previous sub-section
The Political Economy of Olive Oil
next sub-section

Redefining Identity and Political Authority

Long before the 1830s the commercialization of agriculture and the attendant expansion of merchant capital into the countryside through moneylending (especially olive-oil salam contracts) had begun to undermine the old patronage networks between long-time ruling clans and the peasants in their subdistricts. Meanwhile, the peasants of Jabal Nablus, like their counterparts elsewhere in Greater Syria, were increasingly linked to urban trade networks, attuned to shifting European demand, and no doubt informed about the new political and administrative changes introduced by the Egyptian occupation and the Tanzimat. Slowly, the leveling effect of a cash nexus in the hinterlands facilitated the spread of horizontal connections at the expense of vertical loyalties. It was only a matter of time before the peasants’ cultural, economic, and political horizons stretched beyond their own village or region. Not surprisingly, their perceptions of their own identity and place in society, as well as their notions of legitimacy, political authority, and justice, were incrementally redefined.

Islam, the Rural Middle Class, and the Subdistrict Chiefs

Hitherto, the decline of subdistrict chiefs has been attributed solely to state intervention from above; that is, to the Egyptian occupation (1831–1840), which crushed centrifugal forces, disarmed the peasantry, and imposed a centralized administrative apparatus. These actions, the argument continues, paved the way for the implementation of the Tanzimat (reforms) and the extension of centralized Ottoman rule.[89] Although the centralizing tendencies of Egyptian and Ottoman rule were indeed important, they only accelerated a number of ongoing processes on the economic, cultural, and political levels.

On the economic level, moneylending, in addition to laying some of the groundwork for the commoditization of land, helped deepen the cleavages among peasants by, among other things, widening the social space of the rural middle class. The spread of market relations encouraged many well-to-do peasants to reproduce the business practices and institutions developed by urban merchants on the village level. This, in turn, helped clear a path for urban, coastal, and foreign merchant activities in the interior of Palestine. One indication of increasing differentiation is that by the mid-nineteenth century it had become common for peasants to sue each other in court over disputed olive oil salam contracts, over the purchase of rural lands, and even over business partnerships.[90] Recall the examples in Chapter 2 of how some rural agents for textile merchants established their own commercial networks and ventured into retail trade in the countryside, as well as examples in this chapter of the moneylending activities by the Rummani family in Bayta and by Salama Makhluf in Bayt Jala.

The social space between the majority of peasants and the few rural-based ruling families first expanded in the large villages of each subdistrict: Tubas, Bayta, Burqa, Umm al-Fahm, Jaba, Dayr al-Ghusun, Arraba, Qabatya, Ya‘bad, and Salfit, to name a few. These and similar villages have long been centers of commercial activities that mediated relations between the city of Nablus (as well the town of Jenin) and the more remote and smaller villages. It is not clear when the expansion of this rural middle class began in earnest, but this process in the central highlands of Palestine probably reflected a larger, regionwide process beginning around the mid-eighteenth century. In her study of Zahleh, a village in Mount Lebanon that grew into an important market town, Alixa Naff argues that “a nebulous middle stratum” before the nineteenth century had become “an unmistakable class of entrepreneurs” by 1840.[91] Dina Khoury also shows how internal and regional dynamics in the hinterlands of Mosul (in today’s Iraq) during the 1750–1850 period precipitated the expansion of commercial agriculture and the de facto privatization of land. Both developments, she continues, led to an increase in social differentiation on the village level, including the rise of “middle” and “rich” peasants who were able to “exploit the labor power of other peasants.”[92]

In any event, not until the mid-nineteenth century did the cases registered in the Islamic Court of Nablus begin to reveal the pervasiveness and sophistication of entrepreneurial activities of this class. An example is a document, dated May 19, 1849, dividing the profits of a company set up by five villagers:

