Word on the Street

As 2020 brought us countless examples of injustice and pain, it brought remembrances that we live in a world in need of more – well, work. And that means scrutinising the cities we live in, the homes we rest in, and… the streets we live on.

Today on Kerning Cultures, we’re bringing you two stories about two streets – and the justices and injustices hidden in their names. Follow us to Tehran and Khartoum as we uncover two histories brought together by one common denominator.

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HEBAH: On the 23rd of June, 2020, the New York Times published an article called ‘How to Rename a Street’.

ZEINA: Choose the street carefully. Roadways with few or no addresses, like highways, are the easiest to rename.

HEBAH: The article was written in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US this year, as activists and ordinary citizens fought injustice inside their buildings and on the streets. Here’s producer Zeina Dowidar reading from this article.

ZEINA: Changing street names cannot fix injustice, but don’t underestimate its power, either. 

HEBAH: While we all know the names of our streets…

RONNIE: The name of the street I live on is Genaizt Strasse;

AIDA: Kitusuru Road;

ZACH: Well my street is a number so it’s not very exciting;

TODD: It’s called [Aurasconse] 

HEBAH: How many of us actually know the meanings behind those names?

AIDA: Absolutely not, no.

RONNIE: I have no idea actually, I could ask, that’s a really good question.

HEBAH: Do you know what your street name means? When it was put up, and by whom? And, how much do these names actually matter? 

ZEINA: Ask who and what the street names around you commemorate.

ZEINA: But why do we have street names in the first place?

HEBAH: This is producer Zeina Dowidar.

DEIRDRE: Well, there’s, there’s obvious points about navigation, just being able to find each other.

ZEINA: This is Deirdre Mask, and she’s the author of a book called The Address Book.

DEIRDRE: The Address Book: What street addresses reveal about identity, race, wealth, and power.

ZEINA: I talked to her to understand why we should have street names in the first place.

DEIRDRE: And in a lot of ways, this, you know, having named streets and house numbers builds community, because you can find each other easily, you know, not just people you know, but people who don’t know you, it sort of fosters a sense of community in an area. 

ZEINA: It also makes it easier to do practical things in our everyday lives. 

DEIRDRE: You know, it makes it easier to vote. It makes it easier to get bank accounts. It makes it easier to get credit. And it makes it easier to access, you know, other aspects of life and community around the world.

ZEINA: But street names don’t just help us practically. They shape the neighbourhoods around them as well.

ZEINA: “Street names become part of the language of a city,” Alderman says. “And then they become part of the psyche of the people.”

HEBAH: Obviously the act of naming something – a building, a bridge, a street, it’s a commemoration of .. something, it a commemoration of some history. But whose history?

And so today, we wanted to look a little closer at the places we live and the streets around us. And the stories they’re holding up to us every day as we walk or drive along them. We have two stories for you about two different streets – one in Tehran, and one in Khartoum, thousands of kms apart, but share a depth of history unknown to most and their stories are pretty fascinating.

I’m Hebah Fisher, and this is Kerning Cultures. Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, and the spaces in between.


HEBAH: Here’s Zeina, starting with the story about a small street in Tehran called Bobby Sands Street.

ZEINA: We’re actually not starting this story in Tehran. This story instead starts in Belfast in the 1980s.

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: Let me give you some context.

DANNY: Are you Zeina?

ZEINA: Yes, I’m Zeina.

ZEINA: This is Danny Morrison. 

DANNY: I’m almost 68 years of age, and I have been involved in republicanism and in the struggle against British rule in Ireland from my mid-teens. And I’m not sure if your listeners are familiar with politics in Ireland, but our country was partitioned against the wishes of the majority of the people by the British almost 100 years ago.

[Archival tape]

DANNY: And so the South of Ireland, which is today called the Republic of Ireland, is largely an independent, it’s a member of the European union.

[Archival tape]

DEIRDRE: So, you have the United Kingdom, which includes the Island of Britain, which is England, Wales and Scotland, but it also includes the very top bit of Ireland.

ZEINA: Many Northern Irish people feel as though they should be part of the independent country of Ireland, and not under the British rule.

