Cyrus Schayegh, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Cyrus Schayegh (CS): Biographical reasons aside, I was looking to answer three questions in this book. How can we leverage what we know about the Middle East to think beyond that region—in “my” case, about the socio-spatial making of the modern world? What do we see when we look beyond nation/alism and empire in the modern Middle East? And how does the Yishuv/Israel fit into the broader history of the Middle East?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
CS: I will cite the monograph’s opening paragraph to give your readers a sense of the book’s question and scope; then, the excerpt below will give you an idea of how I have tackled that question. The paragraph reads: “This book is an interpretation of the socio-spatial making of the modern Middle East. Why, how, and in which stages, it asks, did well-rooted cities and regions mold a dynamic modern world economy and powerful modern states? How, in return, were cities and regions remolded? And what does the Middle Eastern case tell us about the world as a whole?”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
CS: I was trained as an Iranist—my first monograph was Who is Knowledgeable, Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900-1950 (Berkeley, 2009)—and continue working on Iran. In this sense, my second monograph, which pivots around lands to Iran’s west, is a departure. It is a continuation in that questions of space already interested me, if vaguely, in graduate school. Also, like this monograph, my recent articles have used the Middle East to develop questions that, I hope, also interest non-Middle Eastern historians. Here are four examples. “Iran’s Karaj Dam Affair: Emerging Mass Consumerism, the Politics of Promise and the Cold War in the Early Post-war Third World,” Comparative Studies in Society and History (2012), examined two intertwined processes shaping post-war Tehran: a ravenous demand for electricity, part of a surge in popular expectations for consumer goods and higher standards of living, and the construction of the Karaj Dam to meet that demand. Middle class consumerist expectations developed together with a West-centered but ultimately global maturation of mass consumer culture, with the cultural Cold War, and with the shaky post-1953 regime’s politics of promising higher living standards. The dam became possible when that regime frightened its patron—the U.S. administration, dreading Soviet influence—into helping pay for the project despite reservations in the U.S. Congress and among technical specialists. This dam was not, then, simply a top-down state (or U.S.) project—it was also caused by, and in that sense belonged to, Tehranis. “1958 Reconsidered. State Formation and Cold War in the Early Post-Colonial Arab Middle East,” International Journal of Middle East Studies (2013), posited interlinked state formation surges in response to the 1958/59 crises, and drew three conclusions. 1958/59 formed a milestone for state formation; Syria’s, Jordan’s, and Lebanon’s postindependence histories were shaped by persisting affinities and a shared regional position; and Washington’s low-profile involvement in the state-formation surge illustrates how domestic sociopolitics and regional geopolitics—including the United Arab Republic’s (UAR) peaking popularity and influence in 1958–59—affected U.S. policy in the Cold War postcolonial world. “The Inter-war Germination of Development and Modernization Theory and Practice: Politics, Institution Building, and Knowledge Production between the Rockefeller Foundation and the American University of Beirut,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft (2015), used the story of the Social Science Research Section (SSRS), founded in 1928 with Rockefeller Foundation money at AUB, to argue that the interwar years in the Middle East were a germination period of development and modernization theory and practice. The period was one of transition: Ottoman influences lingered into the age of European colonialism while decolonization gathered pace and international actors increasingly spoke up. The SSRS reflected this transitionality. It was institutionally part of a new university-foundation-development-missionary complex that would build a social science empire by connecting Western and Middle Eastern networks. Its political aim was to guide decolonization. And, finally, the SSRS addressed the epistemic problem of being Western in the now decolonizing non-West by terming its research/proto-development sites "laboratories" and insisting that its research was universally valid. Lastly, “The Mandates and/as Decolonization,” in Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates (London, 2015) held that in the A Mandates decolonization began around 1930, when independence demands started dominating European authorities’ political agenda. Iraq received "independence light;" in other mandates, parties and institutions were recognized, treatises signed, and elections held. This affirms scholarly views that decolonization had strong inter-war roots. Positing one periodization for all Mandates, it shows that colonial politics ought to be studied within a spatially broad and temporally deep framework (here the Arab East and the Ottoman Empire).
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
CS: “Who’s your audience?” is every editor’s, and hence academic’s, 64,000-dollar-question. My answer turned out to be, “historians in general and interested laymen.” In consequence, the monograph is chronologically ordered (thematic structures normally work well for area specialists in the know, less well for others.) Each chapter is preceded by a prelude, the story of a person that serves as a human-interest “historical probe” for what follows. Each chapter starts with a concise historical contextualization that, while little news to Middle Eastern historians, helps other readers to orient themselves. On a separate note, while the monograph focuses on the 1830s-1940s, a postscript traces the story to the 2010s. Finally, I tried to improve my English, that is, to get passed my indomitable Germanic urge—I am Swiss Iranian—to write five-line-long sentences with four subordinate clauses that include at least three verbs, all at the end rather than the start of the sentence, while taking pride in too long compound nouns like Obergerichtsbarkeitsinstanzenkurzschlusshandlung (although these are of course dazzingly obfuscating if not plain gibberish) and making sure to liberally salt and pepper the prose with mixed metaphors and baroque punctuations (--) all of which left readers scratching—or shaking!?—their head. Like now.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
CS: I am trying my hand at texts that use Middle Eastern stories to address broad historical questions and/or treat conceptual issues fundamental to the historian’s craft. One article I am currently working on concerns scale, for example; another, “The Misplaced Gift: An Essai on Global Political Culture(s) during Kennedy’s American Empire,” interprets why an Iranian woman, Fakhri Garakani, sent U.S. President John F. Kennedy a needlework masterpiece of Pope John Paul XXIII in 1961.
Excerpt from the Book:
To answer the[se] questions [posed above], th[is] book focuses on a transformative stretch of time. It starts in the middle third of the nineteenth century, when a now clearly West-centric form of economic globalization, and modern state formation in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere, began in earnest. Rather than concluding in 1918 with the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution and the expansion of European rule in the Middle East, it continues until the 1940s, when a number of Middle Eastern states gained independence. A postscript traces the story to the present. Further, this book has a pivot: Bilad al-Sham, a region central to the Middle East. Its European name was Syria until 1918; thereafter it became known as Greater Syria, in distinction from the new country Syria, because that region was divided into French Lebanon and Syria and British Palestine and Transjordan following World War I. From Bilad al-Sham, the book looks beyond: to neighboring Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey, to diaspora communities, and to a variety of imperial and transnational connections. And it peers deeply into the region, at cities, at their ties, and at the global economic forces, the Ottoman and European empire-states, and the post- Ottoman nation-states at work within Bilad al-Sham.
What the book finds is that the socio-spatial making of the modern world cannot be fully grasped by studying globalization or state formation or urbanization. Certainly, the world's accelerated interdependence, states’ unprecedented ability to penetrate their territory, and record urban growth all have been instrumental in creating the modern world, distinguishing it from premodern times. But no single one of these developments has been clearly dominant. Hence, neither has any single one been the distinguishing feature of the socio- spatial making of the modern world. This is the case not the least because these developments were inherently interlaced. It is indeed this fact—that cities, regions, states, and global circuits reconstituted and transformed each other much more thoroughly and at a much faster rhythm than at any other point in history—that is the primary distinguishing feature of the socio-spatial making of the modern world. I call that feature transpatialization. It is not one single process. (Neither are globalization, state formation, and urbanization, for that matter.) Rather, it denotes a set of processes: of socio-spatial intertwinements. Put differently, transpatialization is not an empirical unit. It is a heuristic umbrella. Its use, by a historian, makes sense because the processes it bundles unfolded in tandem. Also, it does not assign artificial primacy to any one presumably unitary process or to any one seemingly distinct scale like “the global” or “the urban.” As such, this book picks up the “real challenge” to scholars that global historian Sebastian Conrad recently identified: To “shift between, and articulate, different scales of analysis rather than sticking to fixed territories. . . . In many cases,” Conrad added, “historians have opted for novel geographies, but in the end have tended to then treat these spaces as given.”
This book has two sets of conceptual implications. One concerns its underlying argument that the socio- spatial making of the modern world is characterized by cities, regions, states, and global circuits reconstituting and transforming each other much more thoroughly and at a much faster rhythm than before in history. What were fundamental features of that process of transpatialization? The present answer to that question addresses diachronic and synchronic features; I will circle back to, and elaborate on, this answer in the book’s Conclusion.
One diachronic feature was that the structure, function, and even very meaning of cities, regions, states, and global circuits changed over time—and that they did so hand-in-hand. None of these fields—not even cities, which at first glance may appear to be an obvious unit—can be clearly delimited in space or function, as geographers have long recognized. Instances abound. Bilad al- Sham shifted from a patchwork to an umbrella region; moreover, it was both nationalized and globalized in the late nineteenth century, and from the 1930s it was increasingly framed as an integral part of the “Arab world.” Cities became reframed—nationalized—from 1918, and some of their hinterlands became transnationalized. Meanwhile, new nation-states were framed and functioned as multiurban spaces, and furthermore were linked up to transnational spaces.
Moreover, the rhythm of diachronic changes in structure, function, and meaning accelerated compared to the premodern period. Thus, this book is divided into two stages—Ottoman and post-Ottoman. Both stages have phases, each with its own distinct hierarchies and interactive patterns. To make matters more complex, there were two transitional phases, the 1830s–1840s and the 1920s, and the two world wars were not inert interludes but phases of their own that gave transpatialization a distinct spin.
