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A Forced Marriage?

During the nineteenth century, urban-rural relations in Jabal Nablus displayed all the symptoms of a forced marriage. On the one hand, countryside and city became more closely intertwined than ever before, as illustrated by the growth of a rural middle class that reproduced urban relations at the village level. On the other hand, the aggressive expansion of merchant capital, spearheaded by moneylending, sped up the commoditization of land and created an ever-widening rift between city and village and between peasants themselves, in terms of both socioeconomic disparities and mutual cultural hostility.


In 1916 two young Ottoman officials, Muhammad Rafiq Tamimi and Muhammad Bahjat, were ordered to gather materials for a general “guide book” on the southern half of Beirut province.[42] Considering that the Ottoman Empire was in the middle of a war, it was more likely that they were asked to investigate the socioeconomic conditions and political attitudes of the population at large, for this is what their book is mostly about. In the first leg of their two-month-long trip they visited Jabal Nablus, beginning with Salfit, then one of the two largest olive-oil-producing villages in the district.[43]

As the first Ottoman officials to visit Salfit in some time, they were swamped with complaints, most of which were directed against the merchants of Nablus. The authors’ words neatly frame the dilemma of a forced marriage: “The Salfitis are pained by the people of Nablus and complain about them. Previously, they used to respect the Nabulsis and tried to please them; but now that they are poor, they no longer care about them…nor bother to hide their animosity. Yet, and despite their recognition of this reality, they still find themselves dragged back to Nablus in order to settle their affairs and to borrow money with interest.”[44]

The same set of complaints surfaced in every village they visited. In Dayr Istiya, for example, one peasant opined that “Nablus is the seat of corruption,” and a second advised “wash after you shake hands with a Nabulsi.” Being a Nabulsi himself, Tamimi rejoined that he saw no need to condemn all the city’s inhabitants for the oppression of a few “moneyed people.”[45] Nevertheless, the first issue the authors raised in their written report as to what the government should do to alleviate the widespread poverty, misery, and disease among the peasantry during this terrible year of war and famine was the need to eradicate the oppressive and usurious practices of Nabulsi notables over the countryside.[46] The rich of Nablus, they explained,

lend money to a peasant at an interest rate of 15 percent for six months.…And after the rich man lends a bit of money to the peasant, he becomes his master and rules him because the poor villager, who has only a small despicable yearly income, cannot pay back the debt at the appointed time. [Therefore], the rich moneylender uses his influence among the government’s men to threaten him, so the poor villager is in the end forced to renew his debt contract under even worse conditions than the first one. We have learned that most of the wealthy Nabulsis lend money at an annual interest rate ranging between 60 and 70 percent. Moneylending and borrowing have brought conditions of slavery to our constitutional lands…because [even though] the peasant keeps only despicably little of his summer and winter harvests to himself and gives the rest to the lender…he still cannot free himself from debt.[47]

To the Salfitis and to peasants from many other villages in Jabal Nablus the authors seem to be saying that Nabulsi moneylenders represented at one and the same time a lifeline they could not do without and an invisible rope that only tightened as they struggled against it. This bleak assessment was shared by most contemporary observers of Greater Syria in the early twentieth century. Muhammad Izzat Darwaza recalled in his autobiography that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries all soap-factory owners lent widely to peasants and small traders and charged 15–35 percent interest. Impoverished peasants, he added, usually borrowed twice a year against the wheat and olive harvests and received low prices if they paid in kind for previous debt or sold in advance for credit.[48] Muhammad Kurd Ali, a well-informed Damascene intellectual, wrote in 1925 that “the trade in crops—which were secured through loans and salam [contracts]—was the ruin of the wretched Syrian peasant.”[49]

Although they reflect a fundamental reality of peasant life, these observations are problematic in that they portray peasants in one-dimensional terms as passive victims of urban greed. They also imply that moneylending was somehow a new phenomenon. As we have seen, moneylending itself was not new; what was new were the political, economic, and social contexts in which it operated. All three writers, in addition, were modern nationalists who were bitterly critical of their traditional society. Typical of many other young supporters of the “modernist” Committee for Union and Progress in the early twentieth century, Tamimi and Bahjat’s blanket condemnation of wealthy Nabulsis as a selfish, oppressive, conservative, shortsighted, and close-minded local elite had, as its counterpart, their description of peasants as primitive, ignorant, dirty, and superstitious. In other words, both groups were portrayed as reactionary elements out of touch with the realities of the modern world and incapable of comprehending nationalist visions of history.[50]