DANNY: We were subjugated and made second class citizens in our own country.

[Archival tape] 

ZEINA: And so being a republican meant fighting for the unification of Ireland. But the reason we’re talking to Danny is because of one man: Bobby Sands. 

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: Danny and Bobby met at a very unlikely place: prison.

DANNY: He was moving past our cage one night in the dark, him and several hundred other prisoners were being shifted from one camp to another. And I met him at the fence.  

ZEINA: And what was he like as a person? Like, what was his character like, or his disposition?

DANNY: Well, first of all he could be quite humorous, but he was also quite serious, and he was one of the most determined people I had ever come across. When you’re in his company, you knew that you were in the presence of someone special.

ZEINA: During what was known as the Troubles, which was a 30 year period of conflict between Northern Ireland and the British over the identity of Northern Ireland, many activists and protestors were thrown into prisons by the British government to try and deter others from following suit.

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: When Bobby was 27, he had already spent over one third of his life in prison, for charges such as firearms possession. During his time in prison, Bobby became Officer Commanding of the IRA prisoners, which was the political party he and Danny were a part of, and they organised a series of protests to protect their rights as political prisoners.

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: Although Republicans had for years been treated like political prisoners, or prisoners fo war – which meant exemptions from wearing prison uniforms or doing prison work for instance – this special status was revoked in 1976 as the British government sought to squash the movement. 

DANNY: They were badly beaten for over four and a half years, held in solitary confinement. At one stage illegally put on a bread and water diet. They were regularly hosed down, and they lived in horrific conditions. So Bobby and his comrades went on hunger strike. 

[Archival tape]

DANNY: Bobby led it. He was the first person on the 1st of March, 1981. And, I visited him maybe 19 times prior to the hunger strike, and you know, I just, he was just a wonderful person and he was quite determined.

[Archival tape] 

ZEINA: Days passed, and then weeks, and the hunger strikers quickly began gaining international attention.

[Archival tape]

DANNY: So for example, even the Pope sent his secretary over to talk to Bobby Sands to ask him to end it. But Bobby said look, you shouldn’t be talking to me. Talk to Mrs. Thatcher.

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: After 66 days, Bobby Sands was the first hunger striker to die.

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: Bobby’s story went global. Thousands of people across the world resonated with his story. Especially in Iran. To learn more about this, I spoke with Ronnie Close.

RONNIE: Yeah, hi! 

ZEINA: Ronnie’s a professor of visual media at the American University in Cairo. 

RONNIE: And I’ve been researching for my PhD actually 10 years ago, the connections between Irish republicanism and Iranian politics.

ZEINA: At the time, Iran was going through its own turmoil. 

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: The Iranian revolution was in 1979, and in 1980, Iraq invaded Iran. But what connected Bobby Sands’ struggle with Iran? 

DEIRDRE: I’m not sure much sure if they cared so much about the reunification of Ireland, but I think the Iranians shared – many Iranians at least – shared a common enemy with Bobby Sands, which was the British.

ZEINA: The British and their American allies had a heavy hand in Iranian affairs, particularly in the years leading up to the Iranian revolution in 1979 which established Iran as an Islamic Republic.

RONNIE: So I think some of the appeal was that it was anti, you know, he was seen as the symbol of anti-colonialism, anti-British rule. It was an irritant to the British legacy in Tehran. 

ZEINA: But there’s another reason many Iranians connected so closely to Bobby’s death.

RONNIE: Because of that war with Iraq, a lot of their ability to respond was actually through, quite, quite horrific sort of martyrdom.

ZEINA: With many casualties in the war, religious leaders broadened the definition of a martyr, in order to get more men to join the cause against Iraq. They announced that all fatalities of the war were to be considered martyrs for the country, and therefore for Islam. As such, martyrdom became very prominent in the war, with Iranians organising ‘human wave attacks’ against the Iraqis.

RONNIE: There was almost like you could say almost like a cult, or an institution of martyrdom in Iran.

ZEINA: So for many Iranians, Bobby was a martyr, too.

