- Near Eastern Studies
- 1. Global and transnational history
- 2. Cold War
- 3. Decolonization
- 4. Modern Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan)
- 5. Modern Iran
PhD, Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University
I became fascinated with the modern Middle East in high school in Switzerland. The turmoil of the region seemed to my teenage self to be the perfect antidote to the tranquil atmosphere of my native country. Determined to get as much exposure to the contemporary Middle East as possible and a solid education to boot, I enrolled in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I earned a BA in 1996. I then returned to Switzerland, where I received a DES in Political Science from Geneva University and in 1997 moved on to Columbia University where I earned my PhD (MEALAC) in early 2004.
My dissertation combined social history with the history of colonial science. The book Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950, published in 2009, tells two intertwined stories: how, in early twentieth-century Iran, an emerging middle class used modern scientific knowledge as its cultural and economic capital; and how, along with the state, it employed biomedical sciences to tackle presumably modern problems like the increasing stress of everyday life, people's defective willpower, and demographic stagnation.
Determined to spend more time in Iran than the occasional research trip, I moved to Tehran after defending my PhD, and stayed until summer 2005. I moonlighted as a journalist for Swiss newspapers; had a fascinating (and sleepless) experience helping organize, as a temporary employee of the International Organization of Migration, the out-of-country leg of the January 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections in the Iranian province of Khuzestan; and as a post-doctoral fellow initiated a project on the rise of technopolitics under the Pahlavi monarchy.
From fall 2005, I spent three wonderful years as an assistant professor in the Archaeology and History Department of the American University of Beirut. While maintaining my interest in Iran, I started to work also on the Arab world. Finally, moving to Princeton in 2008, I began to write as a transnational and global historian who uses the Middle East—and lately also other parts of the world—to think about themes that I think are of interest to historians in general.
My second book, The Making of the Modern World: A Middle Eastern History, to be published in 2017, is an interpretation of the socio-spatial making of the modern Middle East and, by way of example, of the modern world. Why, how, and in which stages, it asks, did well-rooted Middle Eastern cities and regions mold a dynamic modern world economy and powerful modern states? How were cities and regions remolded in return? And what does this case tell us about the world as a whole? To study these questions, the book choses as its pivot the region of Bilād al-Shām (Greater Syria, present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine) from 1850 to 1950.
In the middle third of the nineteenth century, two new macro-historical developments affected Bilād al-Shām: a world economy that was more transformative and Eurocentric than before and the rise of modern (Ottoman) state territoriality. Interacting with these developments, well-rooted cities were deeply transformed while remaining pivots of people’s social and perceptional universe, and Bilād al-Shām started becoming a more integrated urban patchwork region. After 1918, this urban and regional situation deeply shaped the embryonic nation-states Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and Transjordan, and in return was re-shaped. On the one side, Bilād al-Shām began to slowly turn from an urban patchwork region into an umbrella region of nation-states, each of which developed its own institutions and accumulated its proper experiences. On the other side, Bilād al-Shām, having become quite integrated by 1918, forced the hand of the new French and British rulers. Just having quartered the region, they ironically proceeded to uphold its integration. They created a region-wide customs-free zone; within that zone, the policy decisions of one often affected the other; and incessant cross-border movements impelled administrators to systemically cooperate. Cities continued to matter, too. To be sure, a map of national spaces (and, related, European imperial interests) now cut across a map made up of cities and their hinterlands. But in return, national spaces were sub-divided into cut-off bits of cities’ hinterlands and interurban ties, many of which now straddled borders: a trans-nationalization that deeply affected Bilād al-Shām’s European-ruled nation-states.
Drawing on this hundred-year long history, the book argues that the socio-spatial making of the modern world cannot be fully grasped by studying globalization or nation-state formation or urbanization. No single one of these developments has been clearly dominant. Hence, none has been the distinguishing feature of the socio-spatial making of the modern world, not the least because they all interplayed. Rather, that feature has been the intertwinement of cities, regions, states, and global circuits in faster changing and more mutually constitutive and transformative ways than before in history. That feature, I call trans-spatialization: a term denoting an array of socio-spatial intertwinements. Trans-spatialization is not an empirical unit, then. It is a heuristic umbrella whose use, by the historian, makes sense because ‘its’ intertwinements evolved in tandem, and because it does not assign ultimate primacy to any one process or any one scale like ‘the global’ or ‘the state.’
My first principal next project bears the working title “Globalization meets decolonization: the urban linkage, 1940s–70s.” It is devised as a collaborative undertaking and draws not only on archives but also on oral history interviews, an underused approach in the historical study of globalization. It argues that in the first post-war decades, a few city hubs in the world performed a distinct function: they linked global trade, finance, communication, transport, and knowledge circuits with multiple recently decolonized countries in one region. For instance, for the Arab East and Arabian Peninsula, Beirut played this role from the late 1940s; for West Africa and Southeast Asia, Dakar and Singapore did from the late 1950s. This was because already by the later nineteenth century, these cities had been (then imperial) hubs, and because they remained in demand even when “their” region’s countries became independent. Fledgling countries still needed their global links; for example, several Arab countries relied on knowledge processed in the American University of Beirut. Vice versa, actors from outside their region still needed those city hubs for easy access to recently decolonized countries; for instance, the global rubber trade depended on Singaporeans’ relationships in Indonesia and Malaya. This situation also turned those city hubs into socio-culturally hybrid places where actors from near and far met and mixed; thus, Dakar was home to a dizzying array of West Africans, Europeans, Lebanese, and some North Africans. After the 1970s, these city hubs’ global-regional intermediary functions declined as their region’s countries became less dependent on them.
