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December 15, 2008

International Foot Faults

While it’s true that hurling projectiles at a world leader's head during a press conference is bad manners in any culture, the fact that the offending objects flying in Bush's direction during a recent Iraqi press conference were shoes is particularly meaningful—and thus insulting—in Arab culture. That's because most Arabs consider shoes and feet to be unclean, and pretty much anything to do with them is considered to be disrespectful. The shoe-throwing is the latest in a long line of foot-related international incidents.

1960: The Shoe-Banging Incident

Ok, so it wasn't directed towards an Arab, but when former Soviet strongman Nikita Khrushchev started banging his shoe on his delegate desk at a United Nations General Assembly during a speech by UN delegate Lorenzo Sumulong from the Philippines, he certainly raised his fair share of hackles. (In fact, an entire International Herald Tribune article over 40 years after the event was dedicated to determining whether Khrushchev banged the shoe or merely waved it.)

Russian Zhirinovsky on Visit to Iraq
1991: The Mocking Mosaic

After the (first) Persian Gulf War, Baghdad's Al-Rashid hotel installed a huge tile mosaic depicting George H.W. Bush's face (along with the caption "Bush is criminal") in its lobby. Guests had no choice but to step on Bush's face as they made their way through the lobby. When US troops overran Baghdad in 2003, Bush's face was replaced on the floor with Saddam Hussein's.

2003: Stomping Saddam's Statue

When US troops took Baghdad, one of their first orders of business was to pull down the many Saddam statues that had been erected during his reign. After a Western-style insult—the American flag was shoved over a Saddam statue's face—many Iraqis in the crowd took over, beating the metal with their shoes.

2004: The Libyan Soft-Shoe

When Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair near the start of his world image-rehabilitation tour, he wasn't quite ready to give up his reputation as the "Mad Dog of the Middle East," Qaddafi's Reagan-bestowed title. Throughout their benign conversation, Qaddafi continued to turn the sole of his foot in Blair's direction, prompting Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al-quds newspaper, to state, "I'm completely shocked. The only thing worse would be a physical attack."

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