During the siege of Baghdad, one particular image to catch my eye was the ceremonial shoe banging of images of Saddam Hussein. In Iraq this is an insult similar to the two fingers in the West. The origins of both are quite intriguing.
The 2-finger salute, where the first and second fingers are spread apart and then, with the back of the hand facing the viewer, the hand is raised, in anger or tauntingly, sometimes fast and sometimes slow, towards the sky. It is thought to have originated with Welsh archers at the Battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415. The bowmen used their first two fingers to draw the bowstring and the French were intimidated by the power and accuracy of the Welsh long bow. The French threatened to amputate the string-pulling fingers on any archer caught and in defiance the bowmen responded by waving the two fingers in the insulting V salute at the French, as if to say “Here’s my two fingers - come and get them, if you can.”
Shoe banging in the Middle East has two meanings depending on whether you are in Jewish or Islamic company. Traditionally, in Jewish custom, shoe banging was used to seal a deal like a gable is used today at auction.
In Arab tradition, sandals were used to protect feet from the environments and are considered unclean. Hence shoes are removed before entering a place of worship. Shoe banging (or shoe intifada) represents violation and demonstratively shows deep insult. To point a shoe at someone or hit them (or their image) means to direct impurity and pollution in their direction. The action is not to do physical harm to the individual but to remind all there is a greater judgment and the object of scorn should suffer the indignity of the most demeaning punishment possible. The shoe as an insult is used in other cultures too for instance in India and Pakistan unpopular politicians are regularly garlanded with shoes and paraded down the streets. The term “Jooté maro!" (hit him with shoes) is common enough parlance.
In recent years shoe throwing (or shoeing) has become a trend in protest. Since former US president George W Bush was pelted in Iraq in December 2008, shoe protests have been reported. Little did the Iraq journalist, Muntadhar al-Zeidi know his shoe throwing protest would become such a powerful political gesture such as to match the hunger strike (Gandhi) or blanket protests (Northern Ireland) of previous decades. The exit from the Whitehouse by George W Bush was commemorated by a giant shoe-throwing extravaganza by anti-Bush rallyists who gathered in front of a nearly two-story-tall effigy of Bush. Just below the inflatable Bush’s belt was a sign reading “Give Bush the Boot!” Shoes of all denomination rebounded from the blow up trampoline like figure. Shoe-throwing protesters also pelted the street near the British prime minister's residence at 10 Downing Street in London. Between 12 and 60,000 angry demonstrators marched and hurled footwear across barriers chanting "Shame on you, have my shoe," as a mark of protest against Israel’s bombing of the Palestinians in Gaza.
Meanwhile in Iraq for a brief period a sofa-sized sculpture of a single copper-coated shoe on a stand was unveiled in Tikrit, the hometown of the late Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. A poem praising Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi stood at the foot of the monument. The Baghdad-based artist, Laith al-Amari, said the work honoured al-Zeidi and was a source of pride for all Iraqis. The shoe had a tree has been planted and stood 10 feet high. However seems the statue dedicated to the heroic shoe thrower has been taken down. It is also been reported Muntadhar al-Zeidi will seek political asylum in Switzerland as apparently his life is in danger in Iraq.
Shoe trowing and shoe protests in the West have become more common and thousands of shoes were dumped on a main Miami expressway causing chaos during peak traffic. Despite police investigations the ownership of the shoes remains a mystery. West Los Angeles hosted the first Celebrity Shoe (Throwing) Drive in 2009. Entitled, "If The Shoe Doesn't Fit Throw It' was hosted by Dubai TV personality, Janeen Mansour a host of celebrities including local dignitaries were invited with a special invitation to President George W Bush and the First Lady to throw the first shoe. The new and nearly shoes come from public donation and The Guinness Book of World Records representatives were on hand to record any record breaking throws. Volunteers from the Salvation Army, Southern California region collected the discarded footwear and donated them to needy families.
By far the most celebrated shoe banger of the 20th century was Nikita Khrushchev President of the USSR. He came from peasant stock and throughout his political career possessed a peasant's shrewdness and wit. He had a garrulous, storytelling gift, which gained him a reputation for being earthy and frequently referred in speeches to excrement. He was poorly educated and easily intimidated by intellectual superiority which frequently showed in his uncouth animation during debate. The alleged infamous shoe banging incident occurred at the UN General Assembly meeting in October of 1960. After he was shown U2 "spy plane” photographs implicating USSR “duplicity” in Cuba, Nikita Khrushchev was supposed to have banged his shoe against his desk, with indignation.
The shoe banging incident was reported widely across the globe but ironically did more to avoid global conflict, than the frantic diplomatic arrangements held behind the scene as Kennedy and Khrushchev faced off each other. The shoe banging episode deeply embarrassed the Soviet Union and inevitably led to Khrushchev’s downfall as its leader in 1964. However, his popularity in the West as a character more than likely saved his life and he spent his remaining years in retirement tending his garden like the Godfather.
History can now reveal Khrushchev wore sandals on the eventful day. It was a hot day in New York and he changed his footwear for comfort. During debate in frustration Khrushchev started pounding the table angrily with his fist when his watch fell off. He picked up his shoe and carried on shoe banging. There was no photographic evidence of the event although a fake image of Khrushchev waving a shoe (above) did quickly circulate.
And the shoes kept on coming
Muntadhar al-Zaidi spent approx. 9 months in jail following the 2008 incident. There he was reportedly tortured and had his nose, teeth and foot broken. The incident made al-Zaidi a cult hero in much of the Arab world, which had been growing increasingly frustrated with U.S. policy in the Middle East following Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Now a free man, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, has announced he will stand for a seat in the Iraqi parliament and his policies include, changing the country's court system, supporting the rights of women, and preventing Iranian interference in Iraq.