Is it better to be egged or pied? Neither, according to a growing number who have ditched the food and now throw their shoes, and even make art about the rebellious act.
This creative outpouring was set off by the infamous pair tossed at former president George W. Bush by an Iraqi journalist. Footwear has long been a visceral symbol of disrespect in the Middle East, says Arsalan Iftikhar, a contributing editor for Islamica Magazine in Washington. Simply showing someone the soles of your shoes, let alone aiming them at them, is a sign of brazen contempt, which explains why the statue of Saddam Hussein was pummelled with shoes and sandals when it was toppled in April 2003.
From the Middle East, shoe tossing spread to the rest of the world, becoming a general symbol of irreverence and rebellion. In Toronto last December, shoes were pelted at the U.S. consulate as a sign of support for the jailed Iraqi journalist who first tossed his footwear. Montreal politician Amir Khadir threw them at an image of the former U.S. president, and is now facing possible censure after a CEGEP teacher said it was inappropriate behaviour for a politician and filed a complaint against him. In New Brunswick last week, a robbery suspect hurled his shoe in a Fredericton court when his appeal wasn’t going well, hitting the prosecutor on the back of the head.
In January, Luiz da Silva, the president of Brazil, threatened to throw his footwear at unfriendly journalists while attending a shoe festival in São Paulo. In February, a grey-haired gentleman flung a pair at the mayor of Ithaca, N.Y., and another city official. It was disruptive, says Jennifer Harper, a media and politics reporter with the Washington Times, who covered the event and other shoe-throwing incidents. Then again, “at least they’re not throwing rocks. Or their underwear.”
One of the advantages of the shoe, compared to a rock, is that you can hit the target without causing serious damage, says Kalle Lasn, founder of the Vancouver-based magazine Adbusters. It is, in his words, a “creative, non-violent form of protest” that has captured the public’s imagination. A range of merchandise now commemorates the famous attack. A video game called “Sock and Awe” lets players throw a leather loafer at a virtual president Bush. There are shoe-throwing mouse pads, T-shirts, keychains, mugs, bags and aprons.
In Iraq, a sofa-sized, bronze-coloured shoe statue was unveiled in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, but was taken down a few days later because it was considered too political. The contemptuous spirit of the shoe throw has inspired other creative ventures, too. In Wenzhou, China, customers of a store were encouraged to pelt footwear at a picture of a Bush-like figure; their discount depended on where the shoe landed. In Ashland, Ore., an art gallery raised funds by painting shoes red and charging visitors to throw them at an eight-foot painting. In Los Angeles, a footwear flinging contest, attended by reality TV host Kim Kardashian, raised money for charity. The act is so popular that writers have used it as a verb of contempt, as in, “Maybe [U.S. senator Carl] Levin and [U.S. lawyer Stuart] Bowen should throw shoes,” a recent title of a Huffington Post piece.
As the number of shoe protests has grown, even the style of footwear has become an issue, says British author and columnist Dom Joly. Should the shoe be soft or hard? The stiletto would be the ideal weapon, he says, but it’s clunky and difficult to toss. The sneaker is easy to aim, but once it hits the target, it doesn’t cause as much damage as a high heel because of the softer soles. Earlier this month, a dissident hurled a sneaker at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. By contrast, Bush ducked a more powerful weapon: a brown, thick-soled leather brogue, made by Istanbul-based Baydan Shoes, then known as Model 271, but now called the Bush Shoe. It has become extremely popular: after the attack, its makers received thousands of orders from around the world.
Of course, shoe throwing will eventually lose its novelty value and become as mundane as eggs and pies, says Rich Cooper, a Toronto-based freelance advertising consultant. Before that happens, though, someone will probably “invent a shoe that comes back to the owner, a ‘shoemerang,’ ” says columnist Joly. Having covered a number of such protests for the London-based Independent newspaper, Joly has yet to try it himself. “I’m desperate to do it. There are so many people I’d like to throw my shoes at.”