journalists, wouldn’t a shoe-throwing incident be considered an insult in any culture?”

Well, yes. And no. The point is that this is a commonly understood insult in the Arab world. If an American were brazen enough to throw a shoe at a President, or at any public figure, viewers would of course understand it as an insult, but they’d also think the person doing the throwing was a bit off his or her rocker. Most Americans who viewed tape of the incident with President Bush likely reacted with surprise. After all, what kind of crazy person would throw their shoes at a politician? In Iraq, however, the meaning was immediately clear. Even those Arab journalists who thought the act was uncalled for and disrespectful still grasped a deeper meaning in the incident. As Wikipedia explains the insult:

In the Arab world, shoe flinging is a gesture of extreme disrespect. A notable occurrence of this gesture happened in Baghdad, Iraq in 2003. When U.S. forces pulled down a giant statue of Saddam Hussein during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, many Iraqi detractors of Hussein threw their shoes at the fallen statue…The shoe represents the lowest part of the body (the foot) and displaying or throwing a shoe at someone or something in Arab cultures denotes that the person or thing is “beneath them.” Showing the bottom of one’s feet or shoes (for example, putting one’s feet up on a table or desk) in Arab cultures is considered an extreme insult.

Meanwhile, if you somehow missed seeing tape of the infamous shoe-throwing, the video is below. And I have to agree with this comment by David Kurtz: “The shoe-hurling was pretty gripping video, but Bush’s reaction and subsequent riff on what free societies are all about is worth watching, too.”  Hey, perhaps the incident had the unintended consequence of prompting an Arab discussion about political protest in a democracy.

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