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The Meanings of Autonomy
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Conclusion

When Shaykh Yusuf Jarrar wrote his poem in 1799, he assumed several meanings of autonomy: rule by native sons, most of whom had descended from the same families for generations; a common sense of identity, which ranked loyalty to Jabal Nablus far above that to the Ottoman Empire; and mutual defense against external and regional threats, whether against the French army or the rulers of Acre. The structure of the poem (praising the military prowess of leading families) also assumed a more specific meaning of autonomy: the division of Jabal Nablus itself into several territorially based autonomous enclaves headed by urban households or rural clans that built fortified compounds, controlled peasant militia, and established a diverse economic portfolio in order to secure basic needs without undue reliance on others.

These meanings were in turn layered on others. The city itself was fairly self-sufficient and remarkably stable. It was nestled within protective folding hills; its manufacturing sectors had access to cheap raw materials, plentiful water, and a large, secure market in the dozens of surrounding villages; and it was home to a strong merchant community and a stable group of ulama families. There was also the relative autonomy of the rural sphere. Until the 1830s the subdistrict chiefs were appointed by and—formally, at least—answerable to the governor of Damascus, not to the mutasallim of Nablus. The relative autonomy of the peasants also stemmed from the facts that they had access to leaders who lived among them; that they were armed and constituted the most effective military force in Jabal Nablus; that they were not chained to the land but were free agents who sometimes voted with their feet; that they belonged to closely knit village communities characterized by small landholdings; and that most lived in hill villages, whose meter-thick stone houses were packed together like the gnarled trunk of an olive tree, for self-defense and conservation of agricultural lands.

These layers of autonomy were not necessarily an obstacle to the political and economic development of Jabal Nablus as a social space. Quite the contrary, the population of Jabal Nablus grew significantly during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its administrative borders expanded, and, most importantly, it became the leading economic center of Palestine despite severe containment pressures exerted by the rulers of Acre.

Ironically, Jabal Nablus’s very success helped undermine its own autonomy. Long before the Egyptian invasion and Ottoman reforms reasserted central control, the commercialization of agriculture—spurred by expanding regional markets and growing trade with Europe, as well as deepened by the infiltration of merchant capital and spread of market relations into the farthest reaches of the hinterland—undermined the constituent elements of peasant autonomy. The city’s growing political and economic control over its hinterland, in turn, precipitated a struggle for hegemony by the Tuqan household that threatened the political power of subdistrict chiefs, hence the rural-urban character of the conflict between the Tuqans and the Jarrars, even though each had allies from both the city and its hinterland.

The main beneficiary of these changes was the merchant community. In order to gain access to and control of the rural surplus, as well as to provide a secure atmosphere for trade during periods of political uncertainties, merchants built strong and deeply rooted local and regional networks that carved the hinterland into geographic spheres of influence and facilitated Nablus’s economic ties to regional markets. Over time, these networks became the anchors of Jabal Nablus as a social space, for they undergirded the economic, social, and cultural stability of this region. In the process, these networks also knit the inhabitants of hinterlands with those of the city into a distinct and cohesive social formation. It is to these trade networks, and the ways in which they helped construct the meanings of family, community, and identity, that we turn next.


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The Meanings of Autonomy
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