Finally, the accelerated rhythm of diachronic changes meant that characteristics of one phase easily affected later phases. For example, Ottoman state power and European capital at work in Beirut before World War I, together with the city’s intense social networks, for all matters and purposes compelled France to choose Beirut as its Mandate capital. Similarly, Bilad al-Sham’s prewar integration convinced Britain and France to create a customs free zone after 1918 and to coordinate policies, although the two had just divided the region. Such a sociospatial dialectic did not equal geographical determinism, however. For instance, cities and interurban axes did not rise or fall because of their absolute location but because combined urban, state, and global interests and investments in them waxed or waned, as the shifting fates of Beirut, Haifa, Damascus, Aleppo, Amman, and other cities illustrate.
Two synchronic features of transpatialization stand out. One is that relations between the urban, the regional, the state, and the global were not a zero-sum game. For instance, a more intense presence of state power in a city did not mean less city. As a matter of fact, more intensity in one field often meant more intensity in others. The result was a wide range of mutually transformative dual relationships. Some linked a city and the region, for instance, or an interurban axis and world economic forces. Others involved the nation-state. From their very birth following World War I, Bilad al-Sham’s nation-states were shaped by transnationalized—formerly urban, hinterland, and regional—ties. Similarly, the urbanization of nation-states and the nationalization of cities were two sides of the same coin. Moreover, the continued impact of cities’ hinterlands on nation- states had its mirror image in the transnationalization of those hinterlands that now straddled a border. And nation-states’ regionalization went hand-in-hand with the transnationalization of the region, its transformation from a patchwork into an umbrella. Accordingly, Bilad al-Sham’s new nation- states did not simply evolve individually but also as one single set. In the region’s central periphery—the mostly rural zone composed of northern Palestine, southern Lebanon, southwestern Syria, and northwestern Transjordan—this had an ironic effect. Although each post- Ottoman national bit was peripheral and marginalized in its own national economy, the fact that these four bits formed a transnationalized transport crossroad at the center of a still firmly integrated Bilad al-Sham somewhat attenuated their peripheral position within their respective nation-state.
All this has a crucial conceptual implication. It makes little sense to explicitly or implicitly choose any one scale—say, the national—as the “ground floor,” as it were, of one’s historiographic imagination, below and above which are local and global (and regional and imperial) floors. The same goes with choosing “the global” as one’s ultimate yardstick. There is no clear hierarchy among what we may call socio-spatial fields. While focusing on one has advantages (as the below discussion of Christopher Bayly and Jürgen Osterhammel shows), it has just as many drawbacks, because the implied hierarchy and order obfuscates as much as it clarifies.
A second synchronic feature of transpatialization was the wealth of triple and quadruple linkages. These embody the above statement that city, region, state, and world economy are not mutually exclusive but enmeshed; hence, change in one affects all. Examples abound. The Ottoman state propped up cities to keep world economic forces at bay—and in the process affected the structure of the region. After 1918, cities exploited and indeed highlighted and built up both old transnational and newly transnationalized linkages to strengthen their position within their new nation-state. And European empire-states helped to open up Bilad al-Sham to neighboring regions and to international circuits of governance and administrative collaboration, and in the process helped to strengthen some cities while weakening others.
This book’s second set of conceptual implications concerns modern Middle Eastern historiography as a whole, and the Yishuv’s place in it.
[The] book is divided into five chronological chapters. Each one is preceded by a prelude, the story of a person or group, which serves as a “historical probe” for its immediately following chapter. Moreover, each has the same three-part structure. A historical contextualization is followed by an outline of the chapter’s argument, which in turn is substantiated in the chapter’s core part. Relying on secondary sources and on a wealth of primary sources—archival materials, newspapers, books, and open-ended oral history interviews, collected in Lebanon, Syria, Israel / Palestine, Jordan, France, Britain, Germany, the United States, and Switzerland—those core parts work by way of illustration. They present examples that reflect on key dimensions of transpatialization and on their variations. Throughout, those examples concern three broad areas—culture, the economy, and administration.
Chapter 1, “Rise of an Urban Patchwork Region,” covers the late Ottoman period except for World War I, which is the focus of Chapter 2, “Crucible of War.” Chapter 3, “Ottoman Twilight,” moves on to the transformational decade of the 1920s. Chapter 4, “Toward of a Region of Nation- States,” studies the 1930s. Chapter 5, “Empire Redux,” zooms in on World War II. Finally, the Postscript, “The More Things Change . . . ?,” shows that cities and regions mattered—if in yet again changing ways—even after Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan became independent nation-states in the 1940s and after Palestinian statelessness crystallized.”