The process of rural-urban integration was far more ambiguous than the above black-and-white accounts suggest. For one thing, it was also driven from within the countryside. Alongside the tensions between city and country, for instance, were intense struggles among the peasants themselves over land, resources, and moneylending, as the example of the Rummani family and the cases of Bayt Jala and Jaba demonstrate. Urban and central authorities not only penetrated the countryside, they were also dragged in, sometimes against their will and better judgement. Many peasants, especially well-to-do ones like Salama Makhluf, were anxious to make the city’s legal and political system work for them, even though it meant alienating the leaders of their own village clans.

One way of measuring the phases of urban-rural integration is to establish when peasants were absorbed into the city’s legal culture—that is, when the locus of arbitration in the countryside shifted from customary law (urf) mediated by clan leaders and subdistrict chiefs to Islamic (shari‘a) law and Ottoman decrees as interpreted by a city judge and enforced by the Ottoman government itself. Records of the Nablus Islamic Court—admittedly a biased urban perspective—shed some light on this issue.

When one reads all of the court cases from the 1798–1865 period in chronological order, the most striking impression in terms of the social composition of the participants is the virtual absence of peasants until the second half of the 1830s. Then one encounters a small wave of cases involving peasants, albeit one that quickly slowed down to a trickle over the next two decades. Commencing in the late 1850s, peasant participation turned into a flood that showed no signs of abating, hence signaling the culmination of the hinterland’s integration into the urban legal and cultural spheres.

The second wave also marked a change in the types of cases that were brought before the court. In the late 1830s almost all of the cases involving peasants traversed a narrow range and had a clear ranking. Themost frequent were land disputes. The rest—far fewer in number—were criminal cases or moneylending lawsuits.[51] There was also a smatteringof cases involving land purchases, but these were limited almost exclusively to the Abd al-Hadi family. Starting in the 1850s the Nablus court became the theater for a much broader range of cases involving peas-ants; and the ranking changed as well. The most frequent type of cases was now civil lawsuits involving moneylending, especially salam contracts. Land disputes ranked a close second, followed by land purchases and, a distant fourth, criminal and personal-status cases.[52] A much higher percentage of cases were ones in which peasants brought other peasants to court.

These observations are not meant to suggest that archival phenomena closely reflected actual historical realities, especially because most disputes involving peasants never came before the court in the first place. But these two waves do coincide with the ebb and flow of the extension of central authority and with the marked increase in moneylending and transactions in land. For instance, the first wave followed on the heels of the Egyptian occupation and reflected the political and economic dislocations it caused, especially its violent repression of most rural subdistrict chiefs for their role in leading the 1834 revolt. The Egyptians also reinforced the power of cities over their hinterlands by establishing local councils with jurisdiction over the countryside. Many peasants seized this opportunity and took their grievances directly to Nablus. Similarly, the second wave came directly after the end of the last cycle of violent internal struggle in Jabal Nablus (the 1850s) and the permanent assertion of central Ottoman authority (1860). The latter was symbolized by the government’s successful attack on the village of Arraba in 1859 and the imposition, for the first time, of a non-Nabulsi qa’immaqam who was more than just a temporary figurehead (see the Conclusion).

Three other factors distinguished the second wave from the first. First was the promulgation of the 1858 land law, which constituted an important step in the Ottoman government’s campaign to increase its revenues by streamlining land-tenure relations in its domains. The law’s most significant innovation—the legalization and registration of private ownership (milk) of what had long been considered inalienable state (miri) lands—proved to be a boon for local urban elites and greatly reinforced their already substantial economic and political power over the hinterlands. The Ottoman government, it must be remembered, depended on these elites to implement its centralizing fiscal, military, and administrative reforms. Second was the coming of age of Palestine’s rural middle class, which turned to the city’s legal apparatus in order to assert its growing power and to protect the properties and resources it was in the process of accumulating. Third were the increased pressures on land due to the expansion of cultivation and the growth of population.

