05 December 2017

Portrait of Cyrus Schayegh


Before joining the Graduate Institute’s Department of International History last September, Cyrus Schayegh had been Associate Professor at Princeton University and, from 2005 to 2008, Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut. Portrait of a researcher whose main current interests focus on the interplay between post-war globalisation and decolonisation, Arab views of Afro-Asian decolonisation, interwar European inter-imperial cooperation, and historiography.

You have recently published The Middle East and the Making of the Modern World at Harvard University Press. Can you briefly present its rationale and main findings?

cyrus-schayegh.jpgIn this book, I take up a fundamental problem historians face: how to make sense of the spatial layeredness of the past. I argue that the modern world’s ultimate socio-spatial feature was not the oft-studied processes of globalisation or state formation or urbanisation. Rather, it was fast-paced, mutually transformative intertwinements of cities, regions, states, and global circuits, a bundle of processes called transpatialisation. To make this case, my study pivots around Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham in Arabic), which is roughly coextensive with present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. From this region, I look beyond, to imperial and global connections, diaspora communities, and neighbouring Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey. And I peer deeply into Bilad al-Sham: at cities and their ties, and at global economic forces, the Ottoman and European empire-states, and the post-Ottoman nation-states at work within the region. I show how diverse socio-spatial intertwinements unfolded in tandem during a transformative stretch of time, the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries, and conclude with a postscript covering the 1940s to 2010s.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on four projects. One, “Globalisation Meets Decolonisation: The Urban Linkage, 1940s–1970s”, focusing on Beirut, Dakar and Singapore, is to be an application to a SNSF collective grant. A second, “‘Anti-Geneva’: Interwar European Inter-Imperialism”, is a monograph project. In a third, a series of articles that may turn into a book later on, I am re-reading key texts on global and transnational history while asking how they deal with fundamental questions that concern all historians and as a matter of fact all social scientists: space and scale, time and periodisation, causation, and event and/versus structure. And for a fourth, I am reading Arabic texts published in the 1950s–60s on decolonisation in non-Arab countries, mainly Africa and Asia.

What have you read lately that has marked your research field or academic discipline?

There are simply too many texts to mention here. Let me stick to four: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century; Jury Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution; Pieter Judson’s The Habsburg Empire: A New History; and a forthcoming book, Yoav Di-Capua’s No Exit: Arab Existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Decolonization.

What are the “classic” academic articles or books that you would like everybody to read – and why?

Regarding history in general: Darnton’s books, perhaps specially The Great Cat Massacre; my cities project: Saskia Sassen’s The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo; my interwar inter-imperialism project: Susan Pedersen’s recent The Guardians; my historiographic project: Pierre-Yves Saunier’s recent Transnational History; and my Arabic project: not a classic, but a really interesting website: Afro-Asian Visions.

What books (academic or non academic) are currently on your nightstand?

Friedrich Lenger’s Metropolen der Moderne, Christophe Charle and Laurent Jeanpierre’s La vie intellectuelle en France – Tome 2, Julia Cohen’s Becoming Ottomans, and Forster’s A Passage to India. I also listen to BBC Persian daily news podcast at night – one way to keep somehow updated on what happens in Iran, one of the countries of interest to me.