Studying this panorama through the cases of Beirut, Dakar, and Singapore, this project helps rethink, and better link, the literatures on globalization and decolonization. Key questions include: How do the multiple functions of those urban hubs impact how we define globalization? How does the past of the hubs affect how we periodize globalization and global cities? And how do the hubs and “their” regions alter our view of nation-states as the spatial outcome of decolonization?
My other principal next monograph project is “‘Anti-Geneva:’ the rise and decline of new European inter-imperial networks, 1925-1935.” It shows how colonial lobbyists, parliamentarians, and officials in France, Belgium, Portugal and—if less so—the Netherlands and Britain reacted to perceived and real threats by the League, Germany, and communists by seeking tighter inter-imperial cooperation, politically in Europe and administratively in colonies, especially Africa. Organizations and interests differed, though. Thus, the Institut colonial international (ICI), which wanted to make Bruxelles the hub of a multi-lateral European network with regular meetings, publications, and correspondences, was truly entwined with Belgium’s government that, as Portugal, felt most defensive about its empire. Britain’s Empire Parliamentary Association, while in contact with the ICI and with French parliamentarians and the Union colonial française, was more confident. So was its government. Still, the latter allowed more bilateral, e.g., Anglo-French and -Portuguese , administrative contacts in Africa and subsidized the ICI in 1931–34. Cooperative urges about colonies waned when Germany’s menace of Europe’s order waxed. But inter-imperial networks would return with a vengeance after 1945. And the interwar networks’ intricacies—their bi- and multi-lateral forms and political and cultural aspects—shows how after World War I, Empire helped shape Europe and how in that process national interests and transnational ties meshed.
In teaching, I enjoy , among other courses, a graduate seminar called “Fundamental historical questions,” in which students and I discuss themes such as the fact, periodization, space, and causality; an introduction to the history of the Middle East from the seventh century through today; and an undergraduate seminar on the Middle East in the world. From summer 2016, a Princeton University Cotsen teaching fellowship will allow me to revise these courses and to devise new ones.
Selected professional activities:
Board member, 2013–2014, of the International Journal of Middle East Studies
Board member, International Society of Iranian Studies, 2009–2012
Assistant editor, Iranian Studies, 2015
Selected awards / scholarships:
PhD scholarship ‘for young scholars’, jointly administered by the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research (SNF) and the Swiss Academy for Humanities and Social Sciences (SAGW) (2001–02)
Dissertation Award for the best dissertation in the field of Iranian Studies, Foundation for Iranian Studies Annual (2004)
Scholarship ‘for advanced scholars’, administered by the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research (2008–2010)
Princeton University Cotsen Faculty Fellow, 2016–2019.
Université de Genève -Princeton Strategic Partnership Grant (with Sandrine Kott, UNIGE), 2016–2018
• The Making of the Modern World: A Middle Eastern History , under contract with Harvard University Press, to be published in 2017.
• "The Man in the Middle: Developmentalism and Cold War at the Beirut Economic Research Institute in-between the U.S. and the Middle East, 1952–1967," in 150 Years AUB: A Commemorative Volume, eds. Nadia El Cheick and Bilal Orfali (Beirut: AUB Press, 2016).
• "Reflections on writing AUB history in a global age," co-authored with Aleksandra Kobiljski, in 150 Years AUB. A Commemorative Volume, eds. Nadia El Cheick and Bilal Orfali (Beirut: AUB Press, 2016).
• “Three questions for historians of science in the modern Middle East and North Africa,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47:3 (2015): 588–91.
• “The Interwar 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 41 (2015): 649–84.
• co-editor, with Liat Kozma and Avner Wishnitzer, A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940 (London: Tauris, 2014).
• "On Scales and Spaces: Reading Gottlieb Schumacher's The Jaulan (1888)," in A Global Middle East: Mobility, Materiality and Culture in the Modern Age, 1880–1940, eds. Liat Kozma, Cyrus Schayegh, and Avner Wishnitzer (London: Tauris, 2014), 19–54.
• "1958 Reconsidered: State Formation and the Cold War in the Early Postcolonial Arab Middle East," International Journal of Middle East Studies 45:3 (August 2013): 421–43.
• "The 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 54:3 (2012): 612–43.
• "‘Who’s Who in Syria?’ A Note on a Historical Source from the Mid-Twentieth Century," Middle East Critique 20:2 (2011): 219–24.
• "The Many Worlds of Abud Yasin; or, What Narcotics Trafficking in the Interwar Middle East Can Tell Us about Territorialization," American Historical Review 116:2 (2011): 273–306.
• “Seeing Like a State”. An Essay on the Historiography of Modern Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42 (2010): 37–61.
• Who Is Knowledgeable Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900-1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
• “Criminal-women and Mother-women: Socio-cultural Transformations and the Critique of Criminality in Early Post-World War Two Iran,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 2:3 (2006), 1–21.
• Serial Murder in Tehran: Crime, Science, and the Formation of Modern State and Society in Interwar Iran,” Journal for Comparative Studies in Society and History 47:4 (2005), 836–62.