The combination of these factors accelerated the already irreversible process of urban domination over the hinterland and accounted for the expanding social base of litigants appearing before the Islamic court. An example of the new type of cases encountered beginning in the 1850s concerned the issue of access of peasant women to land. Usually, village lands were passed down the generations through the male offspring even though Islamic law clearly defined the right of females to inherit, albeit one-half the share of a male heir. The only exception to this practice was if the male head of a household died without leaving an adult male heir to take his place. In this case, it was not unusual for daughters or wives to inherit the land. The same general practice held true in Egypt.[53]

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, this situation had become more complicated. On the one hand, the concentration of holdings, the rise of a rural middle class, and the spread of market relations encouraged neighbors as well as agnates to disinherit females who were the sole heirs after the death of the male head of a household. On the other hand, the same forces that precipitated these changes also pushed the countryside into the urban legal sphere and made the enforcement of Islamic rules of inheritance more likely. Peasant women were not unaware of this contradiction, and they increasingly resorted to the Nablus Islamic Court in the hope that the judge was predisposed to enforce Islamic laws concerning the right of women to inherit and control property.[54]

This is not to say that women were automatically cheated of property. Recent research has shown that Nabulsi women often voluntarily did not press or even retracted property claims if to do otherwise would mean that they would lose the protection and support of certain male relatives without whom the claim could not be made to yield a profit.[55] Much depended, therefore, on the family context, which is why most cases never reached the court in the first place. Still, for those peasant women who wanted to resist pressures to strip them of their properties, the growing availability of the urban legal system created a means for them to do so, albeit with certain risks and no guarantee of success.

For instance, the wife, daughter, and mother of Salman al-Dabbak from the village of Jamma‘in—the sole legal inheritors following his death in September 1860—claimed that Salman’s property had been appropriated by Ahmad son of Abdullah al-Akhras from the same village. They had traveled all the way to Nablus to state their case in person, for the deceased had been a rich peasant: under dispute were four cows and 23 separate pieces of land, such as olive groves, fig orchards, and flatlands used for growing grains and tobacco, as well as a house. The description of the borders of the agricultural properties reveals that twelve of the disputed pieces of land were located next to the defendant’s own lands. The defendant, for his part, did not deny that these properties belonged to the deceased or that the plaintiffs were the sole inheritors. He did not even argue that he bought these lands from them. Instead, he claimed that just the day before the case was brought to court, they testified in front of witnesses that they had no rights to these lands and that they now belonged to him as “private property.” The women vigorously denied this version of events, but they lost because the defendant was able to provide two witnesses who corroborated his story.[56]

In other cases a variety of arguments was used to disinherit women: the land had already been sold, the property had not been their male relative’s in the first place, their parents or husbands had given it away before they died, or a will in their favor had never been made.[57] In one case, three men claimed that they were related to a recently deceased peasant, whose sole survivors were a wife and a sister. This was a very unusual argument, because Palestinians at that time paid special attention to kinship connections, and one could easily determine who was related to whom. In this instance, the three men failed to prove any blood relation to the deceased.[58]

Regardless of the various arguments brought forth, a single pattern prevailed: all of the cases were precipitated by the death of a male head of household who left no adult male children, and all were brought before the court by peasant women against (mostly) male relatives. This, in itself, was probably not new. The difference is that these cases reached the Islamic Court in Nablus instead of being settled on the village level through the mediation of clan elders or subdistrict chiefs. This change, which reflected the process of urban-rural integration, was actively precipitated by village women. Judging from the available evidence, many were not disappointed in the results: the court’s final decision was as likely to favor the women as the men.

If the sociocultural and legal spaces of the rural sphere had ever been isolated, they were no longer so by the mid-nineteenth century. Fortunately for the historian, the rush of cases involving peasants also provides direct evidence of the impact of moneylending on the land regime and on the relationship of peasants to each other as peasant society became more differentiated.

