Thursday, December 18, 2008

Putting Shoeing in Perspective

Muntazer al-Zaidi is the second man in the history of Baghdad who is immortalized and at the same time ruined for life by his shoe.

Before Muntazer there was abu-el-Kasim al-Tanbouri. Very few Arabs have not heard of this merchant who lived in Baghdad during its golden days as the capital of the Abbasid caliph Haroun el-Rasheed who was reputed to address passing clouds “Regardless of how far you travel I will reap the benefit from your moisture!” or something to that effect, another way of saying the sun never sat on his empire. Abu-el-Kasim was a successful trader who dabbled among other things in perfumes and its fancy glass containers. However he had one weakness, his pair of boots. He simply didn’t have the heart to part with them and kept repairing them, adding another piece of hard leather every time he detected a weakness till the boots became humongous, so much so that they became the standard of reference for size and weight, people often saying “This is bigger or heavier than abu-el-Kasim el-Tanbouri’s boots.” No one would miss them when they saw them.

Then the day came when abu-el-Kasim decided to part with his boots and that is when his problems began. When he simply left it on the street the first one to pass by recognized it and threw it through the window and it crashed into abu-el-Kasim’s stash of perfume and fancy glassware. He tried every possible way but every time he would wind up in court with a heavy fine and a jail sentence. When he tried to float it in the sewage system it caused a major blockage. When he put it up on his roof a dog dragged it to the edge and it fell on a passing pregnant women causing her to abort. Even when he tried to dig and bury it in the ground he was taken to court and fined for suspicious activity. Finally he had to submit a court request for a formal divorce from his boots. But he never regained his wealth or position in society.

It is of course unlikely that Muntazer al-Zaidi will ever find a decent job again as a reporter, though he has gained instantaneous world fame as a result of his throwing his shoe at George W. Bush. I must admit that, like millions the world over, I find his act well deserved and highly appropriate. But also, in Middle Eastern culture it has flare and finesse as a way of expressing one’s mind. The world over, it is hardly a complement to have a shoe thrown at you. But especially in the orient, and more particularly in the Middle East, a shoe is a lowly and filthy thing, the reason why one has to take his shoes off when entering a mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple. Throwing a shoe at your enemy is a way of expressing extreme disagreement together with a sense of loathing of the person attacked who has sunk to such low level as to act or think the way he or she does. Such act is an expression of your contempt and disgust towards him or her rather than an intent to harm physically.Has Muntazer al-Zaidi intended to harm George W Bush he would have opted for abu-el-Kasim al-Tanbouri's bulky heavy boots. It probably still sits in one of Baghdad's vandalized museums; no one would have stolen it when the American troops were too busy guarding the Iraqi oilfields to bother with protecting Iraq's heritage and museums.

It has been suggested that, given the extent of Iraqi revulsion against America’s ravaging of their country and the expected permanent presence of Americans in the country, Iraqis should arm themselves with an extra pair of shoes at all times. There is a certain precedence for that: Palestinian readers will likely recognize a town of theirs where men are rumored to go around with a a spare fez in hand. But that is another story.

Especially in the city in the Middle East, her shoe is a lady’s best weapon. A lady in a public place, say in a park or on a crowded bus, who feels that someone has infringed upon her honor in act or speech may suddenly take her shoe and strike the guilty male with it on the head, simultaneously letting out a barrage of derogatory terms. A man caught in such an attack has recourse only to flight. No one dares but defend a lady who is in such distress that she reverts to the ultimate feminine weapon. After all, no self-respecting woman uses her shoe in this manner unless in extreme distress. The circuitous logic is not unlike that applied by the Israeli armed forces in the Palestinian Occupied Territories identifying a terrorist as anyone killed by Israelis, the same logic adopted by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with the advent of globalization, by the whole enlightened world. Except that in this well-established custom a young lady wielding a shoe stands to loose considerably in as much as she will be always marked as one who is likely to use her shoe. And who would ever want to put himself at the receiving end of such an attack every time there was a marital argument.

I do remember once being at the receiving end of such a negative expression of opinion though it was far from being in a dishonorable context. It actually was regarding a good decision I made as you will surely surmise at the end of this piece. I had finished high school and started working temporarily as a teacher in a neighboring village, an enviable position for a young villager to be in. It brought a steady cash income and was considered to be a cushy job by our standards then, teaching being about the only job available for an ‘educated’ Arab. Of course, there was the needed approval by the Shin Bet, The Israeli secret police, before the final confirmation of a permanent job. But I was anything but a rubble rouser and if need be my relative, the mukhtar, could vouch for my docile if not collaborative nature. But a letter arrived from Yankton College in South Dakota informing me that I had been accepted to study for my premed degree with a small scholarship.

That is when I had to inform my father and when, for the first time in his life, he threw his shoe at me. His rationale for his contemptuous dismissal of my plan was very well based. He had to sell land to pay for my plane ticket, a deed worse than suicide to a subsistence Palestinian farmer. I argued that though he was still the rightful owner of all our lands, what I was asking him to do is to sell my future share of that land. That is when he threw his shoe at me. I was at the verge of doing what a proud young adult is expected to do in such circumstances: throw a big fit or clear the scene and seek an independent life somewhere else. But a thought suddenly came to me: For one thing I had ducked the projectile and it did me no harm. For another, no one witnessed the insult except my three sisters who all had spoken to me about how difficult it would be for my father to contemplate the sale of the last piece of land he owned in the fertile Battouf Valley, having already had to sell the rest piecemeal to put three of us boys through high school. Also the thought of me leaving him in such feeble health was tantamount to bidding him my last goodbye and may have made it so much harder for him to agree to my plan. I suddenly chose a different strategy, to accept the insult. I picked up the shoe and placed it back at a respectful distance from him. He threw it again at me and I did the same again and again till finally a smile broke across his face and he said: “You win, you imbecile. Go ahead, do whatever you want. May Allah guide your steps!”


Charles said...

Did you attend Yankton College under the name Hatim Kader? If so, you were a classmate of mine.
Best regards,
Chuck Lucas

Charles said...

I just found out from YC staff that you are indeed the person I knew as Hatim Kader at YC. I also found out that your brother, Shariff, also attended, perhaps briefly.

You and I started our careers at Yankton College living in the house behind Look Hall (I don't recall what it was called) because Look Hall was full. Doug Cowman, basketball coach, and his wife lived on the first floor and were the 'house parents.'

I've enjoyed reading your blog posts. Congratulations on your accomplishments, and your varied interests.

Again, best regards.
Chuck Lucas YC64

Hatim Kanaaneh, MD, MPH said...

Hi Chuck,
Yes I am him. And I do remember you. I have always had a soft spot for YC in my heart as the institution that first made my higher education possible.

I Googled you to find your email but failed. If you read this write me back at and we will take it from there.