In traditional Mideast culture, the foot is considered the filthiest part of the human body.
This is reflected in a book in which I spend quite a lot of time, the Bible, and it plays an important role in an annual event on the Christian calendar. Maundy Thursday–maundy being an Old English word meaning commandment, used for the Thursday before Easter because it was then that Jesus gave a new commandment to His followers, to love one another with the same self-sacrificing love he extended to the world–remembers an extraordinary event. It was then, on the night of his impending arrest, that Jesus did the low servant’s work of washing the feet of his disciples. At first, Peter, no doubt speaking on behalf of the other disciples, was horrified. He wouldn’t let Jesus do the task of a slave. But Jesus pointed out that only those willing to be servants of others were worthy of being leaders. When he told Peter that unless Peter allowed him to wash the disciple’s feet, Peter could have no connection to Jesus, Peter relented.
Feet were considered so filthy in Biblical times, in fact, that untying the thongs of someone else’s sandals was considered task fit only for a slave. That viewpoint is what lay behind comments made by John the Baptizer which have, over the past two weeks, been read in most Christians churches around the world. (See here and here.)
These feelings about feet persist in the modern Middle East.
Several years ago, former CBS anchorman Dan Rather scored a coup when he and his producers arranged to interview then-Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein. But the thing was nearly short-circuited when Rather thoughtlessly crossed his legs, allowing Husein to see the sole of one shoe turned up toward the Iraqi dictator. Saddam stormed out of the room and would have ended the interview had his aides not explained to him that in US culture, exposing the bottoms of one’s feet to another wasn’t a sign of disrespect.
As mentioned in the BBC piece linked above, among the enduring images of the past six years was the day that Saddam Hussein’s statue in Iraq was brought down, signaling the downfall of his regime there. Immediately following that, hundreds of Iraqis could be seen hitting the downed statue with their shoes, a sign of spurning disrespect and contempt.
The intended symbolism of the Iraqi journalist at the Bush-al Maliki press conference is clear to Iraqis and to others in the Middle East. It too, was an act of spurning disrespect and contempt.
[This is being cross-posted at my personal blog.]