From the Ottomans to the Arab Spring

Cyrus Schayegh’s The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World is a fascinating look at how the world was transformed by globalisation.

It is a universal tendency for people to see their lives as an unfortunate and radical departure from the “Good Old Days”. This is especially so in 2018, as humanity collectively grapples with climate change, political polarisation, and rapid technological change. But this period is hardly the most tumultuous or disrupted time in history – in fact, it’s merely the culmination of a much broader and deeper trend.

This honour belongs to the 18th and 19th centuries: the colonial, imperial, industrialised, and finally globalised period that brought the disparate cultures, economies, and societies of the world into a single, networked, West-dominated global order.

The changes that this period ushered in are so fundamental that it is hard to fully grasp their ramifications. Forcible integration changed the demographic profile of entire continents. The economies of the world’s most powerful trading regions, India and China, practically collapsed, with cascading, damaging effects on societies and states that are still felt today. Another, perhaps even more shocking and long-lasting change was the collapse and partition of the world’s most powerful Muslim-ruled state: the Ottoman Empire. And perhaps nowhere were its consequences as important today as in the Middle East, especially the region called Bilad al-Sham: the Levant.

In his groundbreaking book, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World, Cyrus Schayegh presents an engaging and fascinating analysis of the forms and consequences of globalisation in one of Earth’s most fractious and controversial regions.

Beyond Nations

Unlike many modern historians of the Middle East, Schayegh’s analytical framework is not the nation-state, or even state territories. It has long been recognised that these concepts are inadequate to understand how the modern world came to be. After all, nations are modern inventions, and can hardly explain the dynamics of a world before nations.

Rather, the author is interested in how the historical meso-region of Bilad al-Sham changed in the period between 1830 and 1945, in how this area became “modern”. Meso-regions are characterised by social, economic, and political structures, and are larger than nation-states but smaller than continents. While this idea of transnational history is not new, its application to Bilad al-Sham certainly is.

Schayegh’s second conceptual innovation is transpatialisation. He points out that, “the socio-spatial making of the modern world” is a result of “cities, regions, states, and global circuits reconstituting and transforming each other much more thoroughly and at a much faster rhythm than at any other point in history”. Instead of exploring the socio-spatial processes at work at any one levels, he shifts between each, exploring in detail how each changed the others while in turn being transformed by them.

The marriage of these two ideas – the meso-region and transpatialisation – is an innovative and effective way to study globalisation, and Schayegh uses them to great effect.

The Gordian Knot of Globalisation

The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World is divided into five sections, each dealing with a different period and characterised by different processes.

Schayegh begins with the late Ottoman period in Bilad al-Sham. It should be stated at the outset that the popular idea of “modernity” as being imposed on the rest of the world by Europe is an oversimplification. As Kaveh Yazdani argues in India, Modernity and the Great Divergence, rulers attempted to reformulate modernity with tailored adaptations for their own local objectives and cultures. Just as Tipu Sultan’s gunpowder armies and centralised state helped steamroll long-standing local Poligar nobility, late Ottoman railroads and telegraphs helped integrate and control Bilad al-Sham, historically a diverse and practically autonomous region.

Unlike in contemporary Europe-ruled colonial economies, the protectionist measures of the Ottoman state allowed Bilad al-Sham’s economy and cities to boom. As the First World War broke out, a large Ottoman military presence helped inculcate an idea of Ottoman-ness that was new to the region. However, the effects were not equal. Some cities – such as Beirut – did better than others.

Historically prosperous cities such as Damascus, which had depended on continental trade, found themselves at a disadvantage in a maritime-oriented global economy. They responded by building connections between each other and with their rural hinterland, creating what Schayegh calls an “urban patchwork region”. These transformed relationships between spaces must also be seen in the broader context of globalisation. As more people moved to cities and cities interacted with each other and the world in new ways, they became spaces for the people of Bilad al-Sham to engage with modernity and the question of new identities.

The Ottoman defeat in World War I, and the creation of the Mandate Systems of Britain and France, thus imposed “national” boundaries where there had been none. Again, Bilad al-Sham responded in interesting ways. Identities developed in cities in opposition to colonial rule; some elites embedded themselves, through cooperation with Europeans, into global economic networks. The end of the colonial empires and the emergence of new nation-states played out in similar ways.

All actors made decisions in response to both local and global problems, and Schayegh deserves high praise for the clear and logical way in which he treats the complexities of this process over decades, and the parallels he draws with today’s equally confused world-in-transition.

This shifting, interconnected view of developing and interacting social, economic, political, and cultural networks, necessarily devoid of heroes and villains, paints a much more complex picture of how our world came to be than we are generally accustomed to. Yet, The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World manages to retain a distinctly human touch. In the interludes between chapters, touching personal stories of globalised Levantines are discussed, again questioning the popular narrative of modernity as being imposed, not engaged. May its tribe of readers increase, and may it spark off a deeper discussion of how the rest of the world was changed by, responded to, and continues to respond to the processes of globalisation and modernity.

About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.