Within a few unlikely seconds, a pair of size 10 shoes have become the most destructive weapon the people of Iraq have managed to throw at the occupying powers, after nearly six years of occupation and formidable resistance. One Iraqi writer called the shoes, hurled by a journalist at George Bush, "Iraq’s weapon of comprehensive destruction".
While the uprisings of Falluja, Najaf, Basra and Baghdad against the occupation will always remain as landmarks of a people resisting occupation, these incredible seconds have united Iraqis in the most dramatic fashion.
Contrary to most media coverage, the 28-year-old TV reporter Muntadhar al-Zaidi made history not by merely throwing a pair of shoes, the highest expression of insult in Iraqi culture, at the US president, but by what he said while doing so and as he was smothered by US and Iraqi security men. He groaned as they dragged him out of the press conference. They succeeded in silencing him — and according to his brother he was beaten in custody — but he had already said enough to shake the occupation and Nouri al-Maliki’s Green Zone regime to their foundations.
Strip the words away, and his and the Iraqi people’s cry of deep pain, anger and defiance would amount to no more than a shoe-throwing insult. But the words were heard. "This is the farewell kiss, you dog," he shouted as he threw the first shoe. The crucial line followed the second shoe: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq." Once those words were heard, the impact of a pair of shoes became electrifying. A young journalist has put aside the demands of his profession, preferring to act as the loudest cry of his long-suffering people. If one considers the torture and killings in Iraqi and US jails that Muntadhar often mentioned in his reports for al-Baghdadia satellite TV station, he was certainly aware he risked being badly hurt.
As the Iraqi and Arab satellite stations switched from the live press conference to reporting reaction to the event, the stunned presenters and reporters were swept away by popular expressions of joy in the streets, from Baghdad to Gaza to Casablanca. TV stations and media websites were inundated with messages of adulation. The instant reply to any criticism of "insulting a guest" was: "Bush is a mass murderer and a war criminal who sneaked into Baghdad. He killed a million Iraqis. He burned the country down."
Expressions of support and demands for Muntadhar’s immediate release have spread from Najaf and Falluja to Baghdad, and from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south. An impressive show of anti-occupation unity is developing fast, after being weakened by the sectarian forces that the occupation itself has strengthened and nourished, as Muntadhar himself used to stress.
No one asked after Muntadhar’s religion or sect, but they all loved his message. Indeed, I have yet to come across an Iraqi media outlet or website that pronounced on his religion, sect or ethnicity. The first I heard of his "sect" was through US and British media.
The reality is that Muntadhar is a secular socialist whose hero happens to be Che Guevara. He became a prominent leftwing student leader immediately after the occupation, while at Baghdad University’s media college. He reported for al-Baghdadia on the poor and downtrodden victims of the US war. He was first on the scene in Sadr City and wherever people suffered violence or severe deprivation. He not only followed US Apache helicopters’ trails of death and destruction, but he was also among the first to report every "sectarian" atrocity and the bombing of popular market places. He let the victims talk first.
It was effective journalism, reporting that the victims of violence themselves accused the US-led occupation of being behind all the carnage. He was a voice that could not be silenced, despite being kidnapped by a gang and arrested by US and regime forces.
His passion for the war’s victims and his staunchly anti-occupation message endeared him to al-Baghdadia viewers. And after sending Bush out of Iraq in ignominy he has become a formidable national hero. The orphan who was brought up by his aunt, and whose name means the longed or awaited for, has become a powerful unifying symbol of defiance, and is being adopted by countless Iraqis as "our dearest son".
Sami Ramadani, a political exile from Saddam’s regime, is a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was published in The Guardian, 17 December 2008.