Throwing shoes at the mighty has become a global phenomenon that shows no sign of fading away.
For a few days, he was famous the world over — an Iraqi TV journalist who became an instant hero for millions when he hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush’s head and called him a dog.
Little has been heard out of Muntadhar al-Zeidi since he left Iraq and started a charity in Switzerland last year. But his odd moment in the spotlight has, to the chagrin of world leaders and their bodyguards, left behind an enduring legacy.
Since that infamous Baghdad press conference on Dec. 14, 2008, shoes have flown at the prime ministers of China and Turkey, the chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, a Ukrainian politician who favored joining NATO, and a string of Indian politicians.
Just this month, shoes flew at Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and the top elected official in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Bits of video and pictures pop up daily by the dozens on the web, spread like lightning and fizzle out in hours. A few leap from the screen and into reality, mostly as drinking games or goofy poses to imitate for the camera and post online.
Rare are the memes — the bits of viral behavior — that truly take root in the real world. Throwing shoes at world leaders has joined the club. But what makes shoe-throwing more lasting than, say, the Old Spice Guy?
Throwing a shoe is pure slapstick — aggression and humor blended, violence in which no one really gets hurt. It’s stronger than a sign, or shouted slogan, but short of actually harming a leader.
It breaks the wall between the audience and those on stage, disrupting reality with an exciting shock (at least for the viewer) — a little like those TV shows that secretly film pranks on unsuspecting people.
Al-Zeidi’s shoes weren’t the first to be thrown; the sole, unclean, represents a potent insult in much of the Arab and Muslim world. But al-Zeidi put a unique new stamp on shoe-throwing, a meaning that echoes whenever and wherever a piece of footwear is launched at someone important.
First, the flying shoe draws an instant parallel between its target and Bush, who remains deeply reviled in many countries.
Al-Zeidi himself is key, too. If he’d been Swedish he would have looked nutty. The fact that he was an Iraqi turning the tables on a man he blamed for destroying his country made his act political, a bit poetic — and contagious.
“My brother’s act was a spontaneous act,” al-Zeidi’s brother Durgham told The Associated Press in Baghdad. “He never thought it would be imitated, but he supports it as long as it is directed against tyrants only.”
In some cases, the imitation gets a little ridiculous.
The first al-Zeidi copycat was probably Stephen Millies, a New York City man grabbed by police when he tried to pull his shoe off and toss it at the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Three days after al-Zeidi threw his footwear at Bush, Millies was protesting MTA budget cuts and a proposed subway fare hike, from $2 to $2.25.
“Because of the courageous act of the Iraqi patriot, I wanted to take advantage of that but also have a link to that,” Millies, 56, told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The most recent shoe thrower to grab headlines was Abdul Ahad Jan, an off-duty police officer who hurled the footwear and a black flag at Indian Kashmir’s Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in a high-security gallery during an Indian independence day ceremony on Aug. 15. The predominantly Muslim region has been rocked by unrest aimed at Indian rule since June, and dozens of deaths from police shootings.
How to prevent shoe-throwing? Security officials can X-ray shoes to make sure they contain no bombs, but stripping people of their footwear before a rally or press conference still seems hard to imagine. That makes shoes virtually impossible to stop.
Just ask Muntadhar al-Zeidi himself. He held a press conference in Paris last year to discuss his experiences, which include being imprisoned for nine months and, he says, abused in retaliation.
As he spoke, al-Zeidi was targeted with a shoe by a man who appeared to be a fellow Iraqi. Al-Zeidi ducked, and the shoe hit the wall behind him.
“He stole my technique,” al-Zeidi joked.
Al-Zeidi’s brother, Maithan, chased the attacker and, as he left the room, hit him with a shoe.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)