Global guide to shoe throwing
George W Bush was on the receiving end of the worst of all Middle Eastern insults when the now famous Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at the outgoing United States president at a press conference in Baghdad.
Throwing a shoe at a person’s head isn’t, of course, considered insulting in only the Islamic world, though it does carry a particularly degrading symbolism (showing the sole of your shoes is considered deeply offensive; when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad in 2003, Iraqis beat it with their shoes). Bush steps down in January, but this surely won’t be the last offensive gesture he encounters on his travels. Here, then, is our handy guide.
The V sign
In his book Gestures the anthropologist Desmond Morris concluded that we will never know the origin of the two-fingered salute. One theory, though widely discredited, is that the French threatened to cut off the fingers of English archers at the Battle of Agincourt; the English would hold up two fingers as a sign that the French had failed. Not to be mistaken for the victory or peace signs: Churchill often got his fingers facing the wrong way—and on a tour of Australia in 1992, George Bush Sr flicked the Vs to a group of farmers.
The ‘arm of honour’
Not easily misunderstood: the slap of one hand against the crook of the opposite elbow, the aggressive thrust of the forearm and fist, and the giant phallus it is supposed to resemble. Particularly popular in France (where it is translated as “the arm of honour”) and southern European countries. An exaggerated “screw you”, if you like.
The thumbs up
In the Middle East this is possibly the biggest insult you can inflict with your shoes on. A Fonz-style double thumbs up adds insult to insult. The same goes for parts of West Africa and South America. Loosely translates as “sit on this”.
The OK sign
Like the thumbs up, the hand gesture that Westerners know to mean everything is fine (it comes from the hand signals used by divers) has other meanings elsewhere. Do it to someone in southern Europe and you’ll be telling them they are “nothing” (or “zero”); in Brazil or Turkey an “arsehole”.
Although this gesture is more commonly considered a prank to sabotage photographs, it is closely related to the Italian cornuto gesture, whereby two “horns” held up behind someone’s head is supposed to imply their spouse is cheating on them.
Biting the thumb
“I will bite my thumb at them, which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.” So said Sampson to his fellow Capulet servant Gregory in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet. Rarely used in southern Europe these days, but surely due for a comeback.
Nobody likes having an open palm thrust in his face. In Greece, where it is known as the moutza, it means “I rub shit in your face”. It originated in Byzantine Greece where criminals were paraded through the streets, faces blackened with soot or worse.—