To his government what he did was criminal, but to many people around the world his actions were that of a hero. He was arrested and tortured in prison, and yet received numerous donations of money from the rich and poor alike (and even offers of marriage).
The charge was “assaulting a visiting head of state” and on March 12, 2009 Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi was found guilty and sentenced to three years in prison. The public outcry to this sentence sounded loud and wide around the world and ultimately Mr. al-Zaidi was released after a year (an appeals court reduced his sentence). The original incident is a memorable one. On December 14th 2008 in Baghdad, during a press conference for George W. Bush’s last visit to Iraq, al-Zaidi threw his size ten shoe at the then US President shouting, “This is your farewell kiss, you dog. This is for the widows and orphans of Iraq.” After Bush ducked that shoe, the second was thrown, which was also ducked.
This might sound like old news, but the question of protest art, of using performative non-violent measures in opposition to military violence is ancient and timeless. Of course, should we even consider al-Zaidi’s actions as non-violent? One doesn’t have to make contact to be charged with assault. The same question of non-violence could be posed of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, whose self-immolation in 1963 against Ngo Dinh Diem’s government hurt only himself, but possibly caused his spectators trauma. Where is the line drawn between violence and non-violence in the muddy waters of direct action, civil disobedience, protest, and performance art? It’s not an easy question and while it won’t be answered here, maybe the question itself can be fleshed out more.
In our age of unprecedented political apathy on one hand, and the election of an unqualified yet authoritarian reality-television star to the highest office in the land on the other, we can observe a political left grappling to find the best path of resistance. Looking to the past can help. Iraq, the Second Gulf War, might have been George W. Bush’s war, but it still rages on today. As part of that sad legacy, Muntazer al-Zaidi still rages on today, thankfully. I checked in with him recently through my Arabic translator Mounawar Abbouchi to clear up some details about his infamous shoe-throwing and to see what wisdom he could lend to our present political situation.
—Jordan A. Rothacker
I. THE VIOLENCE OF A SHOE
THE BELIEVER: I have read your response in The Guardian from 2009 about why you threw the shoe, and it is a beautiful and powerful statement. You are a journalist—a writer—and I don’t know if you practice any other art forms, but George W. Bush responded to your shoe-throwing as if it were a performance of protest art saying:
It is one way to gain attention. It’s like going to a political rally and having people yell at you. It’s like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers. It’s a way for people to, you know, draw—I don’t know what the guy’s cause is. But one thing is for certain—he caused you to ask me a question about it.
Besides Does describing your actions this way diminish them (besides his naiveté as toward your motives)?
MUNTAZER AL-ZAIDI: The truth is that my hitting George Bush was planned, and I have a video recording that proves it, which I left with my younger brother years before the incident. Everyone had been repeating George Bush’s claim that we had greeted him with roses, and the world unfortunately believed this lie. That’s why my idea was to find a solution in accordance with Newton’s Third Law that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I chased George Bush everywhere so that I could show the world my protest against his killing of my people. He says I was trying to gain attention for myself, but I say to him that I was trying to turn attention to my people who are deprived of their rights and murdered. In addition to being a journalist and writer, I also write prose poetry.
BLVR: Were you surprised by his response?
MAZ: No, I was not surprised by George Bush’s answer. The whole world knows he is a cunning fox who tries to change the true image of the incident, which is that the Iraqi people in all its categories hates this man who caused the destruction of their country.
BLVR: Do you consider what you did performance protest art?
MAZ: Certainly. It is a peaceful message of protest against a bloody mass murder.
BLVR: Your aim was pretty good and his reflexes were lightning fast. Your aim allows me to assume that you were actually trying to hit him and not only make a statement. Is there a fine line between a statement and violence? Was it an act of violence or a symbolic act or could it be both?
MAZ: The act I committed was a peaceful message of protest; how can the violence of the planes and tanks that killed my people be reciprocated with the violence of a shoe?
BLVR: I have read that at your trial you refused to be represented by Khalil al-Duleimi, who represented Saddam Hussein. Is this accurate and if so, what reason did you have for this?
