The Arabs and their flying shoes

Ethnographic works on American or European culture of shoe-throwing is absolutely necessary, argues Dabashi.

Egyptian demonstrators use a shoe to hit
Apparently, throwing shoes is only disrespectful in the Arab and Muslim world [AFP]

It all began by an Iraqi throwing his shoes at George W Bush. “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” reportedly said Muntadhar al-Zaidi when he threw his shoes at the US president on December 14, 2008, during a press conference in Baghdad. Bush managed to dodge both shoes.  

So many mixed metaphors here: why would you want to dodge a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people you have just liberated, or what’s wrong with being a dog? Inquiring minds want to know. 

Then it was repeated in Cairo in February 2013 – this time a Syrian throwing his shoe at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo, which started with an affectionate welcome on Tuesday from Egypt’s new Islamist president,” reports the New York Times, “turned less pleasant as the day wore on. First, Mr Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, was lectured by a senior Sunni Muslim cleric and then was nearly struck with a shoe by a man furious at Iran’s support for the Syrian government.”  

It was at both these occasions that generations of anthropological scholarship on the Arab and Muslim world – their mind and manners – all came to pay and inform the American and European public. What were they to make of such bizarre gestures of throwing shoes at people?    

“In the Middle East it is traditionally considered highly insulting to hit someone with the bottom of a shoe, which is considered dirty.” This according to a piece of news in ABC News, in which we read about an Egyptian protesting against President Ahmadinejad in Egypt. Anthropologists are great on other people’s “traditions”, finding out what they are and explaining it to their own very modern people.  

“Showing the sole of your shoe to someone in the Arab world is a sign of extreme disrespect and throwing your shoe is even worse.” This further amplification is according to another news report making sure that non-Arabs are properly informed as to the nature and the hermeneutic nuances of such shoe-throwing incidents.  

The more recent origin of these sorts of vital anthropological clarifications goes back to the Bush incident, when BBC informed its readers in the UK and around the world: “In Arab culture it’s considered rude even to display the sole of one’s shoe to a fellow human being.” By way of further ethnographic elaboration, BBC adds: “The sensitivity is related to the fact shoes are considered ritually unclean in the Muslim faith.” Now that makes a lot of sense, and should BBC readers wish to keep the matter firmly in mind for a future visit to the Muslim world: “Shoes should either be left at the door of the mosque, or carried (preferably in the left hand with the soles pressed together).” 

The source of such delicate insights into the Arab and Muslim culture for the benefit of non-Arabs and non-Middle Easterners who need these sorts of glosses to understand the world-historic events “in that part of the world” is entirely thanks to generations of dedicated, courageous and insightful North American and Western European anthropologists – all the way from Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) down to the youngest generation of graduate students being trained in topnotch Ivy League universities and other liberal art institutors. Were it not for their sustained body of anthropological insights, how else would contemporary Europeans and Americans know what to make of these bizarre shoe throwing businesses? 

It is not accidental that the US military has been so keen in hiring anthropologists to help them rule Afghanistan and Iraq better. “It is sending ‘mine-resistant, ambush-protected’ vehicles into the battlefield,” BBC reports about the US military, “It is also using cutting-edge biometric technologies to identify insurgents. But that is not all. The US military has developed a new programme known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) to study social groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. The HTS depends heavily on the co-operation of anthropologists, with their expertise in the study of human beings and their societies” – and their shoe-throwing habits, you might add.     

“In Arab culture it’s considered rude even to display the sole of one’s shoe to a fellow human being… The sensitivity is related to the fact shoes are considered ritually unclean in the Muslim faith.”

– A BBC report

The HTS has of course a grand cultural anthropologist to look up to – a man named Raphael Patai, who in fact taught at my own university here in New York, among many other Israeli and American centres of higher education, and who wrote a widely popular book called The Arab Mind (originally published in 1973 and subsequently revised and updated in 1983 and again in 2007) which soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq became the most trusted handbook that American military used to understand Iraq and Iraqis so they could be made to behave better. As Brian Whitaker of the Guardian discovered:  

According to one professor at a US military college, The Arab Mind is “probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military”. It is even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg. 

Had it not been for this masterpiece of American cultural anthropology, the US military would have never known that we in the Arab and Muslim world are categorically and genetically lazy, sex-obsessed, owners of at least four wives and plenty of sex slave concubines, which anthropological insights were subsequently used in Abu Ghraib by the US military by way of enhancing the already enhanced interrogation techniques. No “Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology” can come even close to appreciating the significance of such anthropological services. It really took a great work of art like Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty to show to the public at large the invaluable services that these techniques can provide in saving American lives.   

