Brian Palmer, "Voting With Their Feet. What do Iraqis find so insulting about shoes and feet?
(Dec. 15, 2008):
During a Sunday press conference in Baghdad, an angry Iraqi journalist hurled insults, and his shoes, at President Bush. According to the New York Times, "Hitting someone with a shoe is considered the supreme insult in Iraq." Why is that?
Because they're so dirty. The degree of insult seems to be an idiosyncratic cultural development, as opposed to one that derives from clear textual sources. There's no particular mention in the Quran or any of the Hadith of shoe-throwing or debasement of enemies by exposing them to feet. And historical origins for the tradition are not easily found. However it started, Arabs—and perhaps Iraqis in particular—throw their shoes to indicate that the target is no better than dirt.
I don't know when or where the custom of throwing shoes arose, but examples of beating with shoes occur in the Arabian Nights
, e.g. Night 382 (tr. Richard Burton):
She replied, "O Man, hold thyself secure therefrom for an he bespeak me with a single word I will slipper him with my papoosh."582
582 Arab. or rather Egypt. "Bábúj," from "Bábúg," from the Pers. "Pay-púsh" = foot-clothing, vulg. "Pápúsh." To beat with shoe, slipper, or pipe-stick is most insulting; the idea, I believe, being that these articles are not made, like the rod and the whip, for corporal chastisement, and are therefore used by way of slight. We find the phrase "he slippered the merchant" in old diaries, e.g. Sir William Ridges, 1683, Hakluyts, mdccclxxvii.
See also Night 858 (tr. Richard Burton):
Now when the Kazis heard this, they all cried out, saying, "Throw this hound on the ground and come down on his face with your sandals and beat him with sore blows, for his offence is unpardonable." So they pulled off his silken gear and clad him in his wife's raiment of hair-cloth, after which they threw him down and plucked out his beard and belaboured him about the face with sandals.
In classical mythology, Omphale beat Hercules with a slipper. See Terence, The Eunuch
1027-1028 (tr. H.T. Riley):
TH. Why any the less so, than Hercules served Omphale. GN. The precedent pleases me. (Aside). I only wish I may see your head stroked down with a slipper.
TH. qui minu' quam Hercules servivit Omphalae? GN. exemplum placet.
(utinam tibi conmitigari videam sandalio caput!)
Likewise Lucian, The Way to Write History
10 (tr. H.W. and F.G. Fowler):
No doubt you have seen some picture of him: he is Omphale's slave, dressed up in an absurd costume, his lion-skin and club transferred to her, as though she were the true Heracles, while he, in saffron robe and purple jacket, is combing wool and wincing under Omphale's slipper.
and Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods
13.2 (tr. H.W. and F.G. Fowler):
Anyhow, it would be enough to mention that I was never a slave like you, never combed wool in Lydia, masquerading in a purple shawl and being slippered by an Omphale.
For other examples of this method of punishment, see Turpilius, fragment 147:
She used to soften my wretched pate with her sandal.
Misero mihi mitigabat sandalio caput.
Persius 5.168-169 (tr. Lewis Evans):
"But do you think, Davus, she will weep at being forsaken? "Nonsense! boy, you will be beaten with her red slipper.
'sed censen plorabit, Dave, relicta?'
'nugaris. solea, puer, obiurgabere rubra.'
Juvenal 6.610-612 (tr. Niall Rudd):
One man gives her magical spells, another will sell her
Thessalian potions which so impair her husband's sanity
that she can slipper his buttocks.
hic magicos adfert cantus, hic Thessala vendit
philtra, quibus valeat mentem vexare mariti
et solea pulsare natis.