THE ULTIMATE GESTURE OF CONTEMPT
The shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist at President Bush, in Baghdad, during an official function chaired by the Prime Minister of Iraq embodied the full rejection of US policies in the region and utter contempt for the elected head of the United States. George Bush and his Foreign Minister, Condoleezza Rice, tried to save face by describing the symbolic gesture as a welcome expression of freedom. The subsequent mass demonstration in Baghdad in support of the offender and calling for his immediate release, as well as the excited and jubilant calls I received from my Arab and Muslim colleagues immediately after the incident, give the lie to that hypocritical assumption.
Shoes among Arabs, Jews and all Semites in general are held as a dirty and unpresentable part of a man’s attire, probably because of the frequent filthy environment of the Middle East. Hence, a Muslim must first take off his shoes before making his prayers and always keep them outside the mosque. To the Jews, and some Arabs, you signal the divorce of your wife by throwing your shoe at her. Instead of saying, ‘son of a gun’, we say son of a shoe ( Ibn al-kundara), the frequent term of insult.
A well mannered person must never sit crossed- legged with the soles of his shoes facing other people. Saddam Hussein left the room abruptly as soon as a visiting European leading politician sat in from of him in that manner. The man was then politely informed and the Iraqi former dictator returned to the room when the guest readjusted his position.
During the nineteen- twenties, a far reaching storm erupted in Iraq and between our country and Britain over the shoe of a British officer during the British Mandate. My uncle, Judge Ahmad al-Kishtainy, was examining a case of robbery in which the British Army was involved. The officer refused to put his feet down so as to avoid exposing his boot soles to the face of the judge, claiming that English customs allow that. The judge adjourned the hearing as the case became a cause celebre, a political question of whether Arab or English customs should rule. Britain claimed that Iraq was not yet an independent state to have its own traditions ruling the judiciary. The Iraqis claimed otherwise, and the sovereignty of their country hinged on a pair of shoes.
The shoes thrown at the American President signalled a final divorce between the Arabs and the Americans. You rarely meet nowadays any Arab, or probably any Muslim, who may say to you any kind words about the United States. Many of them celebrated enthusiastically the
victory of Barak Obama. But they did so with the notion that he is of an African, Muslim and even Arab origin. Many people in the East, as in the West, welcomed his election as a further step towards the equality of races and colours. It was good to see finally that a black man holds the helm of the greatest power in the world. Arab commentators and observers have otherwise expressed their doubts about the possibility of an American head of state challenging the dictate of the multi-nationals and, as far as the Middle East is concerned, the Jewish lobby.
The American episode in Iraq signalled a very sad conclusion. Its utter failure threw doubts about the export of democracy, liberality, peace, and security, women’s liberation, successful use of elections and an end to corruption. It is now so bad that people began to look back to the days of Saddam Hussein with nostalgia. At least people hit him with shoes after his death. They hit George Bush with their shoes during his lifetime.