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Conclusion

The dispute over the clothes of Umm Dawud, the festive evenings in merchant houses by peasants flush from shopping for wedding wardrobes, the bright eyes of children waking up after id al-adha to put on a new set of garments, and the colorful celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday in Khan al-Tujjar are just a few examples of the centrality of textiles to understanding the connections between culture and trade and the importance of merchant networks to both regional and urban-rural relations. As seen in the business practices of the Arafat textile merchants during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, local trade networks in Jabal Nablus were more than just economic mechanisms constructed for the purposes of exchange. They can be better characterized as dynamic social spaces created by a multitude of actors with competing interests. The interaction among these actors was governed by a common set of reference points that linked social practices with trade and personal family history—that is, by a system of meanings.

It is a testimony to the social weight of merchants and of their networks that Nabulsi society came to be characterized by many of the values and norms embedded in this system of meanings. The strong sense of regional identification, the importance of family in politics (broadly defined), the pervasive use of religiously coded language in everyday intercourse, the conservative social atmosphere, and the remarkable continuity of a wide range of cultural rituals—these were all partly products of the ways in which these trade networks were cultivated and reproduced.

This system of meanings, it is important to emphasize, did not emanate solely from the conservative nature of Arab/Muslim society, nor was it simply a thinly disguised cultural tool. For most merchants in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Nablus the link between culture and trade was part and parcel not only of their livelihoods but also of their identities. Each merchant was heir to a constructed history that tied his family’s material and social interests to those of specific rural villages, clans, and even individuals.

On the surface, this system of meanings seemed static—not surprising, given that its very existence was predicated on shared perceptions of tradition and personal connections that were passed down from father to son. Within this wider cultural envelope, however, local trade networks were in constant flux. We have seen, for example, that family was a dynamic construct constantly being reformulated in physical, social, and cultural space. Peasants were also far from being passive victims of these networks: they actively participated in their reproduction and took advantage of their keys to the city.

Local trade networks proved to be effective vehicles for merchants to organize and invest in the production of cash crops for both the regional and international markets. Personal connections based on notions of trust, honor, and a fair and just exchange anchored, protected, and facilitated the circulation of merchant capital in the rural sphere in the context of a decentralized and uncertain political environment. With the expansion of commercial agriculture and a money economy in the hinterland, merchants relied on these rooted yet flexible networks to compete with and eventually bypass the subdistrict chiefs and urban ruling families in the race for the control of the rural surplus. As shall be seen in the forthcoming chapters, these networks not only accounted for the resiliency of the merchant community in Nablus but also served as the economic, social, and political incubators for the emergence of a different breed of urban notables who took advantage of the new political atmosphere created by the Egyptian invasion and the Ottoman reforms.

Local networks embodied a great deal of tension. The sources play down these tensions and often ignore them altogether. But there can be little doubt that merchants competed with each other, with ruling political families, and even with their own agents, who served as a bridge between them and their clients in the surrounding villages. For these agents, most of whom belonged to a growing class of middle peasants, service in a large urban merchant’s network was but the first step toward establishing their own network, often within the territory of their former employer. Most of all, there was tension between merchants and peasants over the fundamental issue of debt. Moneylending spearheaded the expansion of merchant capital, facilitated the appropriation of village lands, and eventually led to the integration of the rural areas into the urban legal and political spheres. By the second half of the nineteenth century, it seemed as if the hostility within the countryside over the spiraling problem of debt was matched by the patronizing and arrogant attitude of the urban population (see Chapter 4).

Instructive here is a satirical oration that Malik Masri learned from the peasants of Talluza village in the early twentieth century. Inspired by a song usually performed on the last Friday in the Holy Month of Ramadan (al-jum‘a al-yatima, literally, “Orphan Friday”), the oration was structured in the maqamat genre of Arabic rhythmic prose. The following is a partial and somewhat loose translation of the more stylized version titled al-Tarabish wa al-Barabish (the fezzes [i.e., merchants] and the waterpipes, or, more accurately, the tubes of the waterpipe, or nargila):

God is Great when the fezzes gather [on the village grounds], the waterpipe tubes are extended, and the voices of the [debt] collectors raised. The moneylenders listen for the sounds of the returning sheep; then they jump with their friend the police, looking for a victim to fleece.…

God is Great when the people of the villages greet the coming of Blessed and Auspicious olive season. They go to the city markets to buy their provisions, clothes, and whatever else their heart desires. But there the debtor demands his due from the debtee, or else the loan is renewed for twice the fee.…The poor soul is forced to submit and God is Great, God is Great.[131]

Changes in regional trade networks also generated tensions, especially between Nabulsi merchants and their European and coastal competitors. Generally speaking, the locus of these networks shifted from Egypt to Damascus and Beirut; from multifamily to single-family enterprise; from politically mediated to legally enforced systems of credit extension and collection; from regional sources of textiles to increasingly European ones; and from a system of agents to individual accounts with regional trade houses. In other words, regional trade networks lost much of their autonomy as they were subordinated—or, more accurately, as Nabulsi merchants were integrated—into the larger regional and world economies.

In this context, the continuity and reinforcement of the system of meanings associated with local trade networks proved invaluable. Regional identification, religious and social status, and the cultivation of local connections through services and gift exchange were all indispensable to maintaining the access of Nabulsi merchants to the rural surplus in the face of the forces unleashed by Ottoman centralization policies and the process of integration into the world economy. Using the social life of cotton as an example, the next chapter investigates the changing politics of trade, especially the tensions generated by the competition among local, regional, and European merchants, as well as the Ottoman state, over the movement of commodities.


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