It did not, perhaps, require the expertise of a cultural anthropologist to elucidate what the Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi was trying to say when he threw his shoes at soon to be ex-president Bush during a now infamous Baghdad news conference. Indeed, al-Zaidi (who would seem to have become a popular hero throughout much of the Middle East, with crowds demanding his release) was sufficiently explicit in his accompanying remarks. "This is a farewell kiss, you dog," he yelled (admittedly in Arabic) as he threw the shoes. "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." And indeed it is not entirely clear that he denuded himself of his shoes because they were shoes, rather than because they were the most convenient weapon he had to hand.
Nevertheless, reporters covering the incident were certain that al-Zaidi's gesture was one of deep symbolic significance. "Showing the soles of one's shoes is considered an insult in Arab culture," said the Telegraph. The BBC radio report added that the reference to Bush as a "dog" increased the insult, dogs being considered unclean in Muslim culture (although I suppose it could have been worse: he might have called Dubya a pig). The Guardian had even more to say on the subject:
It was also pregnant with symbolism. In the Arab world, throwing shoes at somebody is considered a serious insult, as is even showing them the soles of one's footwear, as demonstrated by jubilant Iraqis towards the statue of Saddam Hussein as it was toppled in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion.
Who better to explain the deeper layers of significance contained in al-Zaidi's act of incaligation (a word I've invented to mean "shoe-throwing", from the Latin caliga, boot) than CIF's Khaled Diab, himself an Egyptian? Diab informs us that:
While throwing your shoes at someone would be considered insulting in any culture, in the Arab world, the gesture has a special potency: footwear is commonly used to deliver both verbal and physical insult. In Egypt, for example, many popular and colourful insults include the mention of shoes: "You son of a shoe", "You have shoes for brains", "You'll follow me like an old shoe", etc.
Arabic, of course, is a metaphor-laden language, just as English is. Saddam Hussein's description of the 1st Gulf War as "the mother of all battles" has permanently enriched our tongue, and may prove to be his only notable contribution to world culture. But although Diab thinks that the offensiveness of these insults is "largely lost in translation", one doesn't have to look far in English for footwear-based invective. Those wishing Gordon Brown a speedy exit have not infrequently expressed a desire for him to be "booted out" at the next election, if not before. Brewer's reminds me that "to have ones heart in one's boots" is to be "utterly despondent". The exhortation to "lick my boots", meanwhile, would fall easily within the remit of the Cairene expressions that Diab elucidates thus:
The offensive power of shoes probably has something to do with the lowly status of the shoe, which resides, downtrodden with its face in the dirt, all the way at the bottom of the clothing hierarchy. That's why worshippers leave their shoes outside mosques.
I'd always assumed that it was to avoid getting mud on the carpets.
That is probably why hot-blooded working-class Egyptian women sometimes take off their shoes or slippers to hit men who harass them on the street: to show that the man belongs in the gutter and is not worthy of contempt. Bizarrely and inexplicably, slapping someone on the back of the neck and calling them a "nape" ('afa) is also a huge insult.
Because hitting someone on the neck in Britain counts as a compliment.
But throwing shoes isn't something we're used to seeing in European political discourse. More often, in Britain, it's eggs or flour, while on the continent the custard pie-lobbing antics of Belgian activist Georges "le Gloupier" Godin represent perhaps the ne plus ultra of projectile-based protest. Apart from anything else, shoe-throwing is impractical. Unless you bring along a spare pair for the occasion - not something al-Zaidi was in a position to do, needless to say - you're left afterwards without anything to walk home in. Whereas your victim may be able - especially at a time of economic constraint - to sell the things on Ebay and raise some useful cash.
Exploring the matter further, however, one soon discovers that, in Britain at least, throwing shoes at someone isn't an insult at all. On the contrary, it is a gesture of approbation, even of love.
The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore relates that the custom of attaching shoes to the back of a newlyweds' car "is a specialised form of what was once a widespread practice, that of throwing an old shoe at or after someone to wish them luck." The Encyclopaedia of Superstitions (Ed E and MA Radford) adds the somewhat counterintuitive information that "it is a sign of special good fortune if someone, when throwing, manages to hit one of the pair." The wedding custom of throwing the bridal bouquet, we learn from the same source, is an adaptation of the earlier practice, wherein the bride would remove her shoe and lob it towards the bridesmaids: whoever was hit would be the next to get married, perhaps to the doctor treating her for concussion.
Such customs would seem to require more in the way of explanation than the contrary Arab practice, which strikes me as being fairly self-explanatory. The ODEF suggests that the shoe may symbolise the female sexual organs. That may also explain why shoe-throwing is so insulting in the Middle East, of course, given the general status of women in those parts.
The Radfords for their part take note of an Anglo-Saxon wedding ritual, in which "it was the custom for the father to give one of the bride's shoes to the bridegroom, who would gently tap her on the head with it" and also a passage about oath-taking from the Biblical Book of Ruth which tells how "a man plucked off his shoe and gave it to his neighbour; and this was a testimony to Israel". But they consider that "these decorous ceremonies" do not resemble the violent shoe-throwing at weddings and elsewhere, and suggest a deeper explanation:
Until very recently, shoes were often thrown after ships leaving port, or people beginning a journey or a new enterprise, or taking up new work. By doing this, the throwers conveyed luck to the ship or individual concerned, probably because they were endowing them with a little of their own life-essence or strength.
In which case, the Iraqi journalist's action takes on a completely different significance. For is not George W. Bush shortly "beginning a journey", starting out on a new life after eight years in the White House? Muntadur al-Zaidi may just have been trying to wish him luck.