MAZ: I did not answer lawyers who make a profit off my country’s cause.
II. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
BLVR: A little more than a month after the incident a statue was erected in Tikrit of a shoe made out of fiber glass and copper by artist Laith al-Amari. Did you ever get to see the sculpture and do you know what became of it?
MAZ: Sadly, the statue was destroyed the day after it was erected at the behest Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
BLVR: What differences have you seen in how the US occupation of Iraq was conducted under the Obama administration versus the Bush administration, if any?
MAZ: Occupation is occupation, whether it is under Bush or Obama, but Obama may have been wiser in withdrawing his troops from Iraq before any more atrocities or greater crimes were committed.
BLVR: What is your commitment to freedom of expression rooted in? Along this line I’m wondering what your literary and philosophical influences were growing up?
MAZ: I inherited freedom of expression from the Sacred Book (the Holy Quran), the Prophet’s sunna, and the thinking of Ahl al-Bayt [the People of the House]. The first mention of freedom of expression is in the Holy Quran , where God says: “Consult them in the matter” (3:159) and also “those…whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (42:38) —and also [inherited] from [the principle] that a brave man is not afraid of expressing himself freely and accepts all the consequences that befall him.
BLVR: I really enjoyed the short story collection, The Corpse Exhibition: and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim, and it made the horrors of war quite visceral and palpable. It is a very unique writing concept that I have maybe never seen before and I can only refer to as “war-zone gothic.” Have you read this work? Are there any other books that you would recommend?
MAZ: I have lived in times of war and have borne witness as a reporter to everything that happened. There are many books and writers who have written about Iraq. I have a book which was published in Arabic, Chinese, and Turkish about the crimes and violations that occurred, and the history of Iraq from the Iraq-Iranian war, going through the Kuwait war, the siege, and the war of conquest, and about my daily observations of human rights violations while I was a journalist wandering through Bagdad and all the governorates. I would love to find a publisher for the book in English and other languages. The book is titled (التحيّة الأخيرة لجورج بوش) “Final Salute to George Bush” , and the proceeds from the book go to the organization for widows and orphans that I founded two months after I got out of prison… I am looking for a publisher in English and other international languages. I would be very happy if anyone could help me in this mission.
BLVR: Where do you currently live and what are you currently working on?
MAZ: I live in Beirut because of all the political annoyances that happen to me whenever I go back to Iraq. I have refused an offer of political asylum by the Swiss Parliament. I intend to go back to Iraq to work with the Iraqi youth against corruption and the dominance of political Islam.
BLVR: In the US we are currently dealing with the rise of a neo-fascist movement in the election of Donald Trump. He seems to have all the makings of a petty tyrant. What advice can you give us in how to live in resistance?
MAZ: I don’t know why I have a feeling that Trump will not complete his presidential term. I would advise American citizens to hide in their shelters for the next four years until his term ends.
III. A LITTLE ART CAREER
BLVR: And last but certainly not least, have you seen any of George W. Bush’s paintings? Since his presidency he has made a little art career for himself.
MAZ: I saw one painting, and I wrote an article about it at the time. What a coincidence that the two men who have immersed themselves most deeply in war were painters (Hitler the Nazi and George Bush).
Jordan A. Rothacker is the author of the novella, The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press/1888, 2015), and the novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds, 2016). He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and a MA in Religion from the University of Georgia. He lives in Athens, Georgia.
Mounawar Abbouchi is a medievalist and translator who received her MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia. She currently teaches at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, Lebanon where she is from and where she writes, translates, and does origami.
"A cunning fox" is a literal translation of the Arabic expression which is quite strong in the original, but falls short in English and fails to convey the same kind of contempt. In English, we would say something along the lines of “lying snake”. ↩
The examples given from the Quran appear to be describing a democratic process of government. Translation taken from quran.com ↩
This, again, is a very literal translation. A more idiomatic rendition would be “the political harassment I face”. ↩