Heeling the sole of the world with humanitarian interventions 

These sorts of anthropological insights are of course absolutely necessary not just for the smooth operation of the US military humanitarian interventions around the globe and often foreign lands, but also for pragmatic journalistic exegesis back on the home front – for an average American in New York or Chicago or Washington, DC, or San Francisco this whole business of throwing shoes to insult people is completely bizarre, because here in New York, for example, throwing your shoe at someone is a sublime sign of respect and admiration. Stopping people – friends or strangers – in the middle of street and showing them the sole of your shoe, or better yet just tossing it their way, sole first, they just want to kiss and cuddle you to show how moved they are with your delicate yet assertive expression of affinity, camaraderie and solidarity.  

Now one can understand why the late Edward Said was so adamant that people in the Middle East should start having departments of American studies so that Arabs and Muslims know how drastically different is their perception of shoe from those of Americans, Canadians, Israelis, or even the British. In Israel in particular, we know from top shoe designers like Tamar Shalem and Noa Luria that precisely because “life in Israel is intense, so clothes and shoes must be comfortable, easy and practical”. 

Here in New York, where life is no less “intense”, the symbolic significance of shoe throwing is not limited to respect and admiration. How many love affairs and happily ever after romances have in fact started with a simple, elegant and yet timely throwing of a smelly sneaker at your object of affection and desire. It is precisely for that reason that some enterprising entrepreneurs have made it their business to make shoes out of delicious chocolate – so that once the magnificent object is tossed your way you cannot resist but taste and savour the romantic gesture.  

One of the most difficult tasks we people of Oriental descent face when we live here in North America is precisely this urgent need to explain to our friends and colleagues why is it that our folks “back home” so loathe their shoes that they throw them at their enemies while here in North America the anthropological fact we immediately notice is exactly the opposite and how people so utterly adore their shoes that throwing it at a person is nothing short of a stirring sign of adoration and even flirtations, depending on the season of the year, region of the US, where the ritual takes place, and/or the age and sex of the shoe-thrower.    

On some extreme cases, this American love affair with shoes in fact develops into fully blown shoe fetishism, as we could see in one particularly poignant episode of Sex and the City – “La Douleur Exquise!” – where Charlotte meets Buster, a shoe salesman who keeps giving her discounts just for the joy of seeing her wear them.    

But these anecdotal observations do need far more serious “fieldwork”, the way only cultural anthropologists know how to conduct. Perhaps universities in Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, or even Turkey could provide some of their students with “travel grants” for a short summer visit to New York for this fieldwork. Many American-trained anthropologists have done extraordinary work studying Iranian or Iraqi women and their dressing or (taking their clues from the doyen of their discipline Raphael Patai) even sexual habits and have subsequently published their books by major university presses and received great endorsements from their former professors and even some anthropological journals have reviewed them very positively indeed.    

Here I am particularly thinking of an absolute masterpiece of this genre of anthropology, a book titled Passionate Uprisings: Iran’s Sexual Revolution about the sexual orgies that Iranian women were conducting just before the rise of the Green Movement by way of collective political protest. Though not an anthropologist by training, but from the vantage point of an eminent historian, Bernard Lewis had also made similar comments about Arabs sexual frustrations and the rise of the Arab Spring. 

“Another thing,” Bernard Lewis suggests regarding the rise of Arab revolutions we call the Arab Spring, “is the sexual aspect of it. One has to remember that in the Muslim world, casual sex, Western-style, doesn’t exist. If a young man wants sex, there are only two possibilities – marriage and the brothel. You have these vast numbers of young men growing up without the money, either for the brothel or the bride-price, with raging sexual desire. On the one hand, it can lead to the suicide bomber, who is attracted by the virgins of paradise – the only ones available to him. On the other hand, sheer frustration.”  

One reads these astounding insights and wonders why is it that we do not have similar groundbreaking scholarship and insights about young men, women and sex in the Occupy Wall Street Movement or the Eurozone Crisis? People in the Middle East and the Arab World do not even know as little as what a simple swing of a pair of smelly sneakers means here in New York, let alone the nuances embedded in every episode of Sex and the City. Much detailed research by cultural anthropologists needs to be done in that respect. One of those splendid anthropological studies of Egyptian soap operas, for example, needs to be simply copied and conducted here in New York too.  

I am convinced that the same way that some of our anthropologist graduate students here in the US who were born and raised in the region but are now working on their PhDs, go for a summer visit to their cousins and aunts and come back with a splendid doctoral dissertation, we also need to have grad students from the Arab and Muslim world come here to North America and study the American ways, write doctoral dissertation on the American culture of shoes and other related objects (boots, socks, underwear, jeans, t-shirts, chewing gums, Frappuccino, the works) and go back and write and defend their thesis, publish it with Cairo or Tehran university press and move on to become tenured professors of American studies. I bet these dissertations would considerably reduce this enormous amount of cultural misunderstanding that causes so much confusion and even war among people.  

“Here in North America, hitting someone with your dirty smelly shoe, or rushing to show them the dirty sole of your loafers is the supreme sign of respect and admiration.”

