Prof. On Barak

Department of Middle Eastern and African History
חוג להיסטוריה של המזרח התיכון ואפריקה סגל אקדמי בכיר
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Prof. On Barak
Office: Gilman-humanities, 434


I am a social and cultural historian of science and technology in non-Western settings. I am a Professor at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, and the author of four books: Rishomei Peham (Van Leer, 2024), Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization (University of California Press, 2020), On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (University of California Press, 2013), and Names Without Faces: From Polemics to Flirtation in an Islamic Chat-Room (Uppsala University Press, 2006). Prior to joining Tel Aviv University, I was a member of the Princeton Society of Fellows and a lecturer at the history department at Princeton University. In 2009, I received a joint Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. I also hold am M.A. in Islamic Studies from Leiden University, the Netherlands, and Joint LL.B. and B.A. in Law and Arabic Language & Literature from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I am a co-founder and co-editor of the Social History Workshop, a weekly blog published on the Haaretz website analyzing current Middle Eastern affairs through the lens of contemporary historical research.


My most recent book, Powering Empire, offers new insights into global decarbonization – humanity’s most pressing challenge – by charting a historical roadmap of how the world was carbonized. The book shows that we need to jettison some obfuscating myths in order to understand how fossil fuels were globalized. One such myth is the naïve assumption that we are currently living in the age of oil, or even post-oil, and that coal fumes are a thing of the past. Quite the reverse! This is still the age of coal and much of what we associate with oil rests upon the foundations of coal. We must also overturn the conjecture that global carbonization started in Western Europe and then spread to the rest of the world. Settings like the Ottoman Empire were early arenas for testing and adopting coal and steamships. The steamer-friendly corridors running between Europe and Asia – which would become the “Middle East” – stimulated British industrialization and imperial expansion simultaneously. Finally, we must resist the hegemony of energy and thermodynamics in all things fossil: the globalization of the hydrocarbon economy cannot be reduced to considerations of fueling or kinetic energy alone. Coal depots were also created as a pretext for imperial land grab, or out of concerns about ballasting, and stemmed from other material aspects of coal that had little to do with its combustion. This study, therefore, recounts the global spread of coal as a thickening carbon-intensive entanglement of energy and empire, of Western and non-Western powers – from Islamic risk-aversion to Gandhian vegetarianism – thereby excavating in the process unfamiliar resources for a more global and inclusive energy humanities.


My book On Time examines how the introduction of new technologies such as the railway or telegraph generated in Egypt unique practices of timekeeping, conviviality, and personhood. Devices hailed in England as driving forces of promptness obeyed in Egypt a double temporal standard whereby a strict metropolitan punctuality was contrasted with a laxer colonial one. Egyptians, in turn, understood this difference as one of an “Egyptian time” opposed to “alienating European efficiency.” Exploring such processes, my study retraces timekeeping practices in Egypt back to their technological and colonial origins.


I am currently working on a social and cultural history of temperature in the modern Middle East. This book project is a multi-sited historical research into the environmental, political, social, and cultural implications of rising temperatures in a Middle East that was entering the age of fossil fueled European imperialism. Known before the nineteenth century for its sweltering climate and hence for creative modes of heat-resistance developed by its inhabitants, in modern times the region saw the forceful introduction of cooling protocols and devises that paradoxically exacerbated environmental hotness by burning coal and then oil. The proposed project retrieves modes of bodily comportment, homemaking, urban planning, and social interaction that were intimately attuned to the weather and that eventually gave way to new lifestyles predicated on fossil fuels. It also probes the unique terms of adoption and the inflections of the supposedly generic life predicated on imported frozen meat, artificial ice machines, water desalination devices, refrigerators, rail and later automobile and aircraft travel in air-conditioned vehicles, and modes of domesticity similarly (air)-conditioned.


Tel Aviv University, 2023
Full Professor 


Tel Aviv University, 2019
Associate Professor


Tel Aviv University, 2012-2019
Senior Lecturer, Dept. of Middle Eastern & African History
Princeton University, 2009-2012
Cotsen Postdoctoral fellow, Princeton Society of Fellows and
Lecturer in the Department of History,
New York University, 2003-2009
Joint Ph.D. in History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
Dissertation: Egyptian Times: Temporality, Personhood and the Techno-Political Making of Modern Egypt, 1830-1930
Directed by Prof. Khaled Fahmy, Department of Middle Eastern Studies, New York University


Leiden University, 2001-2002
M.A. Magna Cum Laude, Department of Islamic Studies,
Thesis title: Proper Muslim Names: The Onomastics of Conversion to Islam in the Perspective of the Science of Religions
Advisors: Profs. Gerard Wiegers, P.S. van Koningsveld, Nasr Abu Zayd