RONNIE: And also another much more official connection actually between the government and republicanism was that the…

ZEINA: Ronnie told me that, one day in July 1981, the Iranian ambassador to Sweden gifted the Irish delegation a woodcut plaque. 

RONNIE: But it has an image of Bobby Sands’ face, but then these kinds of crucified figures, you know, in the background, and it does say, you know, from the Ayatollah Khomeini to, you know, the martyr Bobby Sands. 

ZEINA: Despite all this, Ronnie was still surprised to hear a rumour around the streets of Belfast. One about a street named after Bobby in Tehran.

RONNIE: And I was, you know, I think I’d heard it, but I just had no idea whether it was true or not. 

ZEINA: So we went exploring.

NAVID: I have to say lots of cameras around, so it’s gonna be quite hard to get the ambient before I get into any trouble.

ZEINA: This is Navid, an audio producer in Tehran. I asked him to go to the neighbourhood and check out the street.

NAVID: Just about to turn into Bobby Sands Street, and now we’re on Bobby Sands. It’s quite a busy street, lots of cars, one side is the wall of an embassy, not sure which embassy it is.

ZEINA: Ronnie knew exactly which embassy it was.

RONNIE: One side of the street is taken up with the British embassy. So it’s the wall. It’s I mean… I’ll get myself into trouble, but it’s a kind of typical British embassy from that time. It’s big, you know, so they not only have a building, but they have gardens. So it’s more like a block that they, they have, you know.

ZEINA: Like a compound basically for the embassy.

RONNIE: It’s a compound.

DANNY: because of course the British government likes to leave evidence of stay and its occupation in countries all over the world. In Tehran, the British embassy’s address was Winston Churchill Avenue. 

ZEINA: Calling the street Winston Churchill Avenue was quite a powerful move from the British many years before. By the way, Winston Churchill was one of the most famous Prime Ministers in the UK, governing at the height of the British Empire from 1940 to ‘45, and again from 1951 to ‘55. Churchill was actually in power when the British organised a coup to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953. But back to the story about how it became Bobby Sands Street. 

DEIRDRE: Yeah, so, I speak of a story about Bobby Sands St. in Tehran, and I read a book about a story about a man named Pedram Moallemian. I might be pronouncing his name not quite properly, but Pedram. And it was very interesting story about, he says that when he was a kid really, he, and some friends decided to unofficially rename the street after Bobby Sands, after Bobby Sands died. And it was a street near a friend’s house.

ZEINA: Deirdre spoke to Pedram, the Iranian who as a teen had changed the street name. We reached out to him for this story multiple times but in the end, he didn’t respond.

DEIRDRE: I think they had some other ideas of trying to commemorate Bobby Sands, like you know, find an Irish flag. But as he said, if there was a place to find an Irish flag in Tehran, at that time, he didn’t know where it was, and they had all sorts of other ideas. But in the end they decided that the street naming would be a powerful symbolic response. And so he was able to make – he was quite good at art and graphic design – so they made a mockup of the sign.

DANNY: So they unscrewed the name, Winston Churchill Avenue and they renamed it. Bobby Sands’ street.

NAVID: Yes, I can see the sign Bobby Sands street, both in, the sign is both in Farsi and obviously in English.

DANNY: And the British government were very angry. They thought that they could order Tehran to take that down and put back  Winston Churchill Avenue. But the local authority recognized the street officially as Bobby Sands street. And it’s very interesting what the British government did next. So rather than receive [unclear] they bricked up the entrance to the street and knocked a hole in the wall, leading onto another street so that they wouldn’t have Bobby Sands mentioned in their address because of course Bobby Sands was haunting them.

ZEINA: I asked Navid whether he knew why it was called Bobby Sands Street.

NAVID: Yes. I mean, I had no idea, but I guess people that are around the area, they, they pretty much out of, I think I interviewed one, two, three, maybe four people, three of them completely knew what it was. 

[Bobby Sands St. interview ambient]

NAVID: What he said, so Bobby Sands apparently was an Irish revolutionary who was against the British empire and after the revolution, because Iran’s relationship with England wasn’t in a good position, so that’s why they named the street Bobby Sands, as sort of a jab to them.

