16 January 2023

A Radical History of the Middle East

Burak Sayim devoted his PhD thesis to the emergence of communism in the Middle East. His work follows globe-trotting militants to discuss the role of Middle Eastern anticolonial revolutions and the region’s diverse radical traditions in the making of transnational communist networks. Importantly, instead of focusing exclusively on high politics, he explores everyday forms of revolutionary activism, from the question of polyglot militancy to the role of anonymous sailors.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

After working on Latin America for my master’s degree, I wanted to start a project on the Middle East. I was looking for a project that went beyond the traditional focus on the national and religious fault lines in the region. Hence, it made sense to work on the topic of transnational networks at a time when many of the modern Middle Eastern states were taking shape.

What were your thesis questions and what methodology did you use?

I started by asking: What global and regional factors shaped the emergence of a novel form of left-wing militancy in the Middle East? How did internationalist militants engage with new national frameworks in the post–Great War Middle East? I tried to understand this latter question from two interrelated points of view. First was the interaction of international communism with anticolonial nationalism in the region. But I also wanted to explore the everyday repercussions of these new national frameworks and understand how transnational networks dealt with the new national borders.

One of the biggest methodological challenges I faced was using nationally organised archives to track down people who were constantly on the move. I tackled this issue by employing both the archives of the colonial forces surveilling these itinerant revolutionaries and their own archives in Istanbul, Paris and Moscow. In all, I worked in more than a dozen archives, collecting material in six languages to track the paper trail left by the protagonists of my story.

What are your major findings?

Primarily, my research shows that the history of Middle Eastern anticolonialism – often thought of in national and nationalist terms – was interwoven with the wave of global upheaval following World War One. Hence it draws attention to the oft-neglected links between the period of turmoil in Europe following the Soviet Revolution in 1917 and anticolonial struggles in the Middle East, from Morocco to Iran and Turkey to Egypt.

Also, I discovered that the interaction between Europe and the Middle East was not unilinear. Just as intellectual influences coming from Europe and Soviet Russia had an impact on the political scene in the Middle East, in turn, Middle Eastern anticolonialism played a role in shaping European communist militancy – as I discuss in my dissertation through a political campaign in France.

Can you give an example of a topical issue on which your thesis might help shed a new light?

As the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa made clear their demand for freedom and justice in the last decade – most recently in Iran – I believe it is important to remember that this quest has a long and global history. My dissertation aims to make a contribution by underlining this historical background.

What are you doing now?

I recently took a position as a Humanities Research Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi, where I am working on my book project and honing my Arabic.

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Burak Sayim defended his PhD thesis in International History in August 2022. Professor Michael Goebel presided the committee, which included Professor Cyrus Schayegh, Thesis Supervisor, and Associated Postdoc Anna Belogurova, Department of History and Cultural Studies, Institute for Chinese Studies, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

Citation of the PhD thesis:
Sayim, Burak. “Transnational Communist Networks in the Post-WWI Middle East: Anticolonialism, Internationalism and Itinerant Militancy (1919–1928).” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2022.

Access to the PhD thesis:
Members of the Geneva Graduate Institute can access the PhD thesis on this page of the Institute’s repository. Others may contact Dr Sayim at

Related information:
Burak recently published a paper tracing the circulation of newspapers and journals as physical objects to reconstruct Middle Eastern communists’ global connections: “Transregional by Design: The Early Communist Press in the Middle East and Global Revolutionary Networks”, in Journal of Global History, December 2022,

Banner picture: a comic strip in an issue of Al-Chab Al-Ifriki (People of Africa) from 1927. Source: Archives nationales, Paris, France. 
Al-Chab Al-Ifriki was edited as a part of the efforts of the Communist Party of France to reach North Africa. Titled ‘For your liberation’, the strip is divided into three vignettes in Arabic with French ‘subtitles’. The first strip serves to compare the lot of two people. To the left is the agony of North Africa: we see a single mosque in the background as an arrogant-looking white man ties a North African man on a pile while smoking his cigar. Right next to it stands a defiant and proud Chinese fighter, triumphantly stepping on the chest of the same white man. The butt of his rifle pushes the begging coloniser further; the fighter is utterly indifferent to the cries of the defeated enemy. The text in Arabic reads ‘aftahu bi-mithl al-thawra al-siniyya’: ‘Conquer like the Chinese Revolution.’ The French text is less subtle: ‘North African Indigene, follow the example of the Chinese Revolution.’ The second strip duly emphasises internationalist unity and recalls that the North Africans should fight hand in hand with European workers to defeat imperialism and bring about social revolution. The third strip, in a way, circles back to the first. The same North African man we had seen in agony now strikes a jubilant pose, firmly holding his arm along with two comrades – one seemingly European, another sporting traditional North African clothing. Our protagonist’s hand reaches towards the horizon, where we see a mass of fighters, a glowing hammer-and-sickle, and a star” (taken from Burak Sayim’s PhD thesis, pp. 160–1).

Interview by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.