From Footwear to Insult: The Power of Arab Shoes

Hold onto your turbans, because we’re about to explore how a shoe (صُرْمَاية/صَرْمة/كنْدَرَة in Levantine) or (جَزْمَة in Egyptian) in Arab culture can turn from something you wear into an insult.

an Arab man holding an elegant black male shoe

Imagine this: a shoe, yes, a humble shoe, considered filthy because it’s strapped to your foot, the bottom-most part of your body. In Arab tradition, showing the sole of your shoe to someone is like telling them they’re as low dirt. In 2008, an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at former US President George Bush during a press conference to say, “Hey, I’m not your biggest fan!”

When it comes to protests, shoes are the unsung heroes. Placing them on photos, statues, or even a country’s flag is like a “take that!” in the silent language of footwear.

Now, onto etiquette, my dear shoe enthusiasts! Crossing your legs in a way that flaunts your shoe’s sole is like saying, “I couldn’t care less,” especially if you’re dealing with an elder or a bigwig. And for heaven’s sake, don’t put your feet up on a table or chair! That’s a surefire way to get people’s feathers all ruffled. Some young whippersnappers might cut you some slack, though, due to spreading western norms.

In the world of Islam, shoes are a no-no inside mosques. They gotta come off, not as a sign of protest but to show some respect and keep the prayer space spick and span. Some folks even believe that leaving shoes and flip-flops upside down is like saying “boo” to the man upstairs (God), and they rush to flip ’em back around. Talk about a shoey theological dilemma!

Shoes on sthe stairs in front of the Mosque

Now, let’s get into the shoe-slinging insults. In Arabic, when you want to call someone a not-so-nice name, you might just call them “Son of a Shoe!” Yep, that’s right, يا ابْنِ الجَزْمَة or يا ابْنِ الصَرْمَة/الصُرْمَايَة/الكُنْدَرَة. It’s a gentler version of calling them ابْنِ الكَلبْ (literally: son of a dog).

And when you want to say “They’re all idiots!” in style, just declare, كُلُّهُمْ جِزَمْ in Egyptian or كُلْهُم صَرَامِي in Levantine. It’s like saying they’re all as sharp as a bowling ball. 

Now, if someone’s brain is as stubborn as a mule, you can say, دِمَاغُه جَزْمَة in Egyptian or مُخُّه صُرمَايَة/كُنْدَرَة in Levantine (Literally: his brain is a shoe).

When you’re itching to show someone what’s what, you might say, هَدّيلُه بِالجَزْمَة (literally: I’ll hit him with a shoe) in Egyptian or رَحْ أصَرْمِيه/أكَنْدِرُه (literally: I’ll “shoe” him) in the Levant. Note in the Levantine version, the word for shoe transforms into a verb. It’s like promising them a good beating with a shoe. 

And if someone deserves a good old-fashioned beating, don’t hesitate to say, عَاوِزْ ضَرْبْ بِالجَزْمَة in Egyptian or بِدُّه ضَرِبْ بِالصَرْمَة/بِالصُرْمَايَة/بِالكُنْدَرَة in Levantine ((literally: he should get hit with a shoe).

Now, when someone’s so worthless they’re not even worth a shoe, you can say, دي ما تِسْوَاشْ جَزْمَة in Egyptian or ما بِتِسْوَاشْ صَرْمَة/صُرْمَايَة/كُنْدَرَة in Levanting (literally: it’s not worth a shoe). 

And for those moments when you just want someone to zip it, you can say, اسْكُت وحُطْ جَزْمَة فِي بُقَّكْ in Egyptian or اسْكُتْ وحُطْ صَرْمَة/صُرْمَايَة/كُنْدَرَة بتُمَّكْ in Levanting (literally: be quiet and put a shoe in your mouth). It’s like telling them to stuff their pie hole with a shoe! 

And here’s a kicker: رَاسُه وألْفِ جَزْمَة يِعْمِل in Egyptian means someone’s got their mind set on doing something, but it’s like their head’s packed with a thousand shoes (literally: his head and a thousand shoes that he does…). Must be quite a crowded skull! 

And finally, in Egyptian, you can show respect with جَزْمِتَكْ فُوق رَاسِي (literally: your shoe is on my head). It’s a way of saying, “I’m bowing down to you,” like when Egyptians put military boots on their heads to show love for the army. 

So, there you have it, folks! In the Arab world, shoes aren’t just for walking; they’re for making statements, from bold protests to subtle insults to showing deference. Who knew footwear could have such a soleful impact?

Keep an eye on the Playaling’s blog. We are here to help you learn Arabic, but also to deepen your connection with Arabic culture and history!

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