DANNY: Interestingly, a few years ago, I discovered that Jack Straw –   

ZEINA: He used to be the UK’s Foreign Secretary.

DANNY: He was secretly lobbying the Tehran government, the Iranian government sorry, to change the name back to Winston Churchill Avenue. So I launched an international petition and we received scores of thousands of, uh, people who signed the petition. Calling upon Tehran, not the change of name and the street remains Bobby Sands street.

ZEINA: Today the street remains Bobby Sands street. There is even a Bobby Sands pizza just outside of Tehran as well. Interestingly, Tehran is not the only place you’ll find streets named after Bobby Sands. There’s one in New York, a Bobby Sands Way in Connecticut and a couple more around the world.

ZEINA: We’ll be back after the break.


ZEINA: Many times, street name changes happen out of protest of petition, rather than in the dead of the night.

Don’t be afraid to take your appeal to a larger stage, which may involve protests, marches and boycotts.

This second story is more recent, one that’s happening as we speak. And just like in Tehran, it’s about a name that’s more than just a name. It’s about a group of people battling a name put in place centuries ago, one that memorialises a very controversial character in Sudanese history. And it’s making locals ask questions about which parts of history we should keep, and which we shouldn’t…

DEIRDRE: These arguments about street names are often about more than street names, it’s not just what the street name is called. It’s about what, what we know, what we value as society and what we feel. So, you know, sometimes people will say, oh, let’s just get rid of this argument. Let’s just number all the streets or something. And as I say, in the book, you know, these arguments sort of divide communities, they also create communities. So perhaps in thinking about how the change these street names, you’re also sort of identifying what your values are.

ZEINA: And funnily enough, the street in question houses a very important building we’ve come across before: the British Embassy. I want to put in some Union Jack like music here, I think it’d be so funny.

Place names often reinforce colonialist narratives, erase Indigenous history and inscribe privilege onto the landscape. 

ZEINA: Who is Zubair Basha? 

HAFIZ: Yeah. Yeah Zubair Rahm Mansour he is one of the slave traders in the 19th century, he’s very famous for being a slave trader. 

ZEINA: This is Hafiz Mohamed Ibrahim, and he’s the director of Justice Africa, an NGO focused on social justice and human rights. Hafiz is campaigning to change the name of one of the historic streets in central Khartoum – Zubeir Pasha Street. Zubeir Rahim Mansour, or Zubeir Pasha as we’ll refer to him, was a merchant in Sudan in the mid-1800s. To learn more about him, and the history of Sudan at the time, I called up an old friend of mine, Aida. 

AIDA: Hi, my name is Aida Abbashar. I’m based in Nairobi. I’m Sudanese. I am a social policy research officer, and my research primarily focuses on Sudan and the current transitional period.

ZEINA: I asked Aida to fill me in on who Zubair was. 

AIDA: Okay, so in order to talk about Zubeir Pasha, you also have to talk about slavery in Sudan, kind of the history of slavery in Sudan. And slavery in Sudan can be traced back to ancient Nubian and Egyptian times.

ZEINA: The history of slavery in ancient Egypt is well known. But as thousands of years passed, Sudanese people were still being captured as slaves and sent to Egypt. For most of the 19th century, the slave population of Egypt was between 20,000 and 30,000, out of a total population of five million. Every significant town in Egypt had a slave market, the largest of which was the Wakalat al-Gallaba, which was a Sudanese merchant’s roadside inn in central Cairo.

AIDA: Mohamed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman ruler began raiding South Sudan in an attempt to. Build up an army of Southern Sudanese slaves. Um, and the people who helped him were Nubian slavers.

ZEINA: This wasn’t just recruiting people to join an army. Instead, it was a very systematic way of raiding villages.

AIDA: In order to get these slaves, it was very much planned and that’s where Zubair Pasha comes in.

HAFIZ: He used to work with the Turkish and also the Egyptian and actually, apprehending  people from South Sudan and the Nuba mountains and send them as a slave to Egypt and as a part of Sudan.