Hebrew University, 1997-2001
Joint LL.B. and B.A. Magna Cum Laude in Law and Arabic Language & Literature




Powering Empire: How Coal Made the Middle East and Sparked Global Carbonization, University of California Press, 2020

On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt, California University Press, 2013

- See the review by Robert L. Tignor in The American Historical Review, Here

- See the review by David Arnold in ISIS, Here

Names Without Faces: From Polemics to Flirtation in an Islamic Chat-Room, Universitetstryckeriet, Uppsala, 2006, 72 pages



Peer Reviewed Articles and Book Chapters


“Synchronisation and its discords: Calendric reform and imperial politics”, Egypt, empire and the formation of religious identity (c. 30 BC – AD 1900), ed. E. R.  O’Connell. British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan 11. Leuven: Peeters, forthcoming 2019.


“Archives and\as Battlefields: Political Aspects of Historiographic Revision”, Sonja Hegasy, Saadi N. Nikro (guest editors), Memories of Violence, Social Life and Political Culture in the Maghreb and Mashreq, Memory Studies Journal, Special Issue, 12.3, June 2019.


“Gridlock Politics: Auto(im)mobility in Sadat’s Egypt”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, forthcoming, 2018.


« Royaume Uni - Empire Ottoman: Une politique carbone asymétrique à l’âge du charbon, 1820-1911 », Charles-François Mathis et Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud, Sous le soleil. Systèmes et transitions énergétiques du Moyen Âge à nos jours [Under the Sun. Energetic Systems and Transitions since the Middle Ages]., Paris, Publications de la Sorbonne, 2019.


“Archives under Fire: Instrumentalizing Texts in Post-Revolutionary Egypt”, Contemporanea: XIXth and XXth Century History Review, January-March, 2016.


“Outsourcing: Energy and Empire in the Age of Coal, 1820-1911”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Volume 47 / Issue 03 / August 2015, pp 425-445.


“Three Watersheds in the History of Energy”, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2014) 34(3): 440-453.


"מלחמה במהפכה: היבטים פוליטיים של רוויזיה היסטוריוגרפית", אות: כתב עת לספרות ותיאוריה, אוגוסט 2014 (4), 75-93.


“Outdating: The Time of “Culture” in Colonial Egypt,” Grey Room, May 2013.


"Scraping the Surface: The Techno-Politics of Modern Streets in Turn-of-Twentieth-Century Alexandria," Mediterranean Historical Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, December 2009, 187–205.


Book Chapters and Articles in Academic Publications

“Infrastructure and Technology,” Beth Baron and Jeffrey Culang (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Modern Egyptian History, Oxford University Press (in preparation).

“A History of Below: Connecting the Middle East Underground and Underwater”, in Israel Gershoni and Yoram Meital (eds.), Reconfiguring the Middle East: Transnational History and the Middle East, under review by Cambridge University Press.


"הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית", שולחן עגול, המזרח החדש, כתב עת ללימודי המזרח התיכון והאסלאם, כרך נ"ו 2017, 201-207.


“The Shipworm and the Telegraph”, Technosphere Magazine, “Creole Technologies” Dossier, 2017.


“Gas and Race”, Journal of Levantine Studies Blog, 2016.


“The World in a Speck of Dust”, Journal of Levantine Studies Blog, 2016.


“On Innocence: Blasphemy, Pan-Islam and the Uneven Mediation of Utopia” in Arvind Rajagopal, Anupama Rao (eds.), Media and Utopia: History, Imagination and Technology (Critical Interventions in Theory and Praxis), Routledge India, 2016, 319-353.


"وجهة نظر أكاديمي إسرائيلي حول الثورات العربية )مقابلة مع المؤرخ والمحاضر والباحث الإسرائيلي د. أون براك)", قضايا إسرائيلية, المركز الفلسطيني للدراسات الإسرائيلية, العدد رقم 52, 2014, 54-60. 


“Times of Tamaddun: Gender, Urbanity and Temporality in Modern Egypt,” in Nazan Maksudyan (ed.), Women and the City, Women in the City: A Gendered Perspective for Ottoman Urban History, New York; Oxford: Berghahn Books, September 2014, 15-35.


“Science Fiction as a New Frontier for the Sociology of Conflict,” in Nea Ehrlich, Lesley Marcs (eds.), The Work of Avishai Ehrlich: Political Sociologist, Activist and Public Intellectual, Cambridge University Press, 2013.


“Egyptian Dust: The Social Life of Endangered Spaces,” in Xenia Nikolskaya’s photo-book, Dust: Egypt’s Colonial Heritage, London: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2012.


"Motion Pictures: Orientalism and Disorientation in Nineteenth Century Train and Arm-Chair Travel through Egypt," Les tropes du Voyage. Les Rencontres, Aboubakr Chraîbi (éd.), L’Harmattan, Paris, 2011, 311-325.


