The New Meaning of the Arab “Street”

The revolutions have revealed a new aspect of the street that was carefully hidden from us. We are beginning to understand why the powers that be wanted us to believe all those lies about the street. (Photo: AFP - Khaled Desouki)

By: Ula Shaybeddine

Published Thursday, September 29, 2011

The revolutions sweeping the Arab world have not only changed political realities on the ground, they have also prompted revision of many long-standing notions.

One such notion is commonly referred to as the Arab “street.” In the minds of many Arabs, the street has been associated, to a large extent, with the illicit and criminal elements. It was seen as a space for thieves, drug addicts, prostitutes, beggars, and “riffraff.” Our parents, clergy, teachers, and politicians have always cautioned us against the “street” and its criminal culture.

But the winds of change sweeping the region have produced a new understanding of the Arab “street.” Today, the street resounds with cries of freedom, demanding the most noble and human values. In this arena, millions call for an end to oppression and corruption. Streets across the Arab world are witnessing a clamor for rebellion against injustice, marginalization, exclusion, tyranny, and dictatorship. The street, in its new incarnation, has become a gateway to the modern state and the rule of law.

Why did our parents and teachers caution us about the street, against setting foot in it because of its depraved culture? Why did they insist that the home (with windows and doors tightly shut) is better, that the palace is grander and more beautiful, that theories in schools are more valuable than street smarts? Why were we told street culture was so distorted and debased?

The revolutions have revealed a new aspect of the street that was carefully hidden from us. We are beginning to understand why the powers that be wanted us to believe all those lies about the street. Now we know that tyrants tremble in fear at every sound emanating from it. It has terrorized the regimes, despite its many years of silence. The street threatens their sacred and eternal rule.

The “street” is no longer an ordinary street. It is now seen as a place of righteousness and honor, beauty and justice. It is the space where our youth came of age, as they rebelled against injustice, abuse, and humiliation. The street today is a wellspring of freedom and emancipation. It has the final word in changing the course of history. In the age of revolution, it has become an honor to belong to the street. Meanings have been turned on their head. To say that someone belongs to the street is no longer an insult, except in the minds of those who hold power.

Beyond the existing regimes and their supporters, there are widespread feelings of awe and helplessness among elites in general towards the street. Traditional political parties, intellectuals, and other opposition forces are rushing to join the insurgent street. They dare not claim to represent the people in the street or try to control them, perhaps because of the high price that protesters have already paid. Every time a protester goes out into the street demanding freedom, he or she risks death, detention, or disappearance — especially in Syria. The ordinary person in the street has indeed surpassed the political elite. Today, the punishment for those who call for freedom in a research paper, an essay, or a newspaper column is much less severe than those calling for freedom in the street.

Ula Shaybeddine is a Syrian writer

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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