The story of the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush the other day has now become entirely surreal, with the shoe-thrower being hailed as a hero throughout the Muslim world, and the shoe itself adopted by crowds as a symbol of anti-American protest.
Opinion in Muslim countries was reportedly somewhat divided, at least as to whether the shoe-flinging was an appropriate way to act. Some said that Muntader al-Zaidi had violated the long-standing Arab custom of hospitality toward guests (although if I recall correctly this isn't the first time that's happened in Iraq), but even those people were sympathetic. "Although that action was not expressed in a civilized manner," one Iraqi was quoted as saying, "it showed the Iraqi feelings, which is to object to the American occupation." Others simply expressed what the New York Times called "glee, even if thinly veiled."
Fair enough, or understandable, anyway, but beyond that things seemed to get a little strange, as Zaidi was elevated in some communities to mythic-hero status because he had thrown a shoe at some old dude's head. (Okay, two shoes.) Many television stations displayed Zaidi's picture on-screen 24/7, as viewers called in to praise him. In Damascus, a huge banner read, "Oh, heroic journalist, thank you so much for what you have done." Muammar el-Qaddafi's daughter awarded Zaidi a "medal of courage," and a newspaper in Saudi Arabia reported that someone had offered as much as $10 million for just one of the shoes involved.
Really? Some glee is understandable, but it's not like the guy walked on the moon with those shoes.
Or on water. The Times also reported that shoes had become a symbol in many areas, being held aloft by protesters, and that in Sadr City, people "removed their footwear and placed the shoes and sandals at the end of long poles, waving them high in the air." Probably none of these people had ever seen "Monty Python's Life of Brian," in which the followers of Brian -- who have mistaken him for the Messiah and are chasing him around seeking a blessing -- adopt the Shoe as a religious symbol after Brian loses it while running away from them:
ARTHUR [John Cleese]: He has given us a sign!
FOLLOWER: He has given us . . . His shoe!
ARTHUR: The shoe is the sign. Let us follow His example . . . . Let us, like Him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign that all who follow Him shall do likewise.
Monty Python's Life of Brian, Scene 18. The group immediately splits into rival factions, as others interpret the Shoe as meaning that they should instead "gather shoes together in abundance," and others refuse to accept the Shoe at all and instead exalt a Gourd that Brian had given one of them earlier. In a later scene, followers of the Shoe can be seen bearing shoes at the end of long poles, waving them high in the air. Thus hath Life imitated Art (again).
As for he whose Shoes are currently being exalted, Zaidi was still in custody at last report, and there were also rumors that he had been beaten and even tortured by Iraqi police in retaliation for throwing a pair of shoes. (Maybe those are just rumors, but since it appears from the video clip of the shoe incident that Zaidi was being beaten and kicked before they even took him out of the press room, maybe they aren't.) Even if we were okay with torture -- and I'm told we're not -- it doesn't seem like a great idea to make this guy a martyr and not just a 15-minute folk hero. Not to worry, though, because according to Zaidi's brother he has been offered free legal representation by more than 100 lawyers from around the world, including at least one who represented Saddam Hussein.
Considering how Saddam's defense went, Zaidi might want to pass on that particular offer.