Academic Articles in Newspapers, Magazines, and Blogs (selected)


"כשהמלה הפכה לבשר: רצח חאשוקג'י והתפשטות הרפואה המשפטית", 05.12.2018


“How Cross-dressing in Egypt Rekindled Heterosexual Attraction”, Haaretz Daily Newspaper, 30.3.2017


“Egyptian Dust”, Polis Blog, September 2012.

"מעבר למטפחת: הקרוס דרסינג של אום כלת'ום", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 17.3.2017


"מה הקשר בין 14 הנקודות של וילסון, מצרים והטוויטר של טראמפ?", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 18.1.2017


"למה בכל שריפה "אשמים" הערבים?", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 13.12.2016


"איך קשורה המשיכה לים להתגדות לבורקיני?", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 1.9.2016


"בטורקיה מתכוננים להפיכה של אתמול", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית,  25.7.2016


"היסטוריה ללא היסטוריונים? על  מפעל הדיגיטציה בארכיון המדינה", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 17.5.2016 (עם ליאת קוזמא ואבנר



"כיצד קשורים הרגלי שתיית הקפה להתחממות הגלובלית?" הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, , 19.2.2016


"דברי ימי הכאב: היסטוריה קצרה של עינויים בעת החדשה", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 6.1.2016


"העולם בגרגר אבק", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 17.9.2015


"איך מעצבות הפירמידות את בינוי הערים במצרים כיום?", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 5.4.2015


הקדמה ל"בחירות: מתוך ספרו של תאופיק אל-חכים "'יומנו של תובע כפרי'", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 16.3.2015


"חרב פיפיות: היסטוריה של עריפת ראשים מהמהפכה הצרפתית לדאע"ש", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית,  10.3.2015


"הידרופוליטיקה: מים, נפט וכוח בסעודיה", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית,  17.1.2015


"צינור הנפט: הון-שלטון-ביטחון", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 11.12.2014


"ראיית מנהרה", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 8.8.2014


"רישומי פחם: אנרגיה ומודרניות עת'מאנית ובריטית", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית,  21.5.2014


"מה עניין הבקלאווה למהפכה הצרפתית?", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית,  6.5.2014


"האזנות סתר ומשבר הפומביות במצרים", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 19.2.2014


"הארכיון המצרי כסיסמוגרף של ההווה המהפכני", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 3.12.2013


"הממדים המטרידים של המודרניות", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 20.11.2013


"על גז וגזע", הסדנה להיסטוריה חברתית, 8.10.2013


Book Reviews (selected)


James L. Gelvin and Nile Green (Editors), Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print, University of California Press, 2014, in American Historical Review, (2015) 120 (1): 360-361.


Tomer Gardi, Stone, Paper, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011, in Journal of Palestine Studies, December, 2012 (in Arabic).


Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Verso, 2007, in Arab Studies Journal Spring 2010 - Vol. XVIII / No. 1.


Sands, Emily, Ancient Egypt, Shuken, 2007, in Ha'aretz Book Review, 2.21.2007 (in Hebrew).  


Goodwin, Jason, The Janissary Tree, Yediut Sfarim 2006, in Ha'aretz Book Review, 12.27.2006 (in Hebrew).


Almog, Shulamit, City, Law, Story, Tel Aviv, Shuken, 2001, in Ha’aretz Book Review, 11.6.2002 (in Hebrew).


Bechor, Guy, Law in the Arab World, Mifalut, 2001, in Ha’aretz Book Review, 9.4.2002 (in Hebrew).


Ron-Shema’, Gil (tr.), Jalal Ad-Din Ar-Rumi’s Illumination, Hayim Aherim, 2001, in Kul Ha’ir, 2001 (in Hebrew).




Reshimut Me-Hatahtit (Subway Notes), In Ha’aretz (1 January 2004, in Hebrew).




Contributor to HELICON Anthological Journal of Contemporary Poetry, spring 2004.


Contributor to “Sha’ar” - Arabic-Hebrew Anthology for New Poetry, 2001.



English to Hebrew

"Autocartography: The Case of Palestine, Michigan" (short story by Anton Shammas), in Sedek – A Journal on the Ongoing Nakba, (Summer 2008).


"Frontier Architecture" (introduction to Eyal Wiezman's Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation), in Mita'am, A Review of Literature and Radical Thought (Issue no. 14, summer 2008).


Arabic to Hebrew

Translated a corpus of Iraqi poetry for the Documentary film “Baghdad Bandstand” (directed by Eyal Halfun, shown at the Haifa and the Amsterdam International Films Festivals, 2002)


Poetry by Abdullah 'Azaizeh 

“Sha’ar” - Arabic-Hebrew Anthology for New Poetry, 2001


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