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Where’s al-Zaidi’s Pulitzer?

by JOHN ROSS

“Que Huevos!” (“What Balls!”) grinned Don Juanito the tailor, sipping his tea across the counter and extolling the bravery of Muntadhar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi reporter who gained instant hero status for hurling his shoes at U.S. president George Bush during a Baghdad news conference last week (Dec. 13th). “He should have thrown clown shoes – that way he wouldn’t have missed Bush,” Daniel the greeter chimed in. An avid wrestling fan, Daniel was impressed by Bush’s stutter step dodge of the incoming missiles. “The shoes must be the weapons that Bush was looking for, no?” smiled Manuel the waiter, “now they will take all the shoes from Iraq!” Berta the nurse invited the crowd to bring their old shoes to the U.S. Embassy here to bid goodbye to George Bush.

The chatter over evening coffee was not taking place in a downtown Baghdad café but rather at the venerable La Blanca, an old quarter gathering spot here in Mexico City. This reporter, a regular customer for a quarter of a century, could not remember when events half a world away had so animated conversation around the cafeteria counter.

Indeed, Mexico, like much of what used to be hailed as the third world, was following the fortunes of the Iraqi reporter with avid interest. Televisa and TV Azteca, Mexico’s two-headed television monopoly, had both led with the story two nights running on primetime news – Televisa ran footage of al Zaidi’s audacious fling from three distinct angles in slow motion. La Jornada, the left daily, splashed the flying shoes frame by frame across its front page and the political cartoonists are having a field day with the shoe toss. “We need this to divert us from our troubles,” chuckled Daniel. “If you are writing something please say that we thank Mr. al-Zaidi for throwing his shoes at Bush.”

The conversation around the counter of La Blanca was one more proof positive that the visceral anger stirred up by George Bush during eight years of misgovernment crosses oceans and cultures. The Iraqi reporter’s courageous act was a catalyst for universal rage and frustration at the Bush regime’s unbridled arrogance that has been boiling over down below ever since the outgoing U.S. president stole the White House in 2000 and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, murdering as many as million citizens of the third world, most of them, as Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos puts it, “the people the color of the earth.”

Daniel’s kudos for Muntadhar al-Zaidi were echoed in Middle Eastern capitals. In Damascus, a shopkeeper who would only identify himself as Muhammad to a nosy New York Times reporter was on his way to a party with friends. “This is a holiday! This is what we needed for revenge!” From the Middle East to Washington D.C., Bush’s many detractors held shoe-tossing parties to demand an end to the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and the Iraqi reporter’s immediate release from prison. “To us he is a hero!” Berta the nurse saluted al-Zaidi.

There is no insult more demeaning in Arab culture then to have a shoe tossed at one’s person except perhaps to be called a dog and Muntadhar al-Zaidi invoked both in throwing his left shoe at the most powerful politico on the planet. “This is for the widows and orphans and the people that died!” he shouted, tossing the right one at Bush’s head. A Saudi millionaire has reportedly offered $10,000,000 USD for the hero’s footwear.

Muntadhar Al-Zaidi’s shoe fling has effectively penned George Bush’s political epitaph. As the YouTube clips girdled the globe, the image was stamped on popular memory. Even more unflattering than the film of George Bush pere puking all over the Japanese prime minister at a state dinner, Bush Jr’s shoe dodge is the picture that will accompany eight years of his genocidal administration to the grave.

The imprisonment of the al-Baghdadia television reporter by the quisling Maliki government for allegedly assaulting a foreign dignitary has sparked renewed street demonstrations in Iraq where the unpopularity of the recently ratified Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allows U.S. occupation forces to remain in country for at least three more years, is patent.

Protestors in Sadr City where the U.S. bombed without remorse earlier this year threw their shoes at American patrols in disgust. Al-Zaidi, a former leftist student leader who admires Che Guevara, covered the bombings for Al-Baghdadia television and colleagues pin his fury at Bush on the devastation wrought by the Americans in that Shiaa-controlled slum city. Black-clad supporters of Shiaa cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose legendary father gave his name to Sadr City, disrupted parliament demanding al-Zaidi’s release.

Meanwhile, U.S. troops who came under shoe attack in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah fired on protestors, wounding one according to press reports.

Curiously, while Iraqis of all denominations rallied to the reporter’s defense, the Baghdad press pack was unimpressed by al-Zaidi’s shoe scoop. Indeed, one Iraqi journalist wrestled the al-Baghdadia correspondent to the floor while Maliki’s goons beat on him, breaking his hand and fracturing two of his ribs. The Prime Minister, who apparently fancies himself a press critic, condemned the shoe toss as a “savage act which is unrelated to journalism in any way.” Others in the Iraqi journalism community dissed al-Zaidi’s performance as “unprofessional.”

Even al-Jazeera, the powerful Qatar-based TV titan, was unusually standoffish in its reportage of the celebrated incident, which the powerful Arab network seemed to suggest, reflected poorly on the integrity of “responsible” Arab media. The New York Times, a paragon of corporate journalism, looked down its nose at the great shoe fling with its usual snottiness, disdaining Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s credentials as a bona fide journalist and dismissing his activism as folkloric. Reporter Timothy Williams expressed surprise that the war in Iraq was “still unpopular.”

The Times and its ilk have a hard time dealing with activist journalists. Josh Wolf, the young blogger who broke the U.S. record for being jailed for his journalistic efforts (over 200 days in the federal slammer for refusing to identify participants in a San Francisco anarchist march that was attacked by the police), was treated in the corporate press as just another drug-addled adolescent. Like al-Zaidi, Brad Will, the Indymedia photojournalist cut down by Mexican cops during the Oaxaca urban rebellion in 2006, was tarred as “unprofessional”, a radical activist masquerading as a reporter. As an older activist reporter covering social turmoil in Mexico, I am regularly questioned by the representatives of the corporate press for my “lack of objectivity.”

The “objectivity” so championed by j-school journalists is a weapon of class war that ascribes equal weight to the wronged and the wrongers alike. Held sacrosanct by “professional” journalists who are more attentive to their own career tracks than to the righteous indignation of the victims of Bush’s war on the peoples of the earth, this vaunted “objectivity” neutralizes injustice and negates responsibilities.

I tell my students that they have no “career” in journalism, only what we call here an “oficio”, a responsibility to tell the stories of those who are never heard, an obligation to stand on the front lines and report the story from the peoples’ side of the barricades.

Muntadhar al-Zaidi is a distinguished activist journalist. Like all those who practice this trade under the gun in the never-ending class and race war, he is painfully cognizant that you cannot cover injustice without taking sides.

Activist journalists do not grab a cab to Dachau to get the commandant’s side of the story. Bush is that commandant and he deserves to be showered by our shoes for his repeated crimes against humanity. Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s shoes told this story. He deserves nothing less than the Pulitzer Prize.

JOHN ROSS has El Monstruo on the canvas and is awaiting the decision of the judges.  These dispatches will continue at ten-day intervals until the word is in.  If you have further info write johnross@igc.org.

 

 

 

 

 

JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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