Commoditization of Land

Private and state ownership of land had coexisted in the Middle East since ancient times, but their legal boundaries and the rights of the peasants as opposed to those of the state have long been contentious issues. As far as the Ottoman government and a majority of Ottoman jurists were concerned, most agricultural lands belonged to the state.[59] Fully owned private (milk) lands were, generally speaking, limited to those spaces located within the physical boundaries of population settlements—that is, inside cities, towns, or villages—plus a narrow perimeter around them that consisted mostly of terraced land.[60] The city of Nablus, for example, was surrounded by a belt of terraced olive groves, fruit orchards, vineyards, and irrigated gardens, all of which were divided into hundreds of plots, each called by a name. These plots, in turn, were subdivided into shares that were bought and sold as fully private property with the same legal status as residences, shops, and factories inside the city walls.

The wide stretches of land lying beyond the perimeters of cities, towns, and villages—that is, the “dry belt” on which mostly grains and cotton were grown—technically belonged to the state and could not be bought and sold as fully private property. Peasants did not have a legal right to full private ownership of state agricultural lands. Rather, they had usufruct rights as long as they did not allow these lands to lie fallow for more than three years.[61] This right of use had no time limit: the land could be and was passed down through inheritance for generations. In return for its use, peasants paid taxes (such as ushr, or tithe, also called miri) that were levied both in cash and kind, plus a whole range of other (sometimes illegal) exactions.

The power of the Ottoman government to enforce this legal framework ebbed and flowed, but generally speaking it managed to exercise real power over state lands. Large areas of state lands, for example, weredesignated as part of the private holdings of the sultan and his family, endowed as a revenue-producing charitable waqfs, parceled out as fiefs (timars) for cavalry officers (sipahis), auctioned off as tax-farms (iltizam) to the highest bidder, or granted as lifelong tax-farms to individuals (malikane).

As far as the peasants who actually farmed these lands were concerned, however, none of these arrangements touched the essential character of their relationship to the land: they considered it their own. Perhaps unbeknown to many peasants, their conception of land as their own private property was also supported by a minority of Muslim jurists in the Fertile Crescent. The minority school—represented by such influential figures as Khayr al-Din Ramli (1585–1671) and Ibn Abidin (1784–1836)—argued away most if not all of the legal obstacles to private ownership of such lands.[62] In any case, peasant attitudes in this regard were reinforced over the centuries as each clan and village became identified with particular lands, which they treated as their private property regardless of the changing faces of the tax collectors. At least, this was the case in the highlands of Palestine, where small landholdings prevailed and where the average male peasant could expect to inherit a piece of land, the proceeds of which could provide a living for himself and his family. Consequently, village communities were characterized by a strong bond with their place of origin, as well as by a spirit of autonomy that was impatient with interference by the state. These qualities were especially apparent in the olive-based hill villages, where horticulture was a way of life.

Court cases registered in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries show that the peasants of Jabal Nablus, like those of Egypt, did indeed dispose of nominally state lands as if they were their private property by mortgaging, renting, or selling their usufruct rights.[63] The most common practice was for peasants to mortgage their land. For example, in a lawsuit dated mid-January 1724 we learn that an urban moneylender gained control of the two pieces of timar land in the village of Askar after the peasant who had previously worked that land defaulted on a debt amounting to 25 piasters and a basket of rice worth 0.25 piaster. For the next seven years the moneylender had another peasant family plant this land. He also kept the proceeds, from which he paid the timar dues to a sipahi from the Nimr family. When the peasant attempted to take his land back, the moneylender took him to court and proved that the land was his to control because it had been put up as collateral for the loan and because the peasant had previously agreed in their private contract that the moneylender was to enjoy the right of use as long as that loan remained unpaid.[64] In theory, the peasant’s right of use was merely postponed, not negated, but in practice he lost access to his land.

