Institute for Palestine Studies Board of Trustees and Research Committee member Muhammad Ali Khalidi appeared on On the Media on 4 February 2011 to discuss his paper The Arab Street: Tracking a Political Metaphor


BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. If, like us, you were glued to your TV watching the protests in Egypt this week, you might have noticed that one phrase kept coming up again and again.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: Street, the Arab street in Cairo, David, a – senses weakness on the part of President -

MALE CORRESPONDENT: It does seem that what’s going on in the Arab street now is something that perhaps was a long time in coming.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: The Arab street, the Egyptian street is sending a clear message but I, I -

BOB GARFIELD: But where does that term come from, and what do we mean when we say “Arab street?” Two professors have actually studied the phrase’s origins and usage. Surprisingly, they found that commentators in the West aren't the only people who refer to the “Arab street.” Arabic-language newspapers actually use the phrase, as well.

York University Professor Muhammad Ali Khalidi is one of the academics who worked on the paper. Muhammad, welcome to On the Media.

PROF. MHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Just from a personal standpoint, what has been your reaction when you read the western press and see that phrase?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: Well, I've always bristled at the phrase. I've always felt that there’s something a little bit pejorative about it, and it always struck me as striking a bit of a false note. It sort of equates the whole of the Arab public with gangs or a street mob, and that always seemed to me to be very unfortunate and very unfair.

BOB GARFIELD: I've just got to tell you that I always just read it as a synonym for Arab public opinion. So, when you did the research, what did you discover about the nuance of the term, both in the Arab press and in the West?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: One is that precisely it has become a stand-in for Arab public opinion. It turns out that in the past decade or so about 85 percent of mentions of Arab public opinion used that phrase “the Arab street” instead of talking about the Arab public, which is problematic because you don't always associate public opinion with necessarily people who are demonstrating out on the street. Public opinion takes many different forms.

The other thing is that it’s almost unique to the Arab world. You never, almost never hear or see mention of say the Chinese street or the European street or the Israeli street in American and, and other Anglophone media.

BOB GARFIELD: Come to think of it, I never heard anyone talk about the “French street,” or the “American street,” for that matter. Is this just one of those terms that journalists pick up because they think it’s got a certain je ne sais quois?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: I think that our research shows that there’s something about it that might not be so innocent, because it was almost nonexistent in the '80s and '90s. And given that we found that the term seems to be statistically far more likely to be associated with adjectives that indicate irrationality or volatility or violence, even, we think that its rise coincides with a somewhat suspicious attitude towards the Arab public in the U.S. media, due to several factors, one of which is perhaps 9/11, when a lot of people came to see the Arab public in a rather sinister light.

BOB GARFIELD: And when Arab commentators use it?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: It’s far more likely in the Arab press to be paired with more sort of affirmative adjectives, so it tends more to have the resonance that “Main Street” would have in some American discourse.

It might even have more of a sort of empowerment connotation to it, the power of the people, the will of the people, something like that, though I would also argue that there’s something a little bit problematic about referring to the entire public using that term, “the street” because it tends to downplay the sort of rational reader of a newspaper sitting in his or her living room, thinking about these issues dispassionately, and tends to privilege protestors who might be demonstrating in the street, which is just one aspect of public opinion.

BOB GARFIELD: So what’s the provenance of the term? Did it begin in the Arabic press or did it begin in the western press?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: It’s a little murky. I mean, we can trace it back to about the 1950s in both English and Arabic. At least the phrase “the street” was there in Arabic, it seems, earlier than the phrase “the Arab street” was there in English.

So it might be that people studying the Arab world, scholars and journalists, saw that this word “the street” was being used in the Arab world to refer to the public. and so they took it up, translated it, attached “Arab” to it and started to use it.

More recently, maybe in the past decade or so, in Arabic they started talking about the “Arab street” and they've actually, interestingly, have started talking about the “American street,” the “British street,” the “Israeli street.” You see it applied to almost every part of the world that the Arab press covers, which already shows that the connotation is likely not to be as negative.

BOB GARFIELD: On our show, when we speak of Arab public opinion, we tend to say “the Arab street” probably for the reason I cited [LAUGHS] but, you know, maybe not. In any event, would – do you think we should shy away from it just because it can be stigmatizing in some way?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: I would say either start applying it very widely to other publics in other parts of the world or treat it with a little bit of caution. I mean, it seems to cast the Arab public in a bit of a sui generis light and to set it apart from publics in other parts of the world.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, point taken.


BOB GARFIELD: We are chastened.

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: I'm not the language police or anything, but, you know, I think, yeah –


BOB GARFIELD: Oh, aren't you?


BOB GARFIELD: You know, isn't this a little speech codifying that we're engaging in here?

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: I wouldn't want to outlaw any phrase. I just would want to heighten your listeners’ sensitivities and maybe get them to question exactly what it connotes for them.

BOB GARFIELD: Muhammad, thank you so much.

PROF. MUHAMMAD ALI KHALIDI: Sure, my pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD: Muhammad Ali Khalidi is a professor at York University in Toronto.