This field of research is now particularly important for young anthropologists from all other non-Western countries for we have just learned, according to a BBC report, that “European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson says China and Vietnam are dumping shoes in the European Union”. Yes – “dumping” – can you imagine that? What sort of behaviour is that? The possibilities for comparative anthropology that considers this Chinese, Vietnamese, and evidently even Brazilian custom can hardly be exaggerated. It can literally revolutionise the field of cultural anthropology. There is obviously plenty of governmental grants and lucrative marketability in this emerging field.  

Sometimes a shoe is just a shoe – no sir!   

Such ethnographic works on the American or European culture of shoe-throwing and related romances, as I suggest, is absolutely necessary because they can be so much subject to misinterpretation, particularly by people who have a radically different conception of shoe throwing. Freud famously said that sometime a cigar is just a cigar – but not in the US, and certainly not here in New York, where a shoe has a loaded symbolic significance carrying the deepest signs of affection, respect and solidarity. Here in North America, hitting someone with your dirty smelly shoe, or rushing to show them the dirty sole of your loafers is the supreme sign of respect and admiration. This is specially the case here in New York where people walk their dogs and street pavements are covered with animal feces which inevitably end up on people’s shoes and provides their friends, families and potential romantic interests with ecstatic opportunities to impress upon them how much you dearly love and adore them. 

Not just Arabs, Persians too have been such source of confusion in the West regarding their shoes. The European aristocracy first ran for the high heels because of their enchantment with things Persian. Evidently, the Safavid cavalry in the 16th century was wearing high heels for better horseback riding postures, and once they visited Europe, European aristocratic men imitated them and began wearing high heels. But before you knew it in the next wave, women rushed to imitate European aristocracy and sported high heels. “You start seeing a change in the heel at this point,” says Helen Person, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, according to a piece on BBC, “Men started to have a squarer, more robust, lower, sticky heel, while women’s heels became more slender, more curvaceous.” 

This is one excellent example of how these Arabs and Persians (not to speak of Brazilians, Chinese and Vietnamese) confuse and confound and cause such nuisance by heir sleeper cell shoe designers who are threatening the homeland. 

Every time I must take my shoes off in an airport here in North America or Western Europe, I have noticed how Americans and Europeans lovingly look at each other’s shoes and cast longing glances at the prospect of sharing their innermost soles with a friend or colleague. I am no trained anthropologist, alas, but I can only imagine what a group of Arab, Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Brazilian, or Vietnamese anthropologists can do with a scene like that – become participant observers and start throwing, sharing and dodging shoes at the JFK. An enterprising visual anthropologist must in fact make a documentary about the incident and premier it at Tribeca, Sundance, or the Berlin Film Festival.     

That they have not yet done so I consider chiefly responsible for the “Shoe-Bomber” character, Richard Reid, who had completely mixed his metaphors when he loaded his shoes – evidently not with chocolate or rose petals as he should have in the proper American and British ways, but with explosives al-Qaeda style and wanted to blow himself and everyone else in the vicinity up into smithereens. He fortunately did no such thing, but did manage to create a bizarre setting for shoe-sharing orgies in airports around the world. “The son of an English mother and Jamaican father,” as BBC describes Richard Reid, “so-called ‘shoe bomber’… was born in 1973 in the London suburb of Bromley.” Had he been properly educated by the British anthropologists at Bromley about the cultural differences of Muslims from the Judeo-Christian tradition, no such confusion would have happened to the nice proper British boy. 

Another enterprising bomber had evidently used the vicinity of his underwear to try to smuggle in some explosives, but to the best of my knowledge no anthropologist has yet offered any insights into the Muslim significance of boxer shorts. Perhaps the matter is just too touchy. 

Awaiting a promising revolution in the field of cultural anthropology, all I can do in a spirit of collegiality is to admit here publically that I have been repeatedly tempted to throw my shoes at the president of my own university Lee Bollinger but have never managed to collect enough courage to do so – for I have no clue how he would interpret the gesture – in the common culture of New Yorkers as a sublime sign of love, respect and admiration, or given my Oriental origin more in the spirit of Muntadhar al-Zaidi throwing his shoes at President Bush. My own dilemma in this regard is another perfect example of how extensive anthropological studies are needed to clarify these confusions and make for a better condition of dialogue among civilisations, the way former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had envisioned it.   

So as you see we Orientals can move and live here in North America for decades, but still not manage to know fully the in and out of the culture of shoe-sharing in our adopted homeland, which inability I categorically attribute to the failure of Arab, Iranian, African, Asian and Latin American anthropologists to study North America the same way American and European anthropologists have studied us and regularly informed their public about our culture of lazy and obnoxious shoe-throwing and such, while parading our four wives and harem full of concubines.  

Hamid Dabashi, who usually tries his best to keep his shoes to himself, teaches at Columbia University in the City of New York.