Is the shoe mightier than the pen (or postcolonial theory)?

Bush's image has been associated with shoes throughout the Arabic Middle East (photo: BBC)

There’s been a lot of debate in the blogosphere whether it is “racist,” “anti-Arab,” or “Orientalist” to claim that shoe-throwing is a distinctly Arab way of flipping a person the bird.  Consider the following exchange between readers on the Foreign Policy blog:

TheScudStud88: Er, Orientalist cliches aside, is it not an insult in the West to throw a shoe at someone?

Blake Hounshell: That one’s really not an Orientalist cliche; It really is an insult. Sure, it’s not exactly a friendly thing in the United States, but it’s not the default option.

TheScudStud88: So you agree then that [the characterization] is a taaaaaaad misleading/ wrong categorization? I mean who wouldn’t consider it an insult to have a shoe thrown at them?

kidzib: i don’t think arabs devote nearly as much symbolic value to foot-oriented insults as, say, thais. maybe there was some symbolism to it all, but it was probably the only projectile object available for him to hurl at bush. what else would he have thrown? it’s not like he could’ve smuggled in anything heavier and more dangerous…

then again, a common arabic insult translates as “may a shoe land on your head!” but do you really think the guy thought all that out before he went ballistic (literally!)?

And so on. Part of the problem is that people are confusing their particularist apples with generalist oranges.  Think about it: when was the last time you saw an American, European, African, or Asian lobbing their shoes at a political leader?  Speaking for Americans, we prefer pies.

Funnily enough, a blogger is at the center of the debate:  Asa’ad Abu Khalil, a.k.a., the Angry Arab News Service.  In 2007, Khalil wrote,

Don’t you love it when Western reporters explain to their readers differences between their culture and Arab culture?  I don’t know about you, but I really love it.  Here is from the New York Times:   “During the argument, heated words were exchanged and shoes were thrown, a severe insult in the Arab world.”

So throwing a shoe at somebody is a “severe insult in the Arab world” but not anywhere else?  How exotic.  Tell me more, o culture experts of the New York Times.

A lot of observers, mysef initially included (see: last post), interpretted Khalil’s response as a denial of the custom.  Actually, it wasn’t.  He is on record, in his own blog and elsewhere, as stating, “The flying shoe speaks more for Arab public opinion than all the despots/puppets that Bush meets with during his travels in the Middle East.”

So, what gives exactly?  Well, read Khalil’s 2007 post carefully: he felt that Western media was exoticizing his culture.   In other words, he was making a postcolonial critique or jab at the New York Times, not because they were wrong per se, but because in his eyes they were being cultural chauvanists.

Edward Said is generally recognized as the pioneer of the post-colonial sensitivity.  But did his methods to regain the Arab academic voice, did he Balkanize the discourse?
Edward Said is generally recognized as the pioneer of the postcolonial sensitivity. But did his methods to regain the Third World academic voice, did he Balkanize the discourse?

But was the New York Times really being culturally insensitive? Or were they simply reporting what they perceived to be the facts?  Indeed, could that have been the very problem?

The answer is that what we’re really dealing with here are the beffudling complexities of what’s called the “postcolonial sensitivity” and the problem of cultural perspective.

Postcolonialism is an academic discourse that umbrellas a wide range of philosophical, historical, and literary theories focused on the relationship of power, culture, and the legacy of Western imperialism in the Middle East and beyond.  The cornerstone text of this field is Edward Said’s Orientalism, a work of literary criticism that is comparable to the atomic bomb in its impact on area studies in the West.

Said’s fundamental argument is that scholarship does not occur in a vacuum, but rather is shaped by the individual scholar’s society and culture.  Or, to paraphrase George Orwell, all scholarship is political.

According to Said, in the Western context, not only is all scholarship political, it is also imperial and colonial: the West predicated its rule over non-Western peoples via a binary opposition between Self and Other, Occident and Orient, and thus the work of its scholars, in one way or another, wittingly or unwittingly, worked toward legitimizing this dichotomy and imperial policy.  This is what is meant by the codeword “Orientalism.”

With the end of empire, however, Said envisions a new opportunity for the formerly colonized to contest the narratives of difference and subjugation with their own narrative.   It is at this point that postcolonialism runs into a lot of trouble.  Precisely what is the postcolonial narrative, and how do sensitive scholars deal with the spectre of Orientalism?

The truth is, no one can agree.  The healthier interpretations emphasize a dialogue of cultures, hybridity and the end of binary opposites, and a greater self-awareness of one’s inherited cultural beliefs.

