28 January 2011

The Stage of the Streets

Image source: buzzyuk.com
As I watched the protests of Tunisia, and now Egypt unfold, I cannot help but wonder: what stories are being told about this revolution? Who is telling them? And what are they saying? What literature is being written or will be written? What is that literature saying or going to say about the people claiming their voice on the stage of the streets?

The media is saying that most of the Egyptian protesters are from poor neighborhoods (Richard Engel, MSNBC News, 28 January 2011). Forty-percent (40%) of Egyptians are unemployed and living on less than $2 a day; 2/3 of the population is under the age of 30. (Dylan Rattigan, MSNBC News, 28 January 2011). This is a youth revolution that started via conversations of text from posts on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter (Hauslohner, A."On the Arab Street, Rage is Contagious," Time magazine, 07 February 2011 issue, p. 38). I believe that these events illustrate the power of stories from the streets. I believe that these events also illustrate the power of social media to organize and galvanize groups for good and important things like, social justice.

The news media is speculating about the spread of this unrest from Tunisia to Egypt, to the country of Yemen. What this brings up for me is the power of the streets and how that power is actualized by way of information traveling via conversations. The streets are a stage on which our history is lived, enacted, and documented.

However, I am also learning that just like in our American culture, in Arab culture, "the street" is not a welcome term. World-renowned journalist, Christopher Hutchins, discusses in his article on Slate.com that the "arab street" is "a vanquished cliche' " that pundits and politicians need to lay to rest. He talks about how when media talks about "the streets" in Arab locations, it is regarded as a place where terrorists and insurgents live and thrive, and not as a place where everyday people shout to be heard. He wants us to be clear about this distinction. He bemoans how people outside of Arab culture exact privilege to conflate terrorists as the voice of everyday people.

I believe it is important that we watch and learn what "the street" means in various contexts. Just as the literary genre of Street Lit in an American context is quickly misunderstood and mis-contextualized as primarily populated with gangsters, pimps and addicts, it seems similar misunderstandings occur in other cultural contexts as well. "The streets" does not automatically mean "criminal" especially when we perceive the streets as a stage upon which all people seek and claim - voice.


  1. Thanks for moving people out of the box of the meaning of "street"-criminal. There's "South Street in Phila. PA, 2nd Street here in Old Scottsdale, a street of restaurants, art galleries and taverns in Scottsdale, AZ and 410 First Street, SE, Washington DC, location of all of the political bars. They are not streets of automatic criminal activity but "a stage upon which all people seek and claim- voice" to socialize and meet minds.

  2. Excellent article very well put, Vanessa! It makes you wonder why "The Street" tends to carry the knee-jerk negative image that it does, even across cultures. Does that come from our cultures' (and many other cultures') agrarian past and some kind of subconscious memory of the City (and, drilling down, the street) being foreign and to be feared? Even into the 1950's in the USA, rural folk were seen as "good country people" and people from the City as slick and not to be trusted (for one example see Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People," 1955).Rural Road vs. Urban Street. Even European Fairy Tales, as you and I have discussed, portrayed rural folk as good - simple-minded, gullible, maybe - but good at heart. And those tales were written for city-dwellers! (Fairy Tales: A New History. Ruth Bottigheimer. SUNY Press. 2009). Rural Lifestyle vs. Urban Living. But why does this imagery persist? Media? Memory? Something more? It truly is a conversation of people wanting to be heard, not only on the stage of the street, but across stages, cultures, countries, and history. Thank You for a great article!

  3. Hi MomSandy and Jeff;

    I think our collective stance towards all things "street" is based on memory. It is memory that drives us to re-invent ourselves moment to moment; that's why we can readily relate and empathize with what is going on in Egypt right now. I believe that the streets are like an arterial artery system that is interconnected in many ways across many boundaries.

    I also think that the powers-that-be KNOW that the street is exceedingly powerful and that the street is a holder of memories of past steps, journeys, and travels taken upon it - which includes revolutionary thought, intentions, and actions.

    That's why I think there is a disparagement towards Street Lit as a genre. To write in this genre is to be courageous, #1, because you're telling stories about stuff that happens in the streets. The authors give voice to the streets, and the readers co-sign, therefore punctuate the power of those stories by reading them, which is another courageous act. This interactive relationship between the Street Lit author and the Street Lit reader is a powerful conversation that can not only be transformative, but also be emancipatory, and THAT is what I believe, is problematic for the naysayers of Street Lit. Ugh! :-)

  4. On the Media (an NPR show unpacking US media) had this article on the history, provenance, and implications of the term 'Arab Street.'