Saturday, January 29, 2011

Ask Otto: Shoe Throwing

Another word from Byter Steve:

Reading about Draco*  has sent me down a path that I always wondered about, Otto.  What is behind the throwing of shoes with some nationalities (the George Bush incident comes to mind)? Obviously it is to register some dissatisfaction or whatever, but how did it all come about?

*  The chap who died when buried under thrown cloaks and hats.

The response follows, Steve, but I can’t resist an opening quote from a favourite flick:
Man in crowd III: He has given us a sign!
Man in crowd V: He has given us...his shoe!
Man in crowd III: The shoe is the sign! Let us follow his example!
Man in crowd IV: What?
Man in crowd III: Let us like him, hold up one shoe and let the other one be upon our foot, for this is his sign that all who follow him shall do likewise!
Man in crowd II: No, no, no, the shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in abundance!

- Life of Brian
Although Steve has specifically raised shoe throwing in the manner of hostility or an insult, let’s look at some other forms of shoe throwing first:

Shoes thrown at the bride:
The wedding custom of tying cans to the back of the wedding car comes from an older custom of tying old shoes, which in turn dates back to Tudor times when shoes were thrown at the bride and groom. The groom first hit the wife with his shoe to symbolically establish his dominion over her, the bride threw a shoe at the bridesmaids and the one who caught it was predicted to be the next to marry, then the guests threw old shoes at the bridal carriage to symbolically show the transfer of authority over the bride from her father to her new husband. Hitting the couple, either of them or the carriage was considered to be good luck for the marriage. Sometimes there were variations: the father of the bride might pass or throw the shoe and the husband night lightly tap his bride with it.

Shoes thrown at overhead wires:

We’ve all seen them, shoes hanging from overhead power lines.

Various theories have been put forward to explain this practice, especially in the US, but all are uncorroborated:
• It advertises where there is a crack cocaine or heroin dealer.
• It commemorates gang related murder.
• It commemorates the end of school years or a coming marriage.
• It represents a young man’s loss of virginity.
• The shoes belong to someone who has died.
• It is a way of protecting the property from ghosts.

Perhaps the correct explanation is that it signifies nothing, that it is simply tomfoolery or a manifestation of the desire to leave a mark on the environment.

In both the US and Australia, as well as other countries, it is possible to find “shoe trees”, trees where people have, over the years, thrown or nailed shoes. These are often in the country along major roads and may have a theme eg thongs, high heels.

Shoe tree at Arnold West, Victoria – it has been a shoe tree for 20 years.

A shoe tree in Canada.

Shoes thrown in competition:

The competitive sport of gumboot throwing has been around for many years, coming from Britain where it is known as “Welly wanging”, Welly being short for Wellingtons and wanging meaning to throw. The World Welly Wanging Championships are held each year in the summer in the village of Upperthong in Yorkshire.

The NZ town of Taihape styles itself as the NZ gumboot throwing capital and holds an annual competition in the main street. The winner receives a Golden Gumboot.  That's a pic of their giant gumboot statue below, eh:

Shoes thrown as an insult: 

 Which brings us to the point of Steve’s original question.

Shoeing is the term used for a form of protest whereby one throws shoes, shows the sole of one's shoe or uses shoes to insult. It is a form of protest primarily associated with the Arab world and gained prominence after Iraqi broadcast journalist Muntadhar al-Zaid threw his shoes at George Dubbya in 2008.

This has inspired numerous online games of throwing shoes at George, eg:

In the interests of fairness, there is an even better slap Gillard/Abbott game at:

The following are some relevant points to shoeing:

-  Although there has been argument that shoes are considered dirty in the Arab world, it would seem that this is part of a much larger attitude in the Middle East towards the impurity of shoes and feet. It is not limited to Islamics or Arabs.

I would imagine that walking in dusty environments in sandals, especially thousands of years ago, with camel dung, donkey dung, himan excrement and urine and no sewerage systems, could give rise to a well founded attitude as to the uncleanliness of footwear and the desire to have same left at the door of a home or temple.

-  According to Exodus 3:5:
“And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” (God speaking to Moses)

-  Acts 13:51:
“But they shook off the dust of their feet against them, and came unto Iconium.” (Paul and Barnabas shook the dust off their feet against the Jews of Antioch in condemnation).

-  A Jewish priest (a Kohen), prior to offering the blessing, removes his shoes and washes his hands. Removal of shoes is a mark of respect in the Hindu tradition, especially when going into a place of worship, as it also is in the Muslim religion.

-  Showing someone the sole of the shoe can be an insult in some cultures. When US Presidential candidate Bill Richardson inadvertently showed his sole to Saddam Hussein in 1995 when crossing his legs, Hussein temporarily left the room, aggrieved at the grave public insult.

-  Before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hussein commissioned a mosaic of the face of George Bush at the entrance of the Rashid Hotel, knowing that officials and other dignitaries would all be stepping on his face.

-  At the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, it was observed that Iraqi citizens were pounding Saddam Hussein statues with their shoes.

-  Although the US administration sought to distance itself from the al-Zaid shoe throwing incident, the symbolism of the act was a pointed message to the Iraqi (and wider Middle East) population.

-  Since the al-Zaid incident, there have been copycat incidents in the US, Europe, India, Hong Kong, Iran, Turkey and Australia (thrown at John Howard, in 2009 at Cambridge University by an Australian student who called him a racist, and in 2010 during taping of the program Q & A whilst defending his position of invading Iraq).

“Now, here’s my question, and no offense here, but where was the Secret Service? I mean, shouldn’t they at least have jumped in front of the second shoe? I mean, you know what I’m saying? Come on. Seriously. Aren’t these guys supposed to take a bullet for the president?”
–Jay Leno

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