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Better to throw shoes rather than bombs, says Iraqi journalist

Priscilla Jabaraj & Rana Siddiqui Zaman

PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY

Director Mahesh Bhatt and Montazar Al Zaidi (right), the Iraqi journalist who threw a shoe at the former U.S. President, George Bush, during a play ‘The Last Salute' at the Sri Ram Centre in New Delhi on Saturday.

NEW DELHI: Three years after grabbing the spotlight by throwing his shoe at U.S. President George Bush during a press conference in Baghdad, Iraqi journalist Montazar Al Zaidi is in the land of Mahatma Gandhi hawking the philosophy it's better to throw shoes, rather than bombs, at extremist forces.

Mr. Al Zaidi is in India on a two-day visit on the invitation of filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. Mr. Al Zaidi's book, The Last Salute, detailing his experiences before and after his shoe act, has inspired Mr. Bhatt to produce a play for the first time in a career spanning more than two decades. Getting Mr. Al Zaidi to India wasn't easy. The post-Osama developments in Indo-American relations had made it tough to get him a visa. “I wrote to the Home Ministry which gave him a visa in 15 days finally,” Mr. Bhatt says, rather relieved.

Mr. Al Zaidi seems in the pink of health, but rather pensive and a little tired. He admits that his act of throwing a shoe at Mr. Bush was a premeditated move. “After I saw an eight year-old-child, Zohra, killed by [the] U.S. troops in Iraq, I went mad and decided that even if I am killed, I will teach Bush a lesson.”

Ready to “do or die,” he made a will and a cassette saying all his property should be divided among his five sisters, three brothers and the victims of the U.S. forces.

Mr. Al Zaidi was detained and was tortured by the Prime Minister's security officers. “They broke my hands, one leg, my front teeth and electrocuted me many times over. They used to do it every day initially in my three months of detention,” he recalls. “They used to ask me, ‘Who sent you?' I used to shout back, “My conscience.” They perhaps wanted me to name any terrorist organisation. I was physically fit so I didn't die. Any weak person would have.”

Three months later, Mr. Al Zaidi was sent to a small isolated cell. The loneliness and the torture sparked the idea of writing a book based on his experiences.

“I promised myself I would write a book and get it published even if I am released 10-20 years later.” Detention had made him wiser too. He speaks without fear.

“The uprising that is now happening in Arab areas should have started long ago. People don't realise that extremist views die their own death; there are no takers for such views in the long run. No extremist force can subjugate any government.” Mr. Al Zaidi is visibly upset with the death of 90 people in Pakistan. “I don't understand why the Taliban should kill people in Pakistan in the name of Osama's killing. They are killing Muslims for no reason. The Quran says that you cannot kill any other person for the sin someone else has committed. And if you save one man, you save the whole mankind. What kind of violence is this?”

His desire is that “no country should have a Defence Ministry and any factory that manufactures bomb and arsenal.”

Admirer of Gandhi

Mr. Al Zaidi knows his words won't find an echo anywhere; yet, being an ardent admirer and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, he wishes to replicate his ideas of peace and non-violence to fight extremist forces across the globe.

When Mr. Al Zaidi was in detention, he used to hear that he would be awarded, loaded with gold and car and funds by those who admired his courage. “But on my release, I realised that all such claims were fake.”

His book, published by “Copy House” in Arabic, has generated some money, using which he has started the Al Zaidi Foundation. The foundation's focus is to expose the corruption in the U.S. occupation's policy on Iraq and help the tortured widow and child victims. However, he says that till date, he has got “no moral, economic support” to run it.

Mr. Al Zaidi is not free of verbal and email threats either. One of the recent opinions on a website suggests that he should be killed. “I know these threats are propagated by the Arab government,” he says.

His shoe-throwing visibly encouraged many to repeat the act in India and other parts of the world. Various video and internet games to hurl shoes at Bush were designed.

Mr. Al Zaidi finds nothing wrong with his imitators. “It shows people's anguish. I am very happy. Dictators and wrong-doers now will be scared to go to a public meeting. This fear of insult is a must. People with conscience will ultimately stage timely protests wherever it is required.”

He now freelances for various Arabic newspapers.

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