Princeton historian discusses Middle East economy

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Cyrus Schayegh, associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, speaks at Garrison Hall on Monday afternoon. Schayegh talks about the economic developments that shaped Greater Syria in the 1930s.

Photo Credit: Mariana Munoz | Daily Texan Staff

The Great Depression and the influx of Jewish immigrants to Palestine shaped the economy of the Levant region in the 1930s, according to a lecture given by Cyrus Schayegh, assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, at UT on Monday.

The lecture focused on the economics of the region known as the Levant, which includes Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Schayegh, whose work originally focused on Iran, then spoke about the Arab world. He said, before the economic instability in the 1930s, the Levant region prospered as a result of the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

According to Schayegh, the British and French colonial forces decided to turn the region into a customs-free economic zone in order to help increase trade efficiency. He said, after the Great Depression, countries outside the Levant closed their markets from trading within the region.

While the Levant region struggled economically, the Jewish immigrants in Palestine, who were known as the Yishuv, began
industrializing and shifted to fiscal self-sufficiency. According to Schayegh, this helped shape the Jewish state of Israel, which was beginning to form.

Philip Issa, Middle Eastern studies graduate student, said the economic history of the region is integral to understanding its overall history.

“This sort of scholarship helps us move away from essentialist notions of the Middle East — perhaps focusing too much on a national or religious identity,” Issa said. “The economies used to be highly integrated, and the identities were fluid.”

Issa said it is important to consider that circumstances in regions are susceptible to change.

“When I think of the popular discourse of what you read in the media, I think people hold these notions that these nations really stretch back time eternal, or the national and religious [facets have] been the most important thing,” Issa said. “I think it is false.”

History graduate student Shaherzad Ahmadi said, although it is difficult to engage in discussions regarding the region without understanding the impact one region can have on the rest of the world, one must be careful when drawing conclusions.

“I’m constantly flabbergasted by how little people do know about the history of the Middle East,” Ahmadi said. “I’m always a little bit worried when direct lines are made between history and current issues.”