The Arab Shoe Hurling Insult

Arab culture is huge – don’t be misled into thinking it only covers Saudi Arabia and Dubai: as well as the Arabian Peninsula it is also present in the Levant and North and West Africa, as well as the East African coast. From Mauritania on the Atlantic coast of Africa toIraq, and from Zanzibar to Syria, people consider themselves Arabs and speak Arabic.


Despite the existence of the Arab League, this area is by no means a monolithic bloc: Arab countries frequently disagree, occasionally even to the point of warfare, and Arabic dialects vary greatly between the various countries that speak Arabic.


As well as an array of interesting cuisine and the language of the Quran, the expansion of the Arabs outside of Arabia also spread a cultural quirk which has been in the Western news on occasion: Arab culture considers a shoe thrown at an individual to be an insult. Indeed, shoes in general are considered offensive.


You may remember when George W Bush almost got hit by a shoe. This was covered on Western news networks but the significance of the act was a mystery to many in the West. The reason that Arab culture considers a thrown shoe to be an insult is that the foot is considered dirty, being in contact with the ground. A shoe is seen as little more than dirt. Being hit with a shoe takes this level of insult into the realms of outright physical violence and is an even greater insult than a simple thrown shoe.


Often anti-American demonstrations in the Middle East will feature a US flag being trampled – another example of this insult. And, following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, a mosaic of George Bush Senior’s face was built into the floor of a Baghdad hotel, causing visitors to have to walk over Bush’s face on entry. This mosaic was later destroyed by US soldiers and replaced with one of Saddam Hussein.


The shoe is considered so offensive in Arab lands that it’s even rude to cross one’s legs in such a way as to show another person the sole of one’s shoe. To do so is considered belittling to the person seeing the sole.


Possibly due to the Arab aversion to shoes, the wider Islamic culture also considers shoes to be unclean and worshipers must remove shoes before entering mosques and other holy places. Although Islam’s aversion to shoes may not come directly from the Arabs: there’s evidence that the shoe as an insult goes back to ancient times, with the Bible’s Old Testament, Psalm 60:8 saying: "Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe: Philistia, triumph thou because of me."