Thursday, December 25, 2008

"...the aim of the exercise is to protest against the madness and ruthlessness of the policies that rode roughshod over the Iraqi people..."

Al-Ahram Weekly Online

18 - 24 December 2008

"It's shoe time"

Assem El-Kersh
ponders one of history's more endearing footnotes.

On "Al-Ahram Weekly", at:

Click to view caption


Such images captured and aired to millions around the world sum up the ire of an entire nation.

Muntadhar Al-Zaidi has entered history big time, albeit barefoot or, perhaps, in socks, and certainly with a lot of black and blue marks and broken bones.

When the Iraqi journalist took off his shoes to fling them at Bush during the US president's farewell visit to Baghdad he ensured his name would ring loud in the annals of Iraq, press conferences and forever receive honourable mention within the shoe industry and at shooting tournaments.

It was as though his projectiles were intended to punctuate the remark that Bush had just made that "the war was not over yet" in the wretched country he has trampled underfoot without once blinking an eye.

Only experts can gauge the best speed, trajectory and size of a flying shoe if it is to hit its mark with optimum results. The task is even more delicate if the aim of the exercise is to protest against the madness and ruthlessness of the policies that rode roughshod over the Iraqi people and the laws and principles of international legitimacy, breeding countless war crimes, boundless death and destruction and unprecedented hatred across the region for US policy, the Bush era and its legacy.

Bush proved himself fleet of foot, on this occasion at least. Perhaps he did not need anyone to tell him that the hurling of shoes is the mother of all insults, though Western concepts of what constitutes insulting behaviour are clearly different, allowing Bush to claim no harm was done and, even more incredibly, that Al-Zaidi's action was not representative of the opinions of the rest of the Iraqi people.

Bush clearly was not reckoning with the delicious thrill that swept across the Arab and Islamic world where millions of viewers have yet to tire of watching the clip of an incident that encapsulates their collective desire to settle scores with Bush as much as it reflects a pitiful state of inaction and helplessness. How eloquently those hurtling shoes spoke on behalf of all those whom the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have turned into refugees and whose shoes, if any, are now worn to shreds, on behalf of all those driven to their wits' end by Washington's blind indulgence of Israel.

Adding extra spice to the public's malicious glee is the cultural significance of shoes in the Islamic world where many still feel uncomfortable saying the word in polite conversation without preceding it with an apology. As we all know, among the worst insults in Arabic from a long and rich list is to make a rude reference to someone's mother, to kick a guest out of your home, to associate someone's name with an animal and, most heinous of all, to threaten to hit, or actually hit, someone with your shoe.

Al-Zaidi selected a heady mix of the above. As he hurled his black size 44s, one after the other, at the outgoing US president he shouted, "This is a farewell gift from the people of Iraq, you dog!" Although this form of protest is common enough from Egypt to Iraq, and further afield to Pakistan and Thailand, it has never before been addressed at a US president, recorded live and in person.

Things are different in the West where traditions of political dissent offer any number of open forms of protest and other legitimate "weapons". They can choose from protest marches, sit-ins, flag- and effigy- burnings, even bare parts of their anatomy. They can draw from an arsenal of rotten tomatoes, putrid eggs, buckets of paint, flour or excrement, all the while confident that they enjoy the protection of the law.

The politician who suddenly finds his face smeared and clothes soiled can do little more than growl back and turn away. Not that all officials have acted so sagely. During UK parliamentary elections in May 2001, when a protester chose to air his discontent by pelting Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott with an egg, Prescott saw red and responded instinctively by punching his assailant. The reaction proved deeply embarrassing for the Labour Party though for me, present at the time and watching the spectacle, the incident, in which both the party official and demonstrator were charged, epitomised the wonders of democracy.

Al-Zaidi's flying shoes signalled an appropriately ignominious end to the most ignominious presidency in US history. We may well have to admit that the Iraqis possessed a WMD after all, though it is one which, despite US military prowess, was launched only on Sunday, in Baghdad, greeting Bush instead of the victory laurels and welcome banners he once so confidently expected.

The Baghdad shoes, immediately seized by police as evidence of a crime, are destined to enter the world's folk legacy and its cultural, political and literary history. They now stand alongside Moses' sandals, Cinderella's glass slipper, the clogs with which Queen Shagarat Al-Durr was beaten to death.

They have joined any number of political shoes, from that worn on Khrushchev's right foot with which the Soviet leader pounded the UN podium in 1960 during the debate over a Russian-sponsored resolution decrying colonialism, and Imelda Marcos's legendary collection of 2,700 pairs, to the shoe British citizen Richard Reed rigged with an explosive which he intended to detonate on an American airliner over the Atlantic.

In this part of the world, the ditty, "Bush, you're over, no one wants you any more. May a thousand shoes see you out the door" soon to be released by pop singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, provides a fitting footnote to the hundreds of shoes and sandals Iraqis showered on the toppled statues of Saddam Hussein on the day Baghdad fell and, before that, to the mosaic of Bush senior installed in the foyer of the Hotel Rashid ready to greet the soles of everyone who entered the hotel.

The incident has spawned thousands of jokes and witticisms that raced across the Internet and via SMSs. "Police in Hebron discover a secret stash of journalists' shoes." "The president swiftly dodged the flying shoe having received vigorous training for this through fights with his wife and years of dodging his responsibilities." "Bush and Al-Zaidi are lucky. If the journalist were Palestinian he wouldn't have missed and if Bush had been an Arab leader the attacker would already be dead!"

Many journalists must have asked themselves if they would have acted likewise if given the chance. I believe a majority in the profession share the view that the Iraqi journalist was out of line. It was unprofessional of him because he was on a journalistic, not military, mission, and his job is to hurl questions, not shoes.

Yet, true as this may be, it is impossible not to indulge the daydream about being in his shoes. Hurling shoes will not solve the Iraqis' problems or further convince President-elect Barack Obama who opposed to the invasion of Iraq from the outset. Yet we must also admit that the hundreds of headlines, reports and commentaries on the tragedy Bush visited on Iraq failed to accomplish, with all their poignant literalness, what Al-Zaidi's shoes did in a revelatory flash.

In all events, it's not too late. The season of bidding farewell to Bush has only just begun. There is still more than a month left for those with the urge to take a parting shot at Bush as he leaves the White House at the end of January, never to return. To these I say, get ready. No need to bother with the polish.