Doumani: Rediscovering Palestine Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900

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VOL. 26


No. 1
P. 98
Recent Books
Doumani: Rediscovering Palestine Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900

    In Rediscovering Palestine, Beshara Doumani has combined methodological astuteness, theoretical sophistication, newly located primary sources, a graceful and flowing style, and an audacity of purpose to produce a superb work. Writing the first social history of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Palestine has led Doumani to rethink his modern history and lends credence to his claim of rediscovery.
    For whom is Doumani rediscovering Palestine? First, it is for the people themselves, whom he writes into the history of the land. Seen only as the long-suffering victims of heavy-handed Turkish oppression or stultifying backwardness by Palestinian and Zionist nationalist historians respectively, the Palestinians now occupy pride of place at the center of the narrative. Second, it is for social historians, providing an outstanding illustration of the lengths to which one can go and the insights one may gain by writing a social history in place of the predominant political and diplomatic kinds of history.
    Of what does Doumani's rediscovery consist? He uses this work to refocus the parameters of the history of Palestine by offering new boundaries of time and place, in addition to a new methodological framework for social history.
    (1) By abandoning not only the customary starting year, 1882, but also the more recently adopted year of the Egyptian invasion, 1831, Doumani suggests the importance of studying what happened before these times. His approach dethrones periodizations based on the assumption that change was introduced into Palestine externally and from above. Simultaneously, by demonstrating that socioeconomic transformation was not predicated on a sharp break with the past, he rebuffs the dichotomy of tradition and modernity.
    (2) By focusing his attention away from Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Haifa, where Ottoman centralization and European expansion unfolded, Doumani calls attention to the neglected interior of Palestine, to the villages of Jabal Nablus, and to Nablus itself which, in fact, was Palestine's main economic and manufacturing "capital." It was in the hilly region where the majority of Palestine's inhabitants lived, and its history, consequently, is representative of what transpired for most Palestinians.
    (3) The methodological focus on a social history of the Palestinian interior in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries leads Doumani to study the groups of the native population, mostly the peasants and merchants, but also the bedouin, women, and workers, who were not privileged by their political connections to Europeans or the Ottoman administration. His bottom-up perspective reveals the resilience and adaptability of their social organization and cultural life in an era of transformations.
    Combining these new parameters, Doumani seeks to rectify the neglect of cultural and socioeconomic processes and the exclusion of the native population from the historical narrative to provide us with a new view of Palestine.
    One cannot but be impressed with the elegant and exhaustive reading of the records of the Islamic Court of Nablus, the correspondence of the Nablus Advisory Council from five critical years of its operation, and a wide range of private family papers, many of which were unearthed as part of the research project by the author himself. In his narrative, this social history is seamlessly anchored in the perspective of political economy. The work is organized around what Doumani calls the "social life" of the four major commodities of the Jabal Nablus region: textiles, cotton, olive oil, and soap. As he sifts through the social relations surrounding the production, exchange, and consumption of these commodities, Doumani draws out their relationship with the cultural context of localized merchant-peasant trade, regional trade networks, the political economy of commercialized and monetized agricultural production, and state and manufacturing relations.
    The main body of his work traces the slow and partial transition from textile production to the manufacturing of soap which characterized the Jabal Nablus of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whereas the sale of textiles was anchored in a stylized network of personal relations and small loans to peasants for the purchase of cloth for festive occasions, the production of soap was capital intensive and allowed partaking in the related strategies of accumulation: money-lending, landownership, urban real estate, and regional trade. In this process of transformation, an evolving middling peasantry reproduced urban institutions in the countryside and brought it into the orbit of urban, Islamic, legal institutions. This stratum simultaneously, and ultimately unsuccessfully, challenged the Ottoman authorities to treat peasants as citizens in accordance with the promise of the Tanzimat by protecting them against the depredations of urban notables.
    Concurring with Schîlch, Doumani locates economic modernization in Palestine not in technologies of production but in the commercialization and expansion of agricultural production. Nabulsi merchants appropriated the rural surplus at the expense of the peasantry and realigned the elite around themselves. In the process of leading the capitalist transformation of Palestine during the eighteenth century, the merchants set the stage for many of the ostensibly discontinuous, and presumably politically and externally determined, practices that we associate with the nineteenth century. Among these Doumani recounts political centralization, privatization of land, the urban domination of the countryside, the attendant undermining of the rural shaykh's status, and, finally, the transformation of the notable elite into an embryonic economic class. For readers of Doumani's book, the history of Palestine will never be the same.
    Nablus, which from 1730 to 1830 was besieged and humiliated by Acre, saw its fortunes turn under Palestine's Egyptian conquerors. During the 1830s, under the leadership of the 'Abd al-Hadi family, Nablus reached its maximum influence and expanse. By 1850, Nablus, even as it retained its importance as Palestine's economic capital, was overshadowed as a political and administrative center by Jerusalem, a city placed under central Ottoman jurisdiction to protect it from European designs. The coastal towns of Haifa and Jaffa also gained in stature as beachheads for growing trade with Europe. The misfortune of Nablus was that though Egyptian centralizers picked Nablus as their hub--a position it had already occupied for the interior of Palestine--it could not retain this status under either Christian or Jewish Europeans, who were motivated by their own distinct religious and political concerns. Even the expansion of soap production took place at a time when the other Ottoman lands were hurt by free trade with Europe and, it seems, the ascendence of manufacturing entrepreneurship based on a distinct local pattern could not stem far stronger processes initiated from the outside.

Gershon Shafir is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. His Land, Labor, and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1882-1914 was published in June 1996 in its second, paperback edition by the University of California Press.