One step further was selling usufruct rights outright. Peasants who sold their usufruct rights to other peasants or to urban dwellers were left with no legal recourse to regain control of their land. This is because secular Ottoman law (qanun) (also justified by Islamic law) stipulated that usufruct rights belonged to those who tilled the land for three consecutive years and that challenges to these rights would not be allowed after a period of fifteen years.[65] An example is a case recorded on May 29, 1837:

Today, Yusuf al-Asmar son of Abdullah al-Jabali from the village of Bayta appeared before the noble council. Being of sound mind and body he voluntarily testified…that he ceded, evacuated, and lifted his hand from the piece of land located in Khirbat Balata…to the pride of honorable princes, Sulayman Afandi son of…Husayn Afandi Abd al-Hadi. [The latter] compensated him 700 piasters…and the aforementioned Yusuf al-Asmar gave permission to Sulayman Afandi to take over the piece of land.[66]

The document carefully avoided words which that imply full private ownership and clearly stated that Yusuf al-Asmar sold his right to this land, not the land itself. But, as all the parties to the transaction no doubt understood, this was a sale of state-owned land in all but name. At first glance, it seems that the sale of usufruct rights was not a widespread practice: only a small number of such transactions were recorded in the Nablus Islamic Court before 1850, and this particular transaction was first concluded in the chambers of the Advisory Council, headed by none other than the buyer himself, then sent to the Islamic court to be registered. Yet there is evidence from Greater Syria and Egypt that land sales among peasants were not unusual long before the mid-nineteenth century, and the dearth of recorded cases has more to do with the nature of the sources than with actual practice.[67] As shown above, the peasants of Jabal Nablus rarely appeared in court before the 1850s, for a variety of reasons. In addition, court fees and exposure to taxes made registration of purchases an expensive and undesirable proposition.[68] Perhaps more important, peasants were aware that the judges of the Nablus Islamic Court were staunch defenders of the government’s views on land-tenure relations. Indeed, and in case after case, these judges ruled accordingly.[69]

This tension between informal practice and state law caused legal quandaries for the judges on those rare occasions when private arrangements surfaced in court. The following lawsuit is a typical example of the difficulties encountered. In April/May 1860 a peasant, also from Bayta, brought a suit against another peasant from the same village. He claimed that twelve years earlier, the defendant had “sold” four pieces of land located in the valley between Askar and Balata villages—that is, state land—and since he “owned” lands adjacent to the properties sold, he claimed the right of shuf‘a (preemption) to these lands. The judge ruled that these were sipahi lands and that the right of shuf‘a did not extend to such lands.[70] In effect, the judge vindicated the earlier sale of this land as private property even though it had taken place before the 1858 land code, yet denied the plaintiff’s request on the basis that this was state-owned land. This must have caused understandable confusion on part of the peasants, because the judge let stand the assumptions about the earlier sale but ignored its consequences.[71] In fairness to the judge, it must be noted that scribes in the court had to register testimony as it was given by the litigants. The characterization of land as “owned” and “sold” in the documents, therefore, does not imply that the judge accepted the terminology. Nor could he shift the focus of the case in order to challenge the validity of the earlier sale. All he could do was rule on whether state-owned lands could be preempted by shuf‘a, and his decision in this matter followed the correct procedure: that is, usufruct rights to state lands were not subject to preemption.

The 1858 law, which required the registration of lands, must have seemed to the peasants like yet another initiative by the Ottoman government to improve its tax-collection efforts and to acquire knowledge about individual peasants for conscription purposes. This perception was not far from the truth, and it helps explain the peasants’ lack of cooperation in implementing the law. Unfortunately for the peasants, their unwillingness to vigorously pursue the registration of their lands in their own names made it easier for urban notables to lay claim to these lands and to expand their holdings.

