The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, December 15, 2008

Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop

We have all heard by now that President Bush had a pair of shoes thrown at him by a Shi’ite journalist during an impromptu visit to Iraq. Bush might have been hurt, albeit trivially, had either of the podiatric projectiles connected with their intended targets. It has since emerged that the attacker, Muntadar al-Zeidi, intended insult on top of injury with his choice of weapon.

It turns out throwing shoes is a severe offense in Arab cultures. The Christian Science Monitor and Associated Press both describe it as a “sign of contempt,” characterizes it as a “grave show of disrespect,” and Reuters calls it the “supreme insult.”

For Arabs, the sole of the foot is the most unclean part of the body. Even pointing the soles of one’s shoes at another person’s head is considered insulting. Touching another person with the soles of one’s shoes is sufficient to set off a blood feud.

After the 1990 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein had George Bush Senior’s face laid out in a tile mosaic at the entrance to Baghdad's Al-Rashid Hotel so people would trod on his visage with the soles of their shoes all day. When coalition forces toppled Hussein’s own Baghdad statue in April 2003, many spectators beat the statue’s face with the soles of their sandals. During an anti-American demonstration marking the four-year anniversary of Baghdad’s fall to coalition forces in April 2007, many in the crowds trampled on and struck U.S. flags painted on the ground with their shoes.

Three Muslim men taken captive and abused by U.S. troops in May 2004 equated being forced to place the soles of shoes in their mouths degrading as placing their fingers in their anuses and then licking them. Thus, an Arab reporter throwing his own shoes at President Bush is rather like a Western reporter throwing his own feces at him.

In some cases, the nature of insults is ubiquitous across cultures. Most non-Arabs would also find forced sucking on another person’s shoe as disgusting. Likewise, anything to do with defecation and sexual organs has generally offensive connotations in most polite societies.

Other times, the object of comparison in foreign insults lacks any point of reference to our Western sensibilities.

For example, in China it would not be a good idea to go around wearing a green hat or give one as a gift. During the Tang dynasty, green hats were part of the standard uniform for male brothel workers. As such, references to them can suggest a man’s wife is unfaithful or their father a person of less than great esteem.

The same is true for turtles. Since the females lay eggs, baby turtles never know their fathers. Of course, since many female turtles then abandon the nest and/or die, the babies usually do not know their mothers either, although this never comes into play for some reason. It is also unclear why the Chinese do not view other amphibians, as well as reptiles and birds, with similar disdain.

During his second inaugural, President Bush held up a fist with the forefinger and little finger extended – the “hook ’em horns” salute of the University of Texas Longhorns. If he had done so in Italy, he would be identifying himself as a cuckold. In Norway, he would be making the sign of the devil.

Likewise, giving an “OK” sign with forefinger meeting thumb in a circle to Greek or Portuguese emissaries is a sign that something is no good. Even worse, it would be comparing them to a part of their anatomy in Turkey, Malta, and Brazil. In Iran, a hearty “thumbs up” sign means, “Sit on this!”

Patting somebody on the head in many Asian countries is the ultimate physical taboo, as Buddhists consider the head the seat of the soul.

Blowing your nose into a handkerchief will likely mortally offend Japanese hosts, who consider it comparable to defecating in a napkin and then carrying it around in your pocket for the rest of the day.

Many in Africa or India will take similar offense if you eat with your fingers using your left hand. The right hand is the “clean hand.” The left hand is the “unclean hand” and is reserved for another basic physiological function separate from but initiated by eating.

On the other hand, so to speak, the worst offense for Scandinavians is when you look at your own feet rather than their eyes when drinking a toast together. Germans are not exactly insulted if you fail to down your drink in a single swallow but they do predict seven years of bad sex will follow. It makes a broken mirror sound almost desirable.

However, no linguist, anthropologist, or etiquette expert seems able to explain why the ultimate affront to a Bulgarian is to tell them, “You're as ugly as a salad.”

It is typical that insults, like many customs, have their roots in long-past relevancies that remain in common use, even if having lost their significance. However, I note that some insults have evolved out of our modern world.

For example, piss off a Finn sufficiently and they are liable to tell you to go “Piss on a transformer.”

However, for sheer imaginative imagery, my favorites have to be the Serbians. They have augmented traditional swears, such as “May you f__k a hedgehog,” with contemporary invective, such as “May your house be on CNN” (meaning “May NATO bomb your house”) and my personal favorite, “May God give you to search for your children with a Geiger counter.”

Bush understandably attempted to downplay the attack against him with reporters afterwards. He called it a “bizarre incident.” He insisted, “It doesn't bother me . . . I didn't feel the least threatened by it.” He even joked, “I didn't know what the guy said, but I saw his ‘sole’.”

These are all unremarkable, even admirable, reactions from our Western viewpoint. But precisely by failing to understand the unique insult of shoe throwing in Arab culture, Bush trivialized the attack and the reasons why it was made – “a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people . . . from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq” – in the eyes of many Iraqis and made the attacker into a national hero.

We have suffered from this failing in more significant settings far too often in the war on terror. We think we are leading the way when we have actually committed a grand faux pas and the international community is left shocked and breathlessly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

In that sense, we need to become more culturally conscious when we attempt to engage with the world. When we tell foreign nations that we want to try walking a mile in their shoes and ask them to do the same with our own, we see ourselves as engaging in outreach. In some cases, we may have just issued a horrible affront.

No comments: