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Book Review


Cyrus Schayegh, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. vii + 347. Bibliography and Index. $49.95 (cloth).


     Cyrus Schayegh's The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World is an ambitious text that will challenge all but the most advanced readers of history. The author's main argument, useful to world history teachers, is that globalization, urbanization, and state-territoriality are insufficient on their own to explain the creation of the "modern world." Rather, it is the speed with which these three processes interact that defines the modern era. "Intertwinements" among local, state, regional and global forces of history illustrate what Dr. Schayegh calls transpatiality, which is "not an empirical unit" but rather "a heuristic umbrella" (2). We can observe transpatiality when issues of global significance take on localized meanings or vice-versa. Transpatiality's agents are citizens as well as officials, European and Middle Eastern, rich and poor, rural and urban. The intertwinements of local and global histories serve as fodder for the author, who set out to write a "[history] of the formation of the modern world as a whole…from the viewpoint of non-Western places" (15).

     The geographical and conceptual pivot for this book is the region of the Middle East known in Arabic as Bilaad A-Sham. Students and speakers of Arabic will know going into this book that the term, Al-Sham, can take on a multitude of meanings. At times it refers to the city of Damascus, at times the country of Syria. More frequently in Schayegh's rendering it refers to a "meso-region" (20) that includes Palestine/Israel, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan along with parts of Egypt, Turkey ,and Iraq. To reveal the history behind these different meanings, Schayegh draws on newspaper archives, histories written in Arabic, encyclopedias, as well as government archives. Similarly, another thread the author weaves through this text is a larger meditation on Arabic socio-spatial terminology. Thus, we learn when and under what circumstances Arabic writers used balad, watan, qutr, mantaqeh, qawm, mahal, and jiha, to refer to countries, nations, regions, cities, towns, and areas. The inflection of socio-spatial meaning into linguistic practices seems like a large enough topic for a book in and of itself, and Schayegh's text may provide the blueprint for other scholars to take up this topic in greater depth.

     Throughout the text Schayegh returns frequently to Palestine and the Yishuv/Israel. Its inhabitants provide compelling examples for his elaboration of the concept of transpatiality. One illustrative example in this regard was a study of Bilad Al-Sham's economy carried out by the head of the World Zionist Organization's Palestine Office, Arthur Ruppin, during World War I (Chapter Two). Ruppin received a commission to conduct the study from Jamal Pasha, one of the three heads of the Committee of Union and Progress, who served in a near dictatorial role over Ottoman Bilaad Al-Sham during World War I.  This study suggests that had the Ottomans emerged victorious in World War I, they may have sought close ties with Zionist movements, much like the British ended up doing as a Mandate authority in Palestine. If Ruppin, a European settler in Palestine, benefitted from transpatiality during World War I, Khalil Sakakini, a well-known Palestinian educator, suffered as a result of it. Sakakini was imprisoned in Damascus by Ottoman authorities during the war because he held an American passport. During his imprisonment, however, Sakakini remained close to other Palestinians and shawwam (people from Bilad A-Sham), proving to Schayegh the continued importance of local identities to individuals throughout the region. Both of these men, in their own way, show the existence of transpatiality. What remains unclear, though is whether these different examples of transpatiality possess the same value. Is Sakakini's Jerusalemite social circle in Damascus as meaningful an example for the concept of transpatiality as Ruppin's report? How do their histories compare to Alfred Sursock's business dealings (Chapter Three)? Ditto for secular and religious scholars' ties in Asia, Europe, or the United States (Chapters Three and Four). It seems that any instance of the local mattering to the global – or vice-versa – is significant to the author. It is left for the reader to decide which example is more important than others.

     Questions of power are also relevant to transpatiality, though the text leaves something to be desired in this regard. For example, by using the phrase "a firmly Euro-centric global economy," the author, in my view, avoids directly addressing the question of economic dependence that this political economy engendered. Similarly, the author claims that Bilad Al-Sham was not colonized during the 19th century. This is open to interpretation: the first wave of Jewish settlers in Palestine arrived in the 1880s. Moreover, the author points out that imperialism could not have happened without buy-in from locals in Bilad A-Sham (89). Taken together, I get the impression that because imperialism demonstrates some degree of transpatiality, the question of "who benefits" is less important.

     What makes this text challenging is that the author's sources will be for some readers totally inaccessible. Trained at universities in Tubigen, occupied Jerusalem, New York and Geneva, Dr. Schayegh cites literature in English, Arabic, Hebrew, German, and French (he is also fluent in Persian and Spanish). Thus, unless one is also fluent in these languages, interacting with Schayegh's sources will prove difficult. Besides that, by culling from archival and human sources in Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, Schayegh has delivered his readers to the limits of transpatiality. Anyone seeking to emulate his research will have to consider how their national, religious, and ethnic identification enables or prevents their entrance across contemporary national borders that, though they have been historically fluid, are some of the hardest in the world to cross today. In all, readers must take the author's word when it comes to meta-narratives about history.

     In sum, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World stands as an important text in that it traces the emergence of the "modern era" of world history in a region that is often considered as secondary to the West, and by extension, to modernity itself. It is too dense of a text to be of use to high school or introductory level world history classes – at least in large chunks – but its main idea is important for world history teachers' pedagogy: every individual is a world history actor; every issue is relevant to the world; and every "global" issue can impact "local" ideas, ideals and ideologies.

Corey Sherman is an educator based in California. He received a masters from Oxford University in Modern Middle East Studies. He can be reached at


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