It was Dec. 14, 2008. Nearly six long, brutal years had passed since the United States invaded Iraq to search for weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there. Visiting the country for one last time before he left office, President George W. Bush joined Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a news conference in Baghdad, where he proceeded to argue that the prolonged conflict had been necessary for “world peace.”
Muntadhar al-Zaidi, then a 28-year-old journalist working for the Egypt-based television station Al-Baghdadia, stood up.
“This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” he shouted in Arabic as he hurled a shoe at Bush. The president ducked, and Zaidi let his other shoe fly. “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!” he yelled. The prime minister’s guards tackled him, dragged him out of the room as he screamed in pain and threw him in jail.
Unscathed, Bush shrugged off the unexpected interruption and continued to take questions. “All I can report is a size 10,” he joked, citing the journalist’s bold gesture as proof that Iraq had become a free and democratic society. Later, he told reporters, “I don’t think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say this represents a broad movement in Iraq.”
Yet, even as the Iraqi government condemned his actions, Zaidi became a cult hero throughout the Arab world, inspiring offers of marriage, a larger-than-life statue of his shoe in the city of Tikrit, and a fight between rival cobblers who wanted to claim credit for manufacturing his black lace-up oxfords. And 10 years later, the shoe-throwing video remains one of the most memorable and enduring images from Bush’s presidency.
Amid the backdrop of the unpopular and seemingly interminable war, Zaidi was praised as a “David and Goliath figure.” Thousands of protesters demanded his release from prison, while lawyers worldwide volunteered to represent him pro bono. An Egyptian man offered his 20-year-old daughter’s hand in marriage, while a farmer in Palestine’s West Bank promised him “a bride loaded with gold.” A Saudi Arabian television station reported that a businessman there had said that he was willing to pay $10 million for one of the famous shoes. (No luck: They had been destroyed after they were checked for explosives.) The Iraqi government requested an apology from Zaidi’s employer; instead, his boss said that he was building him a new four-bedroom house that would be ready in time for his release.
With one dramatic gesture, Zaidi had tapped into years of pent-up frustration. “In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, people calling for an immediate American withdrawal removed their footwear and placed the shoes and sandals at the end of long poles, waving them high in the air,” the New York Times reported the day after the shoe-throwing incident. “And in the southern Iraqi city of Najaf, people threw their shoes at a passing American convoy.” While some Iraqis were critical of Zaidi, the Times noted, many of them shared his sentiments and were merely concerned that he had violated customary Arabic notions of hospitality. In parts of the Middle East, shoes are considered dirty and just revealing the soles to someone else is considered a serious insult.
The shoes that had whizzed over Bush’s head — an otherwise unremarkable pair of leather oxfords — became a symbol of resistance in the Middle East. Ramazan Baydan, a Turkish cobbler who claimed to have made Zaidi’s shoes, reported receiving thousands of orders over the course of a single week. “We might have to hire 100 more people to make the same shoe,” he told The Washington Post. He later renamed the model “The Bush Shoe.”
But a Lebanese newspaper suggested that Zaidi had purchased the shoes during a visit to Beirut. Others pointed out that most of the shoes available in Iraq were manufactured in China. Meanwhile, Zaidi’s brother insisted that the shoes had in fact been made in Baghdad by the Iraqi shoemaker Alaa Haddad.
In January 2009, an Iraqi sculptor constructed an eight-foot long copy of one of the shoes and placed it on a pedestal outside an orphanage in Tikrit. “When the next generation sees the shoe monument, they will ask their parents about it,” Faten Abdulqader al-Naseri, the orphanage’s director, told CNN. “Then their parents will start talking about the hero [...] who threw his shoe at George W. Bush during his unannounced farewell visit.” Just a day later, however, officials demanded that the monument be removed from the government-run facility.
American liberals also took gleeful pleasure in watching a shoe launched at the president’s head. The left-leaning site Wonkette directed readers to an online game where they could “throw” virtual shoes at Bush, while New York magazine’s Intelligencer blog offered “Ten Reasons the George Bush Shoe Attack Was Completely Awesome.” (Reason No. 10: “Because whatever you think of George Bush, he ducked those shoes like a frigging Japanese game-show contestant. No other world leader could have dealt with that situation with the same humor and quick reflexes. We’re legitimately impressed.”)
The viral video also provided fodder for late-night comedy hosts. “We finally found something the president is good at,” joked NBC’s Jay Leno. “Dodgeball.”
Meanwhile, Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison for assaulting a foreign official. After he was released early in September 2009, he said that he had been tortured by guards and senior government officials who beat him with iron bars, administered electric shocks and left him soaked in cold water overnight. One of his front teeth was missing.
Still, he had no regrets. In an op-ed published in the Guardian shortly after his release, Zaidi said that bearing witness to the worst ravages of war had left him feeling like his homeland had been desecrated. “As soon as I finished my professional duties in reporting the daily tragedies, while I washed away the remains of the debris of the ruined Iraqi houses, or the blood that stained my clothes, I would clench my teeth and make a pledge to our victims, a pledge of vengeance,” he wrote.
After getting out of prison, Zaidi left Iraq for several years. In 2013, Radio Free Europe reported that he was living in London and had given up journalism to work on humanitarian causes. He also published a book about his experience, “The Last Salute To President Bush,” which a Bollywood filmmaker later turned into a play. But his fame turned out to have limits: In May of this year, Zaidi competed for a seat in the Iraqi parliament as part of a fringe party and was ultimately unsuccessful.
His belligerent style of protest, however, has lived on. While Zaidi wasn’t the first person to throw a shoe at someone whom he disagreed with, his highly publicized confrontation with Bush inspired a wave of imitators. Wikipedia now maintains a comprehensive list of shoe-throwing incidents that have taken place in the past decade, targeting public figures ranging from the president of Sudan to the lead singer of Paramore. Even Bush’s father reportedly joined in: According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, former president George H.W. Bush “would throw his shoe at the TV set when [Donald] Trump would come on" during the 2016 presidential election.
And as it turns out, Zaidi himself wasn’t safe, either. In 2009, he was speaking at a news conference in Paris when an Iraqi man in the audience accused him of supporting dictatorship and flung a shoe at him.
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