IRAQ: For Arabs, shoe is a dirty 4-letter word

Iraqi journalist uses two culturally significant symbols to insult U.S. President George W. Bush at press conference

The Times of India
Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi of Al-Baghdadia television threw a pair of shoes at US President George Bush on Sunday and called him a dog, he was using two powerful abuses in Arab culture at the same time.

As in many societies including India, hitting someone with a shoe is considered an act of grave insult in the Arab world. Even sitting in a manner that exposes the sole of your shoe to another person is considered impolite. A reason why men in the Arab world are careful not to put one foot over the other while sitting with others. To do so is taken as a sign that you consider others -- since they can see the sole of your shoe -- as being beneath you.

Being worn in the lowest part of the body, shoes are considered especially dirty in Islam. The ritual washing of feet and removal of shoes before entering a mosque reflects that view.

Arab phrases that mean "you are a shoe" and "son of a shoe" are abuses which could start a serious fight in any Arab city.

Interestingly, while in power, Saddam Hussein used such symbolism to heap scorn on Bush's father, former US President George H W Bush. He had a mosaic of Bush Senior made on the ground at the entrance of Al-Rashid, Baghdad's main foreign hotel. So, visitors had to step on Bush's face to get in.

Ironically, Saddam got the same treatment after being thrown out of power by the allied army. TV images showed Iraqis beating the ousted dictator's posters and statues with shoes in Baghdad and other places.

Dogs too are seen as unclean by Arabs and are a subject of abuse.

So, the fact that Muntazer al-Zaidi, a little known Shi'ite reporter, chose these two symbols to humiliate Bush is being viewed as culturally significant. Arab correspondents through the region have called the act as embodying the Middle East's hatred for the outgoing American president.

On his part, Bush tried to see the funny side of the incident. "I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his sole," he remarked.

"I'm going to be thinking of shoe jokes for a long time. I haven't heard any good ones yet," he added.