Ungovernable and Politically Contagious: Visual Genealogies of ‘the Arab Street’

By Hatim El-Hibri
Submitted to Session P3136 (Taking Place: Media Objects, Media Histories, and Middle East Studies, 2012 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Arab States;
Cultural Studies; Media;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Long before the 2011 uprisings momentarily gave the term a positive valence, ‘the Arab Street’ had invoked the image of angry and unreasonable mobs. This metaphorical space—a product of the relationship between international news reportage and the spaces of Arab cities—has historically worked to stabilize a tension between media coverage and urban unrest. Since its historical predecessor in colonial social management and counter-insurgency strategy, it has rhetorically buttressed anti-democratic policies and violence deployed to contain populist energies of civilian populations deemed incapable of proper public affective comportment or political obedience.
This paper traces the genealogy of the discourse of ‘the Arab Street,’ seeking to un-flatten the specific contexts and situations into which it has been imported in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries by Arab and Western regimes. Rather than a complete inventory of every instance of the term, I examine how it changes over time in connection with key events, including the Syrian national revolt in the 1920s, the Algerian anticolonial struggle, the first Intifada, and the political movements and protests surrounding the second Iraq War. This paper has two main objectives. The first is to examine the intersection between the key historical shifts in this broader discourse, and the visual modes that inform them. The second is to reflect on the forces which make an object called ‘the Arab Street’ (and in the past decade or so, the corollary ‘Arab/Muslim Media’) appear to be coherent and amenable to expert management and intervention. This visual history will also open up to critique the modes of witnessing that the discourse of ‘the Arab Street’ seeks to close down, arguing that the recurrence of the term is both the justification of the use of force, and part of the reordering of the claim to visibility that the embodied and vocal contestation of space makes. I draw conclusions regarding the political stakes of the study of aesthetic forms of Arab media.