What is the "Arab Street"?

Friday, February 04, 2011


The news coverage of Egypt has made great mention of the demands of the "Arab street". York University Professor Muhammad Ali Khalidi studied the origins of the phrase, and he says it’s not just used by journalists and commentators in the U.S., Arabic-language journalists and commentators use it as well.

Comments [20]

huda zaki from melbourne,VIC

im Arab and i don't find it weird.
i agree with Al Brown :)

Feb. 11 2011 05:14 PM
Travis from San Francisco, CA

The term "Arab street" is obviously synonymous with "Main street" or "the man on the street" as commonly used in the American media. The word "street" is a reference to the physical place where journalists have traditionally been able to interview or poll ordinary citizens about current events and the issues that are important to them. There is no difference in connotation between "Main street" and "Arab street."

I haven't done the research that Professor Khalidi has done, but I think his issue should be with the type of stories the American media run about the Arab world as opposed to the words used. Perhaps it's just case that the majority of stories our media cover are stories about civil unrest in the Arab world. This would explain why the term "Arab street" is so so often used in conjunction with street protests.

Professor Khalidi's claims are overly sensitive at best, but at worst, are a willful reinforcement of the victim mentality of the Arab street.

Feb. 10 2011 11:36 AM
Don from Bronx, NY

I never thought of the term "The Arab Street" as signifying irrational behavior or street mob behavior. When behavior was irrational or mob like one did not have to apply "Arab Street" to it. For the most part it represented to me public opinion, given the repression of the types of institutions you find in many of the mid eastern countries. This often represented the true feelings that many had. In many Western countries the variety of institutions the public have to express reduces the need to rely on the "street." e.g. newspapers, broadcast, political parties, private organization, the internet, etc. In many of the places where the AS is used these are easily suppress or are non existence. This reminds me of the Civil Right struggle in the US. A common expression was used: "We have to take it to the street." This was to avoid the local press from putting their spin on the issues.

Feb. 09 2011 11:53 AM
g.g. gordon from marquette, michigan

Fascinating radio piece. My reaction to "the Arab street" is that it is pejorative and mistakenly conveys that a monolithic group with identical thoughts exists. I have the same reaction whenever a newscaster or organization, doing a story about something that happened somewhere in between New York and California, refers to the locale as "the Heartland." As with their use of "the Arab street", I wish broadcasters would be more mindful about their use of "the Heartland." I have for years [so far without success] nominated "the Heartland" for the annual list of banned words that issues from Lake Superior State University. The phrase conjures the famous New Yorker map of the U.S. with nothingness between the two coasts. The phrase - to me - suggests that the speaker views the people of the "heartland" as a monolithic group of quaint folk who can their own vegetables and listen only to country music. Where exactly is The Heartland? and do any of you cringe when you hear the phrase?

Feb. 08 2011 08:27 AM
Khalid Alam

Since this research/study in 2009, there has been a lot of debate on the use of this phrase in the media. I have collected links to some popular perceptions on this topic which summarise that it is used with negative connotations.

Notwithstanding this, the comment above by Janice Mckae is also an important reason.

"Given there is no truly free press, media, polling, or other means to express public opinion in most Middle Eastern countries, 'the Arab street' is the closest we have to learn what issues are important to
the people who live there..."

Check this link for some examples on this.

You can also check Google News Timeline for some interesting results on this. Following are Weekly, Monthly and Yearly results for the phrase "arab street" in news media:



Feb. 08 2011 07:03 AM
Muhammad Ali Khalidi

Thanks to all those who posted for their input on this topic. It seems that some commentators here have misunderstood our central claims. For those who are interested, I'm posting a link to the research paper that was co-written by myself and my collaborator, Terry Regier (professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley). This link is not a pdf document but takes you to the html version of the paper, which is accessible in full. I think the paper addresses at least some of the questions raised above more adequately than I managed to in the space of a 5-minute interview:


Feb. 07 2011 04:33 PM
James Morgan from Scottsdale, AZ

In the story, they said there is no similar phrase in America. But yes, there is. The phrase "What's the word on the street?" is very common, and has the same essential meaning as "Arab Street".

Feb. 07 2011 11:20 AM
Thatwood B. Telling

Bob G.,

I've been listening to you for a while now, and have grown to admire you for your intelligence, fairness and skepticism. But as I listened to this week's story on the phrase "the street" (as in, "the Arab street"), it seemed to me that your skepticism had taken the week off.

As my earlier posting's OED entry shows, this sense of the word dates back to at least the 1930s. Their earliest citation, from 1931, uses it in relation to Germans, not Arabs. Although Mr. Khalidi may have a point when he says that it has a somewhat pejorative ring to it, he seems to be just plain wrong about its origins. But that would make sense ... as he's a PHILOSOPHY professor! As far as I can tell, he's not a linguist. So why not follow his interview with one of a REAL linguist-- someone, perhaps, from OED's staff?

Want expert opinions on philosophical matters? Interview a philosopher. Want expert opinions on word origins and usage? Interview a linguist. Just an idea, Bob.