The Ottoman government, one must quickly add, did not design the law to encourage the formation of large private estates or to lay the foundation for a class of absentee urban landholders. On the contrary, the intent, in addition to streamlining tax collection, was to protect the peasant base of production by preserving small landownership and, in the process, give small landholding peasants the incentive to increase production.[72] The reasons why the consequences of the 1858 land law turned out so differently from the intentions are threefold. First, the material infrastructure for a commercial market in land was in place long before the 1858 land law. Second, the same conditions allowed urban notables to achieve economic dominance over the hinterland. Third, the Egyptian occupation and Ottoman reforms helped to reconfigure local politics by channeling power through a new, merchant-dominated urban elite. Without this power, this elite would not have been able to manipulate the land law to their advantage as quickly and as efficiently as they did, hence creating the impression—which, until two decades ago, was widely accepted—that private property and large landownership developed in Greater Syria as a direct result of the 1858 land law.[73]

In the case of Jabal Nablus, we have evidence that state lands had actually been converted into full private property—that is, involved more than just the sale of usufruct rights—since at least the late 1830s, or roughly two decades before the 1858 land code was promulgated, much less enforced. Most of these conversions were privately concluded and were not registered in the Islamic court. Some, however, were registered in the Islamic court, proving that the exercise of political power, given the right conditions, could bend the will of presiding judges. The latter type of cases came in two waves, both initiated by the Abd al-Hadi family and registered in the latter half of the 1830s. During this period the Abd al-Hadis were the peak of their power in Jabal Nablus and set up residences in the city itself.

The first wave of these purchases, dating from 1836–1838, was concentrated in the lands of Arraba and Ya‘bad and to a lesser extent, in Ajja and Kafr Qaddum.[74] The much larger second wave, amounting to twenty-one land purchases, took place over the following two years: that is, when it became clear to the Abd al-Hadis that the days of the Egyptian occupation were numbered and that the time was ripe to cash in on the power and wealth they had accumulated while serving as the Egyptian government’s primary political bulwark in southern Syria.[75] Simultaneously, for instance, the Abd al-Hadis endowed as waqf the most important of the urban properties they had acquired so far, such as their primary residence, soap factories, mills, warehouses in the commercial districts, and so on.[76]

The second wave of purchases involved far more extensive tracts of state lands. On May 27, 1838, for example, dozens of people gathered in the Nablus Islamic Court to participate in and witness the sale of several large properties to Muhammad Abd al-Hadi for 29,500 piasters—roughly the price of a fully equipped soap factory, the most expensive and coveted form of real estate in Nablus (see Appendix 3).[77] These were fertile flatlands, located in valleys and plains, where mostly grains and cotton were grown. In fact, the properties lay in areas so remote that their location was defined by the crossroads leading to various destinations, such as the city of Jaffa and the villages of Qaqun, Anabta, and Attil. The closest that any of the pieces of land came to a population settlement was one described as “near the lands of Tulkarem.”

Another clue to the remoteness of the lands and the immensity of the sale was the number and identities of the sellers involved: more than fifty individuals from four villages—Shwayka, Arraba, Ya‘bad, and Kafr Ra‘i—were listed. Most of them were adult men, each representing an extended family household. But there were also more than a dozen adult women, a smaller number of military recruits then absent and represented by agents, and (apparently orphaned) children represented by court-appointed guardians. The presiding judge—addressing the large crowd in a loud voice—expounded for the record that these sellers came of their own free will and that he viewed the sale of properties owned by minor children as justified, for the sale was meant to provide for their needs. The organizational effort invested in this sale—mapping out the extensive lands, determining which pieces belonged to whom, convincing all the parties to sell, including representatives of absent individuals and orphans, negotiating prices, and then gathering them all in one large sitting—must have been enormous. Only a politically powerful family deeply involved in commercial agriculture could and would invest the time and money in this and other similar purchases registered during this period.[78]

The available evidence from court records shows that merchants did not become heavily involved in such purchases before the 1850s. Unlike the Abd al-Hadis, it would have been difficult for them to directly supervise and enforce sharecropping agreements in areas that neither they nor the central Ottoman government sufficiently controlled, despite their deeply rooted trade networks. Thus, until the Ottoman government asserted direct control of the interior regions in the 1860s, most merchants were not interested in many of the lands they could have appropriated as a result of defaults on loans. Rather, their primary concern was with maintaining a village or an individual peasant perpetually in debt so that they could secure a steady and cheap supply of agricultural commodities. Besides, merchants found sufficient outlets for their investment in lands much closer to the city. Between 1830 and 1850 the overwhelming majority of agricultural properties purchased by urban merchants and registered in the court were located on the slopes of the two steep mountains that sandwiched Nablus between them or in the valley lands that widened westward. Beginning in the early 1850s the circle of purchases expanded to include villages within walking distance of Nablus, such as Rafidya, Junayd, Bayt Wazan, and Asira al-Shamaliyya.[79] Soap manufacturers and oil merchants were particularly active in this regard, and each came to own dozens of olive groves in these areas.