The unhealthier interpretations, however, are either so paranoid of cultural difference that they over-emphasize the principle of sameness (for example, TheScudStud88’s comments above) or, conversely, reinforce difference by insisting that someone not born or raised into a particular ethnicity, nationality, sex, or religion can never imaginatively enter into a person’s experience.   In other words, only an Arab can write about Arabs, a Muslim about Muslims, and so on.

You can see the obvious problem with this latter logic: eventually Balkanization sets in.   Can a Palestinian Muslim from Ramallah write about a Palestinian Christian from Nablus?  Can a Jew ever hope to understand an Arab, or vice versa?  And so on.

I’ve been on the receiving end of this corrosive form of postcolonialism, in which, due to my interest in Islam, I was decried as a “postcolonial” in the derogatory sense — a cultural thief.   The offense I had committed was making a remark about the behavior of Palestinian acquaintance’s fiance to the extent that I thought he was controlling.  Here’s what the acquaintance’s Pakistani friend said:

It’s very discomforting for you to speak about a culture and race of people that you know nothing about. You have a post-colonial and textbook view of what it’s like to be an Arab-American. I find it irritating that you try to impress people with your merely historical knowledge of culture.

Do not speak for [my friend] or her issues, ever. Because at the end of the day, you are still a white man speaking about a minority woman. Regardless of what you may think, you do not understand.

Chris I have met many people like you over the years, ‘hipster-esque’ people who attempt to join another culture. If you are a halfway decent student of history, you know that ‘the immigrant experience’ is what characterizes a cultural notion–not a brief read of an Amy Tan book or a Taqwacore CD.

I found her response remarkable, not least of which because I have never read Amy Tan and I’m not a hipster (I’m a metalhead and psytrancer, actually).  Ironically, she is a hipster, right down to the questionable taste in indie music, overly tight pants with humongous sweaters, and of course, the ubiquitous kuffiya — which, by the way, you will never see me wear precisely because I know what it means.

I’m also Jewish, which is not the same as “white” (whatever the heck that means, anyway).  Moreover, I’m Romanian, so I think I know a thing or two about the “immigrant experience,” not to mention a little thing called genocide — both on the receiving and giving ends.

Did she know that I was awarded my Eagle Scout rank alongside another Indian Muslim?  Nope.  Did she know that lifelong family friends of mine, people who took me in and cared for me over the years, are an Indian Muslim family? Nope.

All that mattered to her was my perceived chauvanism, not whether I might actually have an authentic background in Islamic and immigrant life, much less the ability to use my historical training and my life experiences to imaginatively enter into the world of another.  The mere attempt was enough to offend her.

Which returns us to the shoe-throwing incident (or “shoe-gate” as I’ve taken to calling it offline).  There are already a legion of readers and writers of the postcolonial mindset who are lamenting the “sensationalism” with which Western media is reacting.  But they fail to realize that this was precisely the point of the reporter’s symbollic act: to make the world — and history — remember that Iraqis did not choose this fate.

“This is a farewell kiss, you dog,” the reporter yelled as he threw his shoes. “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq.”

They will obsess over actions — the reporter throwing the shoe and the Western media going apeshit over it — but in their attempt to contest perceived chauvanisms, they will totally forget the reason why an Iraqi professional, well-educated and middle-class, committed an act the legacy of which the BBC has characterized with these profound words:

History will record Mr Bush’s last trip to Iraq, a country his government has left such an indelible mark upon, was greeted with a volley of shoes and a cry of ‘dog.’

Thus, rather than debate whether it’s racist or Orientalist to say that throwing a shoe is “peculiarly Arab,” we should instead be asking ourselves whether it is right, lawful, and just that we are even in their country to begin with.

(And for naysayers, if you won’t listen to me or the Arab blogging community, then listen to Iraq Veterans Against the War.)


2 Replies to “Is the shoe mightier than the pen (or postcolonial theory)?”

  1. Yes, it gave the man his two seconds of fame :)..I guess it was a reporter who did not have too many bylines/ exclusive stories to his credit and thought this was the best way he could get attention (and perhaps spend some pent up energy). I guess now we may conclude that 2 seconds on TV/ youtube is far greater than a thousand words?..

    al-Zaidi definitely crossed the line between professionalism and patriotism. He could have expressed his disdain of President Bush while standing on the streets and watching a convoy pass by, like any other Iraqi citizen might do. Instead he chose to misuse his position of a journalist — a position respected by all parties and considered trustworthy and safe during times of conflict/war — to vent his anger on the state of affairs.

    He had all the opportunity to show his patriotism in his writing. Activisim does not mean throwing things inside a closed room at a man who is unprepared.

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