Why showing the soles of your feet can be offensive in the Arab world

In this week’s Saeed’s Guide, we look into this important cultural faux pas

Each week, Saeed Saeed looks into the linguistic and cultural codes of the Middle East region. 
Powered by automated translation

Yallah, join The National's Saeed Saeed as he takes a weekly deep dive into the cultural gems and quirks of the Arab world and its diaspora ...

Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. There we were on the couch in an executive’s office, and from the corner of my eye I saw a fellow journalist unconsciously cross his leg with his calf parallel to the floor so that the sole of his foot was exposed, directly pointing towards the meeting's host.

This Arab official sighed and pursed his lips. When he turned away to grab some paperwork, I whispered to my fellow writer to “keep his foot on the ground”.

He immediately realised his innocent mistake and apologised profusely at the end of the meeting.

That journalist is now my friend and I tease him occasionally about it, saying that the official will surely not have forgotten that slight. To be honest, I am not sure if I am fully joking on that front.

So how can such a small part of the body potentially cause such significant offence?

It’s a cultural thing

This is a question I hear occasionally, mostly from people who have recently arrived in the region from western countries. The answer is relatively simple: it’s a cultural thing.

For instance, in parts of South-East Asia it is considered rude to point with your fingers (use an open hand, instead), and in much of the world other finger gestures are seen as very rude. As with those instances, much of the Arab world frowns upon exposing the soles of your feet to another person, or tapping somebody with your feet.

Business colleagues people gathered in lounge area meeting space open air lobby free flowing ambient lighting daylight copyspace talking about planning strategy ideas together senior adult man women paperwork documents coffee table legs crossed casually dressed casual mobile phone smart phone positive emotion connection laughing smiling interactivity breaking new ground generations age gap inspiration innovation co-working startup tech company freelancers entrepreneur contemporary modern small business. Getty Images
Crossing your legs? Keep your feet pointed down to avoid a cultural faux pas. Getty

Shoes are an extension of the foot in this regard, and hitting someone with your shoe is very offensive. This was dramatically highlighted in 2008 when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al Zaidi threw his shoes at George Bush, US president at the time, at a press conference. This was the ultimate insult.

It boils down to the rather practical view that the foot is one of the dirtiest parts of the body and therefore carelessly showing it to another demonstrates a lack of respect.

This view is partly linked to Islamic teachings in which the Quran instructs Muslims to wash their feet (in addition to their face, hands, elbows and head) as part of pre-prayer ablutions. Muslims also remove their shoes upon entry to a mosque.

Slippers for all occasions

This cultural attitude has naturally extended to many non-Arab Muslim households around the world. In Australia, my family have a strict “feet policy” in the household.

This means shoes are to be placed outside the front door. If you feel the need to walk around the house in footwear (and only on the tiled section of the floor) there are special indoor slippers for that.

We also have another pair of (water-resistant) slippers strictly for use in the bathroom or toilet. Using toilet slippers in another room is also considered a serious faux pas.

And woe betide anyone exposing the soles of their feet to another family member, or even leaving shoes with their soles up. I still remember instances when my grandmother would conduct a family inquest into “why I found these slippers upside down. The disgrace!”

OK, maybe my personal experiences are a little bit extreme.

The truth is, you won’t lose your job or blow that regional business deal with the odd case. If it’s the first time it will be shrugged off.

But if you continue to be unaware, or worse, indignant to the cultural code, then your reputation may suffer a blow and that’s no easy feat to recover from.