When something big happens in the Arab world, all Arab-Americans suddenly become "experts" having to answer questions from our non-Arab friends about what is going on. Consequently, since the news broke yesterday about Iraqi reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President Bush during the press conference, I have been inundated with questions such as: "Why did he throw his shoes?" "What does a shoe represent in Arab culture?" "Is a wing tip shoe more of a statement than a sandal?" "Did the reporter throw the shoes he was wearing or do Arabs carry spare shoes with them to throw when they are angry?"
As an Arab-American, I'm happy to share my take on this incident. First, however, I sincerely want to note that while many people in the Arab world (and the US) do not like President Bush, I have received numerous comments from my Arab friends saying that this type of behavior makes Arabs look bad. I agree with that sentiment but it should be noted that there were at least 30 or 40 other pairs of Arab shoes in the press conference that were not thrown. In fact, many of the Iraqi reporters tried to stop the "shoe insurgent." I can only hope that as a consequence of this incident, Arab-American reporters like Helen Thomas won't have to attend press conferences shoeless.
Now back to "Shoegate." It's true that in the Arab world the bottom of the shoe holds an infamous place. It is the lowest part of our body and by intentionally showing it to another person it indicates that you feel that person is beneath you. As you may recall, Iraqis in mass flung their shoes at the Saddam Hussein statute after it was torn down a few years back. (A person looking to make some real money in the region should invent shoes that have little strings connected to them so you can retrieve the shoe after throwing it - but I digress.)
But lets be honest - in what culture is getting a shoe thrown at you while making a speech considered a compliment? Is there a place in this world were a person considers his speech a failure if by end of it the stage isn't littered with shoes?
A few of my Arab friends have noted that their parents have thrown shoes at them to punish them when they were bad - but it's all part of "tough love." Is there a chance that the Iraqi reporter really was offering some form of this tough love to President Bush?
Well, when you couple the shoe toss with the statement made by the Iraqi reporter in the moments before: "This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog" - it probably was not the expression of a love by a parent to their wayward child. (I should note that many of my Arab friends have also commented that if it was an Arab mother -and not a male reporter throwing the shoes - she would have hit her target since Arab mother's have amazing accuracy with shoes.)
So it wasn't tough love. Could the reporter's action be considered an unorthodox but legitimate form of journalism? Possibly if he had at least made his statement to President Bush in the form of a question, such as: "Mr. President, do you want a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog?" and then threw the shoes. Perhaps then he would have had a leg to stand on - a leg, of course, that ends with no shoe on it.
In watching the clip closely, I was intrigued by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who didn't even move when the first shoe was thrown as if this is a normal occurrence at his press conferences. Perhaps he was thinking: "It's just Muntazer again asking a question -and here comes his follow up." Or maybe the Prime Minister was frozen in anger thinking to himself: "How can we move up to a First world country if we have guys throwing shoes at press conferences?!"
Although I must say President Bush dodged the shoe rather impressively - to be honest, it looked like this wasn't the first time Bush had to dodge a shoe thrown at him in anger. Interestingly, Bush had a rather defiant -almost playful look in his eyes after the first shoe which will play well in the Arab world: A confident leader who can take what you throw at him - literally - and come back for more.
One of the most troubling parts of this event to me though was, where was the Secret Service when this guy was taking off his shoes? At this point it seems that Secret Service not only won't take a bullet for Bush, they won't even take a size 10 loafer.
I truly hope that in the future when Barack Obama visits the region as president, no Arab reporter will throw his shoes at him. Although I would predict that if a shoe were thrown at Obama while he was speaking, Barack would have dodged it in the vein of "Neo" from "The Matrix" - moving gracefully in slow motion while still answering questions. I just hope we never have to find out how he will have to react.