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Where does the term 'Day of Rage' come from?

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Yemeni anti-government demonstrators demand the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, Yemen on Friday.

With protesters across the Middle East and North Africa calling for “Days of Rage,” it raises the question: Where does the term come from? What is the etymology of the phrase and when was it adopted by Arab protesters?

The term appears to have been first used in the United States by the Weathermen, also known as the Weather Underground, a radical leftist, anti-government organization. The anti-Vietnam war organization planned several “days of rage” as an effort to “bring the war home.”  Beginning on Oct. 8, 1969, a few hundred protesters ran through the well-heeled streets of Chicago’s Gold Coast smashing everything from cars to fancy shop windows.  After four days of protests and repeated clashes with the police, 287 people were arrested. The Weathermen organization eventually petered out after the end of the Vietnam War.

But then, the expression fell into disuse, according to a Google timeline of the terms usage. It only re-emerged in 1989 when a cultural kerfuffle erupted over the broadcasting of a PBS documentary called “Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians.” Produced by Jo Franklin, an award-winning producer for the MacNeil-Lehrer Report, the documentary was met with resistance because it told the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Palestinian perspective. it featured Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza denouncing their treatment by their Israeli occupiers and was made in the height of what became known as the First Intifada, or Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories, from 1987-1993.

PBS viewers, particularly those in New York, took issue with the documentary being broadcast on public TV because they said it was “pure propaganda” and did not provide balance by showing the Israeli perspective.  

The documentary became a polarizing topic of debate, with the New York Times widely denouncing the project to the Los Angeles Times championing it as a fresh look at the conflict from voices seldom heard in the American media. Channel Thirteen, the New York PBS station lists the controversy among “Thirteen’s Most Shocking Moments.”

After months of public debate, the documentary eventually aired to a huge audience, with the Israeli perspective edited in and a roundtable discussion held after the broadcast. It also aired across the Middle East – which is why Franklin believes the term became synonymous with protests in the Arab world to this day.

Franklin said that the phrase was not a translation of an Arabic term she had heard on the street, but rather just an idea that came to her as she was editing the film. In Arabic, the term is يوم الغضب , pronounced “youm al ghadab.”

“I was just watching the footage day after day. You know how it is when you are editing a 90-minute film and all of a sudden it came to me – the core of the film was rage. Consequentially I named the film, ‘Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians,’” Franklin said during a recent phone interview.


Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz on Friday.

She said that in the midst of the U.S. controversy, a friend at the Washington Post was traveling to Jordan and asked if he could show the film to the then King Hussein. She said that Hussein not only watched it, but he “put it on the satellite out of Jordan and broadcast it all over the Middle East!”

While she essentially coined the term at the time, she’s still surprised to see it being used now. “It is just absolutely fascinating to me now, years later, to see that literally became ‘the term. ’” 

First intifada? Second intifada?
In fact, the term has become so widespread since then that a number of Middle East experts couldn’t pinpoint exactly when it was first used.

Martin Fletcher, NBC News' longtime Middle East correspondent said that he couldn’t remember exactly when it came into common parlance, but believes it wasn’t until the 1990s.

Lawrence Pintak, now dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University, covered the Middle East as a correspondent for over 30 years beginning in the early 1980s and is the author of "The New Arab Journalist."

Pintak, who started his career as a reporter in Beirut in the early 1980s and then moved on to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said he always assumed the term “day of rage” was an English translation of an Arab saying. 

“I certainly remember it in the Second Intifada [2000-2005], but I don’t specifically remember if it was in the First Intifada or not. But it’s like the chicken and the egg. If Jo [Franklin] says she made it up, not because of what she heard on the ground, that’s very interesting.”

Likewise, Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he couldn’t remember exactly when he first heard the term. “I have vague recollection of it being used during the First Intifada… I can’t be sure, but I have a vague recollection of that.”  

However, when asked if Franklin’s documentary might have started the trend, he said, “that may actually be it.”

Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist also started reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 1980s. “I would say it dates back to the Palestinian intifada. But I could not really answer you specifically when it actually started. Or what was the one occasion that actually got the name kind of tacked on to it,” Kuttab said.

“I think it started in one place and they just picked it up. There is a lot of copy-catting here. As they say, ‘courage is contagious.’”    

Regardless of where the term came from, Cook, from the CFR pointed out that the term is used because it fits the occasion. “I wouldn’t attach too much importance to it being used in one era – like the first intifada or the second intifada…and then it being used in Cairo for the first Friday of protests. It’s just an obvious thing that people who are rising up against their government might use.”

And Kuttab pointed out that whatever  the “rage” implied in the term translates to, the Egyptians deserve credit for what they achieved – but mostly for keeping it non-violent.  He added, “As President Obama said, ‘their moral power was to keep it non-violent.’ You pay a price for that, but it’s so much more powerful.” 

If you have any ideas about the origin of the term, please contribute via the comment section below.