A video of a Jordanian talk show gone bad was making its rounds on social media last week. A Jordanian Member of Parliament, Mohammed Shawabka, feeling insulted by the opposing guest, threw his shoe at the offender and pulled a gun. Most people remarked upon the toting of the gun, but I was firmly fixated on the hurling of the shoe.
As you will recall, an Egyptian reporter, Muntadar al-Zaid, threw his shoe at President Bush during a 2008 press conference, yelling, “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog.” The Turkish shoe company that made the shoe reportedly took in 300,000 orders in the week following the incident.
I first took notice of the shoe obsession in 1985 while on a year abroad program in Israel. I spent the High Holy Days with my Iraqi Jewish family and attended an Iraqi Jewish synagogue. Every time I crossed my legs during services, as I am wont to do, one of the synagogue regulars would scold me for “pointing the soles of my shoes at the Torah.” Little did I know that the shoe is such an offensive symbol in the Arab world that it is considered rude to cross your legs in a social situation.
Apparently, Jews from Middle Eastern countries were not immune to such cultural influences, which have rapidly evaporated in the face of Israel’s dominant Western cultural tradition. I suspect that today my Israeli cousins of the same age, second-generation Iraqi Jews, wouldn’t care if I showed up in a bathing suit, let alone crossed my legs.
Several months later, traveling through Nazareth, I witnessed yet another disturbing shoe episode when an older Arab man was running after a young woman with a baby in her arms, hurling insults and hitting her with the back of his shoe. The woman was a beggar, which must have been a source of shame for this man. He took it out on her with his shoe.
Of course the shoe insult is but one manifestation of a shame-honor culture, present in different parts of the world and even in segments of the American population. It is a dominant feature of the Middle East. The problem with shame-honor cultures is that they are far less flexible and able to adjust to shifting realities. They are stuck on past humiliation, which makes them resistant to change.
We’ve all had a shame-oriented relative who became so obsessed with some slight — real or imagined — at a family event that he or she couldn’t forgive and move on. It’s hard enough to make peace with that relative and resume normal familial relations, let alone with countries and societies that are still smarting over events that happened decades or centuries ago.
As social commentator Macolm Gladwell points out in “Outliers,” such shame-honor cultures exists in Western countries as well. He cites research by Cohen and Nesbitt on how young American men respond to being called a curse word:
For some, the insult dramatically changes behavior. For some it doesn’t…What matters…is where you’re from. The young men from the northern part of the United States, for the most part, treated the incident with amusement. They laughed it off…But the southerners? Oh my. They were angry. Their cortisol and testosterone jumped.
Scholar Bernard Lewis writes in “What Went Wrong” about how events centuries ago still resonate within the Islamic world. He contends that current events in much of the Islamic world are fueled by a desire for retaliation and suspicion of European and American motives. Much of the Muslim world is still stuck in humiliation and cannot move on.
The left in Israel, the US and Europe push the government of Israel to appease the craving for Arab honor.
They often expect Israel to exercise superhuman diplomacy in anticipating every possible slight. Failure to do so, as some argue was the case in Camp David in 2000, places the blame firmly at Israel’s doorstep.
They want Netanyahu to accede to Palestinians’ demands that peace talks be held on the basis of the 1967 lines and amid a settlement freeze — lest Abbas suffer humiliation in the eyes of his people.
They urge that Israel placate Turkey in order to restore Turkish-Israel relations, and apologize for supposed operational mistakes surrounding the Flotilla incident.
Maybe Israel should acquiesce to this appetite for honor, and take the inevitable political hit with its own public. After all, experts in negotiations speak of the importance of allowing the opposing side to save face with their publics. Give in and move on, the logic goes.
Then again, maybe the shame-honor culture is more deeply ingrained in the Arab culture than many would care to recognize, and giving in to it will, as some have suggested, simply fuel the desire to further humiliate Israel and the West. Maybe peace won’t really be possible until people of the Middle East stop obsessing over shoes.