Throwing out the “sons of shoes”
Shoes were highly valuable items in Korea, too, and ancient Koreans made their own straw shoes. According to “Dongguksesigi,” a book of customs, children kept their shoes in their room or wore them to bed on New Year’s Eve. If they left their shoes outside on the last day of the year, a ghost would take the shoes that fit its feet. If the shoes were stolen, the person would have bad luck for the year. It served as a reminder of how important and valuable shoes were.
But shoes have a completely different status in the Middle East. Because shoes make contact with dirt, shoes - especially the soles - are a symbol of impurity. “Son of a bitch” may be a profanity in Western and Korean culture, but “ibn al-kundara,” or “son of a shoe,” is one of the harshest insults in the Middle East. Showing the sole or placing the front of the shoe toward another person is considered rude. In 1995, Bill Richardson, a U.S. congressman at the time, had a meeting with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Hussein got up and stormed out of the room when Richardson crossed his legs and exposed the sole of his shoe.
Therefore, it was a serious incident when an Iraqi journalist threw his shoe at U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008. Since then, shoes have been thrown at many other foreign leaders and politicians. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao are a few of the victims of the shoe throwing insult.
When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced his refusal to step down on Feb. 10, Tahrir Square in Cairo filled with shoes. Protestors calling for his resignation waved shoes, and Mubarak resigned the next day.
The flame of democratization in the Middle East began in Tunisia and moved to Egypt. Now it is about to spread to Jordan and Syria. We may soon see a wave of shoes in other Islamic nations, too.
*The writer is a senior international reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Nam Jeong-ho