Aside from a jump in the number of land purchases beginning in the early 1850s, these transactions were not unusual: most of these properties, including those located inside the villages mentioned above, were considered milk to begin with. This was not to remain the case for long, however. In the late 1850s the circle of land purchases by merchants widened again, spurred by the concentration of capital and by the extension of state authority. More and more of these purchases involved former state lands in the “dry belt” far from Nablus, including flatlands used for grain and cotton production.

Many of these lands were often appropriated directly as a result of defaults on olive oil salam contracts with urban moneylenders. In early April 1864, for example, Abd al-Rahman al-Shaykh Husayn from the village of Aqraba initiated a lawsuit against two powerful soap merchants, Sayyid Sulayman Hashim Hanbali and SayyidHajj Yusuf Hashim Hanbali. Standing before the judge, he admitted to owing 3,333 piasters to the former and 30 jars of oil to the latter. But, he continued, “I have spent four months in prison, and I have nothing to pay them [the defendants] back with except for some lands in Aqraba village.” He then asked the judge to allow him to sell a portion of these properties to the defendants so that he could pay off his debts and be set free.[80]

The alienation of land as a result of unpaid debts accelerated as the enforcement of debt obligations came to involve the entire urban political and legal apparatus: the Islamic court judge, the mufti, the Advisory Council, the governor, and the subdistrict tax collectors, all of whom were mobilized and worked together to protect the interests of moneylenders. For example, one debtor, Abdullah son of Hajj Isma‘il from the village of Asira al-Qibliyya disappeared without paying his allotted amount of olive oil jars to a rich soap merchant, SayyidHajj Yusuf son of Sayyid As‘ad Bishtawi. Sometime afterward, Hajj Yusuf Bishtawi obtained a fatwa (a religious ruling, akin to a legal opinion) from the Nablus mufti allowing him to expropriate the sheep of the debtor, which were being held by a fellow peasant from the same village.

The matter did not end there. On October 16, 1862, Hajj Yusuf Bishtawi enrolled the Islamic court judge in the effort. The judge sent a letter to the Nablus governor informing him of the situation and asked that he order the chief of the subdistrict in which that village was located to collect all the debtor’s movable properties and send them to Nablus so they could be auctioned off and the proceeds could be applied to the debt.[81] This was done, but the amount raised was not sufficient. Then, in 1865, Hajj Yusuf Bishtawi initiated another lawsuit, this time against Khalil son of Khalaf from the same village, who had the misfortune of guaranteeing the runaway’s debt.[82] The defendant lost the case, but he did not have the means to pay back the 20 jars of olive oil stipulated in the salam contract or the 600 piasters originally borrowed. The judge responded by putting his seal on a sales deed that transferred the defendant’s vine-orchard to the plaintiff.[83]

The appropriation of lands by merchants as a result of defaults on loans was more frequent, penetrated deeper into the hinterland, and began earlier than the cases registered in court would suggest. An example of a private contract, culled from the Nimr family papers, involved Khawaja Mitri, the Christian merchant from Jaffa whom we met earlier. On August 1, 1852, Khawaja Mitri bought as fully private property what technically were state agricultural lands in Jabal Nablus from peasants indebted both to him and to other merchants. One of these peasants was none other than the same Abd al-Rahman with whom he had concluded the sesame salam contract in 1851 quoted above:

Khawaja Khalil Mitri son of the Christian Yusuf Mitri from the people of Jaffa Port bought…from Abd al-Rahman and his brother Mustafa, sons of the deceased al-Sa‘ada from the Sa‘ada branch of the Hajj Muhammad clan of [the subdistrict of] Mashariq Nablus…one half…of the cleared land, empty of trees, called al-Wasiyya that is part of the lands of Kafr Bayta in Mashariq Nablus—bordered on the south by the line separating the plain from the rough lands; on the east by the lands of the Abi Awad family (dar); on the north by the main road; and on the west by the land of Isma‘il al-As‘ad. [Also] one half of maris land called Maris al-Arqadat, bordered on the south by the land of the Abi Abbas family; on the east by the lands of Salim [village]; on the north by the land of the Uthman family; and on the west by the line separating the plain from the rough lands. [Also] the lands called Mi‘ani al-Najma, bordered on the south by the land of the Uthman family; on the east by the line; on the north by the lands of Abi Awad; and on the west by the line separating the plain from the rough lands. All of that, along with its roads, terraces and walls…located in the lands of Kafr Bayta…for 10,000 piasters. [Khawaja Mitri] deducted from this price 4,420 piasters that they owed him according to vouchers in his hand, in addition to 1,420 piasters that Abd al-Rahman owed to Qasim son of Yusuf al-Nabulsi.[84]

This case clearly shows, first, that as early as 1852 a coastal merchant like Khawaja Mitri faced no insurmountable difficulties in appropriating prime agricultural lands from a peasant in Nablus—even one who belonged to a powerful rural clan that controlled the subdistrict of Mashariq Nablus. Second, Khawaja Mitri’s access to this land was a direct result of a default on a salam contract he had extended just a few months earlier. There is little doubt that these lands were sold in distress, for the two brothers owed more than half of the value of the land to two merchants—one from Nablus and the other from Jaffa—who apparently were business partners. Third, this purchase involved sizable pieces of land (judging by the price paid) and included at least some state lands (judging by the description of the borders).[85] No wonder, therefore, that this purchase, made six years prior to the 1858 land code, was not registered in the Nablus Islamic Court. Undeterred by the absence of a legitimizing legal framework, the parties involved simply ignored the court altogether. Khawaja Mitri ignored it again when he sold the same land, three years later, to Abd al-Fattah Agha Nimr.[86]

The widespread traffic in transactions of this kind deeply worried the central government: it undermined its legitimacy and control of land and threatened its fiscal basis. The same, by the way, could be said of ruling families. The expansion of cultivation put pressure on land, leading many peasants to plow new territories considered by these families to be their private property. Afraid that peasants would lay claims to these lands by right of ihya al-mawat (cultivation of virgin lands), they sought to have their claims recognized by the Nablus Advisory Council. For example, on July 30, 1852, a tribal chief, amir (prince) Faris al-Harithy, requested that the council notarize his “haq al-milkiyya” (right of ownership) over large tracts of unplowed valley lands, because peasants from nearby villages were putting these lands under cultivation and claiming them as their own.[87]

Indicative of these concerns about uncontrolled developments in landholding patterns and challenges to state authority was an 1855 decree—communicated by the Advisory Council of Sidon and relayed by the governor of Jerusalem on March 15 of that year to the qa’immaqam and council members of Nablus—warning all concerned that property transactions must be legally registered in the Islamic court:

[I]t is a practice and a requirement that the selling of shops and houses [mahallat] and lands by their owners…be done under the supervision of Islamic law and according to legal and correct procedures.…[Yet], in some places, these principles are not respected, and houses and lands are being [traded] by brokers and speculators, and registered in documents and deeds that might cause trouble in the future.…Henceforth, if such documents are drawn up by brokers and speculators without informing the court, the appropriate punishment will be meted out to the sellers and buyers, and the documents [which were not approved by the court] shall be considered null and void. If they [the documents] reappear and become cause for quarrels, the local council shall carry out an investigation…and new correct and legal deeds shall be drawn up by the Islamic court, copied into its records, and given to its owners. Those who dare disobey this order shall not be allowed any excuse…[and] are to be reported to us.[88]

This warning was not heeded, and the pressures from below generated by the commercial traffic in land could not be contained by the Islamic court—or by any institution, for that matter. In this context, it could be argued that the 1858 land law was not an initiator of new land-tenure relations but, rather, a recognition by the Ottoman government of the need to contain and streamline already ongoing processes that threatened to undermine the fiscal basis and, by extension, the political effectiveness of its rule.

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