Feb. 06 2011 10:30 PM
Thatwood B. Telling

Here's what the OED has to say about this use of "street":

d. The streets regarded as the realm of ordinary people, and especially as the source of popular political support for a cause or party.

1931 W. Lewis Hitler 57 The Democrats‥have not been able to deal with the Nazi because of his Mastery of the Street.
1954 B. North & R. North tr. M. Duverger Polit. Parties i. i. 38 The Storm troops wrested from the Communist and Socialist crowds their dominance of the street.
1969 Listener 24 Apr. 555/3 This was the street taking over a modern state in a way which hasn't happened, I think, at any other time in our history.
2005 R. Nidel World Music: Basics iii. 190 Abdel El Halim Hafez.‥was the golden boy of the Nationalist revolution in 1952 when pan-Arabism arose, the darling of Nasser and the street.


Note that their first citation dates from 1931 and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Arabs, Mr. Khalidi's opinion notwithstanding.

Feb. 06 2011 08:54 PM
Eric Hamell from Philadelphia, PA, USA

I heard the phrase quite a lot in 1991, during the buildup to the Gulf War. I found especially irritating one radio host's variant, "street Arabs," and if I'd had the chance would've called in and used the phrase "street Americans" just to see how she liked the sound of that.

Feb. 06 2011 05:46 PM
Dayle Ann Stratton from Vermont

This reminds of how American media, until recently, would go to a local tavern to get commentary supposedly representative of "the common man" (and later woman). Not very imaginative, and certainly not representative. I understood the phrase "the Arab street", regardless of origin, to be an attempt to characterize what's on the minds of ordinary people (as opposed, perhaps, to government representatives, or the opinions of the reporters themselves). Either way, phrases such as these do not indicate just how the insight into "the Arab street" or "the man on the street" or the people in an American small town or city neighborhood was acquired.

Feb. 06 2011 10:30 AM

What about the use of the phrase "Main Street" to connote the opinion/will of the American people?

Feb. 06 2011 10:30 AM
Lee from Brooklyn

What Al Brown said.

Feb. 06 2011 07:29 AM

@Al Brown I agree.

Feb. 06 2011 05:27 AM
Kathleen Zyrkowski from Chicago, Illinois

Professor Khalidi stated that by using the phrase "the Arab street" does not represent the newspaper reading, rational person's views in reporting the feelings of the people in the Mideast. I agree. It has always been my feeling that a reporter using the phrases "Joe Sixpack" and "Soccer Mom" does not represent my and my acquaintance's views; as I do not know, nor have I met either Joe or the aforementioned Mom.

Could it be that "Arab Street, "Joe Sixpack" and "Soccer Mom" are just convenient expressions to use when reflecting the opinions of people interviewed by reporter? After all, I have never been interviewed in my home by a reporter as I reflect upon the day's news.

Feb. 05 2011 05:22 PM
Al Brown from Chicago

Am I the only one who has heard the phrase "opinion of the man on the street". This was used all the time as I was growing up and the term "Arab street", just sounds like a small modification to clarify that it is not American public opinion.

Feb. 05 2011 05:03 PM
Carlos Rogelio Diaz from Chicago IL

I'm far from an expert but, when I think of the word street, in the context of "Arab Street," I can't help but feel it's more than appropriate.

We're talking about several countries with an Arab identity. Where else would public opinion between these nations, or "houses" (if you will) be allowed to co-mingle but in the avenues holding them all together? Yes, this is a picturesque sentiment. But NEVER one bogged down with the idea that "street" is meant in the same vain as "ghetto" "slum" or anything derogatory towards any group.

Feb. 05 2011 04:46 PM
Alyson Dunn from New York City

Doesn't news from "the street" often lead into financial news stories which I assume refers to opinion on Wall Street? Not necessarily a pejorative (until recently).

Feb. 05 2011 02:44 PM
Jim Hoberman from New York City

Regarding the origins of the term "the Arab street," it's worth noting that, going back at least to the 19th century, the Yiddish expression for ghetto or Jewish quarter is di Yidishe gas (the Jewish street)--and the term is thus associated not with social class but social marginalization. The expression passed into Russian and Polish in the early 20th century--Soviet writers used it to characterize Jewish public opinion. My guess is that East European Jews adapted the term with regard to Israel's Arab minority. I'm not surprised that Professor Khalidi was irritated by American TV's usage. It makes no sense to refer to an "Arab street" in Egypt--unless one is discussing the entire Arab world as a neighborhood in the global village. On the other hand it would be logical in the Egyptian context, to cite a Coptic street.

Feb. 05 2011 12:00 PM
Janice McKae from Bavaria, Germany

Given there is no truly free press, media, polling, or other means to express public opinion in most Middle Eastern countries, 'the Arab street' is the closest we have to learn what issues are important to the people who live there.

Thanks for the many years of a great show. I have been fortunate, living in NYC when you were local, in other States after syndication, now while in Europe, I listen via the net. I rarely missed a broadcast during all the years of OTM.

Feb. 05 2011 05:58 AM

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