Shock and awe on a shoestring

By Khaled Diab

An Iraqi journalist expressed his contempt for President in a manner familiar in the Arab world: by throwing his shoes.

December 2008

Muntadar al-Zeidi will go down in the annals of popular protest as the man who kissed the presidency goodbye by hurling his shoes at the outgoing president. On Sunday, the Iraqi journalist who works for al-Baghdadia television, an Iraqi-owned station based in Cairo, stood up during a joint press conference with Iraqi premier Nuri al-Malaki, and threw his shoes at Bush on behalf of the “the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in ”.

 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 . In , 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.

 Although their offensiveness is largely lost in translation, delivered in Arabic they are a sure-fire way of getting people's backs up. But why this obsession with shoes? Does it reflect a weird foot fetish? One shoe-lover I know found the whole episode a terrible waste of a pair of perfectly good shoes.

 Their offensive power 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.

 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.

 “This is your farewell kiss, you dog!” al-Zeidi yelled, delivering a second insult, popular in Arabic. In English, there is a gender distinction, while “bitch”, for some reason, is an insult, dog is often a term of endearment, such as “son of a dog”. But English speakers should beware that the same does not hold in the Arab world. If you call someone “Ibn kalb”, you're insulting both the person and his forebears.

 The reason could be a difference in cultural perceptions, while dogs in the Anglo-Saxon world are widely seen as “man's best friend”, in the Muslim world, dogs are regarded as impure animals and usually not kept as pets, except for security purposes. Other popular insults involve mothers and fathers, genitalia and graphic sexual acts, as in many other languages, and, as the word ‘swearing' in English implies, religion, such as “Curse the religion of your father”.

 While this ‘shoe incident' is little consolation for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have suffered under the crush of the Bush administration's boots, many Arabs are applauding al-Zeidi's audacity. Let's just hope that journos will not, as a consequence of this isolated act, be forced, under new Homeland Security regulations, to remove their shoes before entering White House briefings and other presidential events.

 Al-Zeidi has been arrested for his act. Of course, had he caused Bush physical injury, he could've been charged for that. But his action was essentially one of freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to cause offence. If President Bush believes in any of his own rhetoric, he should join the chorus of voices calling for the journalist's immediate release.

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 15 December 2008. Read the related discussion.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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