ZEINA: It seemed pretty clear to me that Zubair was a terrible person. But this is where it gets tricky. Because for many Sudanese, Zubair Pasha wasn’t a villain at all, in fact, he’s seen as a hero.

HAFIZ: The problem is in, in the, in, in the history textbooks, which students study, in primary school and others, they considered him as one of the hero.

ZACH: On the one hand, he said he never owned a slave and he never had anything to do with the slave trade. On the other hand, he was the King of slave traders.

ZEINA: This is Zachary Berman. 

ZACH: And those are both possibly sort of true. And that’s what makes it a little schizophrenic almost to, to try to follow the narrative.

ZEINA: I asked Zach to help me understand why Zubair was seen as a hero if he was so terrible. He was well suited for that, because he’s a high school teacher.

ZACH:  I teach global history in ninth and 10th grade at Stuyvesant High School, which is a, um, very competitive public school in, in New York.

ZEINA: Zach also wrote his PhD Thesis on Zubair Pasha. 

ZACH: And I do get to talk about my dissertation with my students. They do, they do appreciate it. 

ZEINA: How did this slave trading happen? DId he just fall into it? How does one become a king of slave traders?

ZACH: I think you very much fall into it, especially because his family had been traders and this was sort of the wild west where you went to seek your fortune and. And I think we really need to say that this was not nothing like the slavery transatlantic, plantation slavery. This was slavery of people who were largely were sold to, to pay off taxes. Their families owed taxes. They didn’t have any money. So they had to sell children, and by selling them, they were promised they’d have a great job.

ZEINA: And so even though at some point he had a personal army made up of captives from South Sudan, he also captured parts of land in the name of Sudan, and so in the eyes of many Sudanese, he was a conqueror in the name of their country. His life and his legacy have actually left him many supporters in Sudan.

HAFIZ: And even just a couple of months ago, there is a program in one of the Sudanese televisions about him as the hero. One of the heroes of Sudanese history.

ZEINA: Completely erasing the problematic issues of his slaver past. 

HAFIZ: And I have never seen a  textbook, which considered slave trade as shame or something, which you have to regret. They never do that. and I think that’s the problem, I think we have to delink our our presence with this very shameful history.

ZEINA: Zubair Basha Street is in the more historic centre of Khartoum, covering almost 20 blocks of the city centre. There’s two university campuses on the street, mosques, a church, several banks, and tons of restaurants. It’s a bustling street, only a few blocks away from the Blue Nile River.  But that’s not all – the street’s location is reflective of the city’s colonial urban design. Khartoum was planned by Herbert Kitchener when an Anglo-Egyptian army took back control over Sudan in 1898. 

[Archival tape]

ZEINA: Kitchener was a military engineer, and previous battles in Khartoum had torn it to the ground, giving him free reign to rebuild the city. And past naming many streets after British names and legacies, Kitchener did something much more permanent.

AIDA: He chose to lay out the city to resemble the Union Jack.

ZEINA: The Union Jack that’s on the British flag. He literally made Khartoum look like a bunch of Union Jacks if you were looking at it from above.

AIDA: But something else you do see in Khartoum center is that many of the street names were chosen as a physical reminder of victories of the British and Egyptian armies.

ZEINA: And so having the name of a prominent slaver, who helped supply Egypt’s army with Sudanese slaves, which ultimately were then used to fight their countrymen as a street name on roads that resembled the Union Jack… it’s more than a little problematic. Especially because of what’s on the street itself.

AIDA: It’s known as the street where the British embassy is situated. So if you ever want to get a visa to go to the UK, you’ll be at Zubair Pasha street.

ZEINA: This is even worse when you think about the British relationship with Zubair. That’s how Zach got into researching him in the first place.

ZACH: And so I spent a few hours looking at British parliamentary records for the months leading up to the Mahdist revolt. And  it was overwhelmingly about this guy named Zubair, and they were yelling back and forth about, this is our only hope and Zabar’s this evil, and he’s our only hope and he’s evil.

