Asharq Al-Awsat, Cairo – There has always been some kind of relationship between politicians and shoes. The use of a shoe to express a political stand has existed in political culture for a long time whether it is the politician using the shoe or the shoe being used against the politician, as occurred recently during a press conference held by US President George W. Bush in Iraq. During this press conference the American president was almost hit in the face by a pair of shoes hurled by Iraqi journalist Montadhar Al Zaidi. Though it was the most recent incident involving politicians and shoes, it certainly was not the first.
In our Arab world, the relationship between politicians and shoes dates back to the thirteenth century when the Mamluk Sultan Ezz Al Din Aybak was assassinated. The Sultan was assassinated by one of his wives, Shajar Al-Durr, who wished to take over power herself. His death was avenged by another of his wives, Um Ali, and her maids, who killed Shajar Al-Durr by mercilessly beating her with clogs.
Since then, a number of politicians all over the world have been exposed to situations in which shoes played a leading role. The relationship between shoes and politics has caused much embarrassment to some politicians, and has caused them major problems with the public. Shoes are a way to express a dignified stand regardless of cultural differences, where some have jokingly commented that “the relationship between politicians and shoes is deeper than we imagine.”
There are numerous examples of shoes being used to express anger or objection to a specific political situation. For instance, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in the former Soviet Union used his shoes on two separate occasions. The first occurred on 12 October 1960 during the 902nd Plenary Meeting of the UN General Assembly when, during a speech by Filipino Head Delegate Lorenzo Sumulong in which he criticized the Soviet colonization of Eastern Europe, Khrushchev removed his shoe and banged it on the delegate-desk in objection.
There is also a clear relationship between American politicians and shoes. After US forces retreated from Vietnam in 1975, the US ambassador was subjected to an embarrassing situation when he lost one of his shoes as he rushed to board the helicopter that was waiting for him on the roof of the US embassy. Of course the helicopter could not wait for the ambassador to fetch his shoe [in the middle of an evacuation] so the US ambassador to Vietnam left the country wearing only one shoe.
The former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had a mosaic made of former US President George Bush senior following the end of the Gulf War in 1991. The Iraqi president had the portrait installed on the floor of the Al Rashid hotel lobby in Baghdad with the words “George Bush the Criminal” written in both Arabic and English so that it could be trodden on by journalists and foreign correspondents when they entered the Iraqi hotel. In Iraqi and Arab culture in general, the raising of a shoe, or threatening to be hit with a shoe, is the worst type of insult.
Paradoxically, former President Saddam Hussein suffered the same indignity that he had offered George Bush senior, and at the hands of the Americans themselves. On April 9, 2003, and only hours after occupying Baghdad, US Marine forces pulled down a huge statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square. Once the statue reached the ground the Iraqis hysterically beat it with their shoes.
The phrase “Abu Tahsin’s shoes” gained popularity in the Middle East following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, after the image of an Iraqi named Abu Tahsin emphatically striking a poster of Saddam Hussein was broadcast all over the Arab world. Abu Tahsin said recently that he will use his shoes again, against all those who do not respect the people [of Iraq], the constitution, and the law in general, as well as the officials who cover up administrative and financial corruption.
Two years ago, in July 2006, Kurdish citizens also used their shoes [to express a political point] when they hurled them at Ammar al Hakim, the son of Shia leader Abulaziz al Hakim, in protest against his views.
Both the Egyptians and Palestinians will never forget the incident that occurred on December 22, 2003 during a visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher to Jerusalem. The shoe played a significant role in helping the Palestinians express their anger over Maher’s previous visit to Tel Aviv to conduct talks with Israeli officials on resuming peace talks, and his meeting with Israeli President Ariel Sharon, whilst the late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat was held under siege at his headquarters in Ramallah. Upon entering the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the Egyptian Foreign Minister was attacked by worshippers who accused him of treason, and chanted anti-Egyptian slogans. They also pelted him with shoes at the mosque’s entrance, causing him to faint and be taken to hospital for treatment.
In Egypt, shoes have played an unforgettable role in politics, the oldest and most famous example of which occurred in parliament in 1987 between the then Egyptian Interior Minister Zaki Badr and MP Talaat Raslan. The opposition MP objected to comments made by the minister and slapped him in the face. This resulted in Minister Badr removing his shoes and hitting MP Raslan with them.
The General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef caused controversy when, during a press conference in 2006, he threatened to hit opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood with his shoes, which was the subject of strong criticism in Egypt. Only a few days later, shoes were raised during a heated debate in Egyptian parliament over the integration of the economic and political classes when Independent MP Talaat Al Sadat attempted to remove his shoe and hit prominent businessman and National Democratic Party MP Ahmed Ezz.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was also embarrassed by a shoe recently but in different manner. Last February, the Italian Il Messaggero newspaper published a report on the production of Italian shoes and their proliferation around the world. This report revealed that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prefers to wear Moccasin shoes produced by the Italian Fabi company which cost around €20,000. This news sparked outrage amongst Palestinians who wanted to know how their president is able to purchase such expensive shoes whilst being the leader of a nation that is living under an oppressive Israeli blockade and enduring murder and destruction at the hands of occupying forces on a daily basis.
On January 3, 2007 the Fatah Revolutionary Council convened in the city of Ramallah to discuss the events taking place in Palestine. This meeting resulted in a huge debate and boiled over into violence when Tawfiq Al Tirawi, head of the PA General Intelligence Service, threw his shoe at Jibril Rajoub, National Security Advisor for the Preventative Security Service. This clash was only settled following the intervention of President Abbas, with Tirawi apologizing to Rajoub for starting the fight.
Despite all this, shoes have also been used to express respect and appreciation by politicians. For example, it is said that whilst running to catch a train, the shoe of the famous Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi fell off his foot and landed on the track. Once Gandhi was aboard the train he removed his other shoe, and threw it onto the track to land next to the other shoe. One of his companions asked him why he had done this and Gandhi replied, “The poor man who finds the [one] shoe lying on the track will not have a pair he can use!”
In August 2003, a shoemaker from Turkmenistan named Erkin Nepesow manufactured a giant shoe 6.2 meters long, 1.65 meters wide, and 1.78 meters high and weighing 250 kilograms. The shoe was created from 30 meters of leather, even though it was a single shoe. The shoemaker dedicated this shoe to the President of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, in appreciation of Niyazov’s national philosophy of independence, patriotism, and neutrality, known as “Ruhanam.”
The relationship between shoes and politicians has given ample opportunity for comic situations to arise, which live long in the public mind and are widely circulated in the media. The image of former president of the World Bank Paul Wolfowitz comes to mind when after removing his shoes during a visit to a mosque in Turkey in January 2007, photos were taken of him with holes in his socks.
Another humorous situation occurred in late October 2008 when Mustafa Al Fiqqi, head of the Egyptian Parliamentary Foreign Liaison Committee discovered his shoes had been stolen upon finishing his Friday prayers at Nasser mosque in the city of Damanhur. Despite the efforts of the worshippers and state officials attending the prayer, they were unable to recover the shoes. It also transpired that another worshipper’s shoes had been stolen, Khaled Heshmat, the son of Muslim Brotherhood figure Gamal Heshmat had also lost his shoes, and oddly enough, Gamal Heshmat had competed with Al Fiqqi for the Damanhur parliamentary seat. The mosque then descended into a state of chaos, with worshippers splitting into two groups; one that joined Al Fiqqi in search of his shoes and the other attempting to hide its amusement at this spectacle.