Transpatialization as Modernity

By Rob Ames

The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, by Cyrus Schayegh, 496p, Harvard University Press. 

Cyrus Schayegh’s “The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World” bears a deceptively simple title, both halves of which grow considerably more complicated and more specific within the book’s first few pages. The book’s Middle East is not the Middle East as imprecisely understood in mass media coverage (the wide swathe of territory stretching from North Africa to Central Asia). It is instead the considerably smaller patch of East Mediterranean territory known in Arabic as Bilad al-Sham (also known as Greater Syria, the current nation-states of Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan). 

The making of the modern world is also a considerably more technical process for Schayegh; it is what he terms transpatialization. The 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” is, in this view, “the primary distinguishing feature of the socio-spatial making of the modern world.” (page 2) The book’s five chapters proceed chronologically and each frames a particular period between roughly 1830 and 1950 as a stage of transpatialization. A prelude that offers a more personal view of each stage precedes each chapter by selecting a figure from the primary sources and using them as a case study of how transpatialization operated within that phase of modernity. 

The first chapter focuses on the pre-World War One phase of Ottoman rule over Bilad al-Sham and its prelude draws from the diaries of one Khalil Sakakini, a Palestinian who spent 1907-8 in the United States; that he dreamt of his family home in Jerusalem from New York and felt alienated from the non-Jerusalemite Palestinians signify the transpatialization (or at least, an intertwining of the global and the local) of the 1830-1914 period, which was characterized by territorializing reforms of the central Ottoman state in Istanbul and their impact on the major urban centers of Bilad al-Sham, which Schayegh frames as a simultaneous increase in imperial integration and the enrichment of local elites within those urban centers. In those centers, and in their intellectual culture, a distinct self-consciousness arose on the part of the residents of Bilad al-Sham. The writers who expressed this consciousness simultaneously understood themselves to be denizens of a particular city, speakers of Arabic, and subjects of the Ottoman empire. He distinguishes this cultural Arabism from the later nationalism of the Arab revolt and of the foundation of distinct nation-states within Greater Syria. 

The second, treating the First World War, presents the war as a catalyst of accelerated regional integration, and this chapter’s prelude captures this theme by selecting two figures, Rafiq al-Tamimi and Muhammad Bahjat, two young Shamis who the war inspired to monitor conditions in the governorate of Beirut with greater frequency than the previously issued yearbooks (salnamahs). The resulting report, Wilayat Bayrut, “can be read as a reflection and projection of Ottoman state power at its peak,” and the projection of state power to Beirut and transmission of local information back to the imperial core in turn can be read as a reflection of this period’s particular brand of transpatialization.

Chapter Three frames 1918-1929, basically the first decade of British and French administration of the region under a League of Nations mandate, as an “Ottoman twilight” in which increasingly nationalist urban elites continued to identify with their home city while also pursuing wider integration within what would become independent nation-states, whose borders were determined in light of the different European imperial powers (Britain and France) administering them. This interplay between the interests of local elites, new nationalisms, and imperial administration only accelerated transpatialization further. This chapter’s guiding theme of lingering Ottoman influences and relationships is exemplified in its prelude, focusing on the correspondence of Alfred Sursock, a Beirut merchant.

The next chapter, on the later (post-1929) interwar period, emphasizes the triumph of a territorial nationalism focused on the colonized mandatory territories (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Transjordan) as independent political units. Despite this increasing political and ideological spatialization, the chapter’s prelude makes clear that even in the midst of the Great Depression, the region’s economy remained trans-spatial, as it illustrates that even in the 1930s, a British-administered Palestinian port city (Haifa) attracted migrant labor from Hawran, in French-administered Syria.

The fifth and final chapter covers the era of the Second World War, which Schayegh characterizes as dominated by simultaneous, interconnected trends toward greater British domination and greater regional integration—in the face of the Axis threat, Britain not only felt a need to defend the mandatory territories in the Levant, but to preempt Axis incursions into the wider Middle East, to which end, after the fall of France to Nazi Germany, it occupied not only France’s mandatory territories, but also Iran and Iraq, in 1941. This, however, was also accompanied by an increasingly triumphant nationalism in the region—Syria and Lebanon achieved independence in 1943, and Jordanian and Israeli independence followed shortly after the war. Although these states depended on the British to secure trade throughout the war, their cities, especially capital cities, grew even more central to that trade and, therefore, to the stability and prosperity of these nascent independent states. This chapter’s prelude follows the wartime business and travel of Eliahu Rabino, a Russian-Jewish emigrant to Haifa, who conducted trade in many of the chapter’s major cities over the war years, used his import-export business to smuggle arms for the Hagana during the Israeli war of independence, and whose family business still operates in Haifa’s Vegetables and Fruit Wholesale Market. 

Although I found it a bit unfamiliar at first, I came to appreciate the chapters’ preludes as framing devices. Aside from the fact that they offer an edifying human element often lacking in academic writing, they’re also strong evidence of Schayegh’s sound methodology—they illustrate the depth and breadth of his archival research, showing that he has come to acquire a wide enough array of primary sources to populate “The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World” with a rich cast of characters that helps to offer an on the ground view of Levantine life in the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. 

That being said, it has some (admittedly minor) imperfections. First, and most generally, its title suggests a considerably broader regional view than the book actually offers. It’s of course unavoidable that a scholar will limit the scope of a project in some ways, but given that the text focuses specifically on Bilad al-Sham rather than the wider Middle East, a title that admits the book’s focus could help avoid the confusion that could follow from the present title - ”The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World” suggests a book that studies the wider region rather than Levant alone.

 I was also quite taken by Schayegh’s use of accelerated transpatialization to define modernity, but would have liked to see that notion developed further. If we are to accept that this definition is applicable to the making of the modern world in general (and not just in the Middle East), a few more references to transpatialization outside of the Middle East could serve as welcome evidence of this concept’s applicability to the making of modernity in the rest of the world. And, finally, although I realize that a university press published it, “The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World” could also have benefitted on more background information about the Ottoman empire, its end, and the transition of the Levant first to the Mandatory period and then to independent nation-states. Its title is, after all, general enough that it might appeal to non-specialists, who, I fear, might find themselves a bit at sea, given the intense specificity of Schayegh’s work.