ZEINA: Their relationship with Zubair was long and complicated. While the British wanted to stop slavery in Sudan, and so hated Zubair for his part in continuing the trade, they also deeply respected him. So much so that at one point, the British were fully considering instating Zubair as the new ruler of Sudan in order to bring Sudan back under their control. When the British re-took Sudan after the Mahdist revolution and set up the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, he became an advisor to the government.

ZACH: And after he dies, the day after he died, the British administrator said he might’ve done more to eliminate the slave trade than anyone.

ZEINA: Changing this street name is now more important than ever for Hafiz, for a much bigger reason. After months of protests starting December 2018, a 39-month transitionary period was signed in September 2019 in Sudan. Since then, Sudanese people have gone to the streets to protest a range of issues, which sparked discussions on corruption, justice, the rights of political prisoners, women’s rights, and importantly, to rethink relations with South Sudan and combatting racism in Sudanese communities.

HAFIZ: We want to change the culture, the mindset of the people who believe that there’s some Sudanese are slaves. I think this is still there. And by doing that, I think we want to change that we want to change the perception, we want to change the mindset, we want to tell people that to the least equal, no one is a slave and no one is master. I think that is what we want to do.

AIDA: I think that’s where street names really matter. Because for a lot of people, if you only have a surface level understanding of what the street is or where it’s located or how it’s set up, then the street name, whatever it is, doesn’t really matter. But once you incorporate the history and the other intricacies that come into play, that’s when I think it matters. And I think those are the type of discussions that need to be had in Sudan.

ZEINA: Although the campaign to change the name of this street from Zubair Pasha has been delayed by Covid-19, Hafiz is hoping to set up a petition which they can deliver to the government, in order to ask the government to change the name of the street.

HAFIZ: We’re hoping that by educating people and telling them exactly what, uh, what’s wrong and what’s right in our history. That will change Sudan and we will end conflict, and then Sudanese can live together, recognizing each other , recognizing diversity, and  by that we will end a conflict and then continue to move forward.

DEIRDRE: And there are more modern philosophers who talk about how revolutions often start with street names. There’s a geographer named Don Mitchell, who when I was speaking convinced this great point that if you’re an invader, then you can physically take space. But if you’re a revolutionary, you have to take the space from the inside. Um, and so taking space from the inside, you already have it. What do you do with it? And part of it is that you can rename it. So changing the names to reflect your ideology can be a powerful tool. And in a revolutionary’s toolkit, I suppose.

ZEINA: The next time you’re out on a walk, or a drive, look around you. Look out for street signs, marking dates, honouring names, or establishing narratives.

Notice the hidden curriculum that runs through place names.

You’ll never know what you’ll uncover, right outside your front door.

Toponyms reflect points of view, which can be changed.

HEBAH: This episode was produced by Zeina Dowidar, with editorial support from Alex Atack, Nadeen Shaker, and Dana Ballout. Editing by Dana Ballout. Sound design by Zeina Dowidar and Alex Atack, and mixing by Mohamed Khreizat. The article Zeina reads throughout this episode is ‘How to Rename a Street’ by Malia Wollan from the New York Times. 

ZEINA: Thank you to Deirdre Mask, whose book, The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power really shaped and inspired this story. Thank you to Ronnie Close, Danny Morrison, Aida Abasshar, Zachary Berman and Hafiz Ibrahim for taking the time to speak to me for this story. You can keep up with Hafiz’s work on the Justice Africa Sudan page. Thank you to Navid who provided great tape from Tehran. Thank you also to Todd Reisz, author of Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai, and Susana F. Molia, founder of the Urban Activist, for speaking to me for this story. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the hunger strikes at Long Kesh, which Bobby organised.

HEBAH: If you’re loving Kerning Cultures, please be sure to tell your friends about us. In addition to this show, we have 7 other fabulous, if I do say so, podcasts in Arabic and in English. Everything from love stories to thriller fiction adventures. Just google Kerning Cultures Network and you’ll see the list. If you’re experiencing KC withdrawal from each episode to the next, be sure to follow us on social @kerningcultures – we do our best to fill the feed with cool factoids you’ll want to share with your friends and behind-the-scenes of us as a team.

We’ll be back next week with a new story for you. Thanks for listening, until next time.