Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shoeing in Iraq: The Second "Shock and Awe"


When US President George W. Bush, on an unannounced fourth visit to Iraq, was speaking at a news conference in Baghdad on December 14, an irate Iraqi journalist threw both of his shoes at him. Mr. Bush ducked and was able to avoid the flying shoes coming straight at him one after the other. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki was also standing beside the US President, who was on a farewell visit to Iraq before the end of his second term of office on January 20, 2009.

Muntazer al-Zaidi, 29, a Shia journalist with the Iraqi-owned al-Baghdadiyah TV network in Egypt, yelled at the speaking President and said in Arabic: "This is a farewell kiss, you dog!" The security guards overpowered the journalist and took him in custody. The audience was stunned at the incident, but President Bush vainly tried to brush aside the incident with a humour.

Iraqi and American security services checked the shoes thoroughly to ensure that they did not contain explosives and then destroyed them.

"Shock and Awe"

The unexpected behaviour of the journalist marks another shock and awe after the US invasion and bombing of Baghdad, triumphantly termed as "shock and awe" by Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defense Secretary in 2003. The shoe-throwing incident is a shock because the US President being the head of the most powerful nation in the world faced hurling shoes in the most secured zone in Iraq and an awe because a mere journalist at the risk of his life did the daring.

What the Iraqi journalist did is against the accepted norms and ethics of journalism. A journalist in now way should involve himself in the event that he covers. By actively engaging himself in the event he becomes a partisan and thus he loses his journalistic neutrality, credibility and power of judgment.

Yet Muntazer al-Zaidi acted as he did and vented his anger at President Bush. His action is symptomatic of the general feeling of resentment and rage against the American occupation and presence in Iraq. That's why he was instantly hailed as a hero in the region.

Shoes in a Cultural Context

In most Asian cultures, used shoes are considered to be filthy because they tread on dirt, germs, and animal and human waste on the mud paths and roads. That's why people leave their shoes outside the doors before entering houses, places of worship and the like. Moreover, regular washing of feet has a prominent place in many societies.

Kicking a person with a shoe, throwing a shoe at him, or making someone wear a garland of old shoes is considered an extreme form of insult. Besides, calling a person a "dog" or "child of a dog" is also disparaging. In the Indian subcontinent there is a tradition of making a criminal or antisocial person wear a garland of shoes and parading publicly on streets in face of mockery and even physical abuse of the onlookers. The purpose is to reform him or teach him a lesson for his vile deeds. Indian subcontinental countries also have a common term joota maara (to thrash with a shoe) used when intended to insult or punish a person for his or her unacceptable words or actions. In Bengali, the language prevalent in Bangladesh and the State of West Bengal in India, joota-peta kawra (to repeatedly strike someone with a shoe) is another term used for the same purpose.

I don't think that President George W. Bush could realize this cultural context of shoes. Could he?

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