Before this date, the Pride of Honorable Scholars, Shaykh Uthman al-Labadi from the village of Kafr al-Labad and Hasan Khattab, Muhammad al-Bab, Khalil Abd al-Rahim, and the Master Yusuf Elias the Christian, all from the village of Burqa, formed a silent partnership company (sharikat mudaraba) with a capital of 4,000 piasters. All of the money belonged to Shaykh Uthman al-Labadi. Hasan Khattab received the money in order to buy and sell, take and give, loan and collect on oil, wheat, barley, and other [crops].…Whatever profit God bestowed on them, Shaykh Uthman would receive one-half because he provided the capital and the rest would equally share the other half. The aforementioned Hasan Khattab invested the…money in oil and other [crops] through salam [contracts] and, needing more money, he borrowed 243 piasters…to put more money into the oil salam that belonged to this company. On this date, they appeared [in court]…and settled the company’s accounts.…The profit was 743 piasters, from which the 243 piasters that Hasan Khattab had borrowed…were deducted.[93]

The owner of capital was a religious leader from a medium-sized village; the other partners were residents of Burqa, one of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus and the administrative headquarters for the subdistrict of Wadi al-Sh‘ir.[94] Burqa had an artisanal sector, and some of its families worked in textile production. The partners from Burqa were ideally suited for negotiating salam contracts because their village acted as a hub for smaller ones around it and therefore enjoyed a built-in network of relations. Again, the preferred business mechanism was the salam system of moneylending, and the commodities that were the object of speculation—oil, wheat, and barley—were the main cash crops of Jabal Nablus.

None of the partners belonged to ruling clans or to the majority of poor peasants. Their partnership also cut across geographical, kinship, and religious boundaries: Burqa was far from Kafr al-Labad, and the partners were not of the same clan or even the same religion. The combination of these factors—the pooling of capital for investment in commercial agriculture through moneylending and the social diversity of the moneylenders—constitutes a classic characteristic of a rural middle class united by the search for profit and capital accumulation.

Peasant involvement in trade and moneylending created new opportunities for upward mobility, as attested to by the inheritance estates of rich villagers (who were not members of ruling clans) registered in the Nablus Islamic Court.[95] Over time, the expansion of commercial activities generated from within the hinterlands crossed not only geographic and religious boundaries but also social, cultural, and political ones. Urban-rural intermarriage, adoption of city habits, alliances with urban merchants, resort to the Islamic court for settling disputes, and eventually moving into the city, were all becoming common phenomena (see below).

On the cultural level, the undercutting of patronage networks based on customary law was accomplished primarily by the reproduction in the rural sphere of urban legal, social, and business practices based on Islamic law.[96] In order to facilitate their profitable commercial activities and to consolidate their social position, members of the rural middle class turned their backs on the folk religious practices common among peasants and began to appropriate the system of meanings articulated in what one might call orthodox or urban Islam. As will be seen in greater detail below, they used Islamic law not only to construct and legally protect moneylending networks and investment companies but also to weave a new tapestry of relations with both poorer peasants and their long-time ruling clans; that is, to expand their own social space at the expense of both. This process was hastened in the second half of the nineteenth century, when mosques were built in many villages and when Islamic courts were introduced into the seat villages of the subdistricts during the 1850s.[97]

Islamic law proved ideologically and practically well suited for the capitalist transformation of the countryside. As a universal ideology it cut across social boundaries, such as those of kinship, regional identity, and other particularistic customs typical of vertical loyalties. Trade and investment, moreover, are not considered in Islamic law as undesirable activities or somehow inferior to, say, landholding. On the contrary, Islam celebrates honest profits from commercial activities and provides legitimacy to those who convey themselves as God-fearing and righteous businessmen. On a practical level, Islamic law—especially the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which, as mentioned earlier, was officially adopted by the Ottoman government—makes available a detailed body of rules and regulations well suited for structuring moneylending contracts, business partnerships, and so on. It also provides a clear set of guidelines for the resolution of disputes. In short, Islamic law offers a common denominator or, more precisely, a set of shared reference points that made it an appealing framework at a time when market relations were carving an ever-larger space in the hinterlands of the interior.

An example that combines all the above issues is a business dispute dated April 29, 1864.[98] The plaintiff, Abdullah son of Muhammad al-Hammud, was a rich villager from Jaba village who was then temporarily living in Damascus while serving as a recruit in the Ottoman military. The defendant, Shaykh Ibrahim son of Shaykh Abdullah Jarrar, was the head of the most powerful rural-based clan in that subdistrict (Mashariq al-Jarrar) and had recently relocated to the city of Nablus. The plaintiff’s agent in the Nablus court, Hajj Abdullah Abu Ali al-Zaybaq, came from the village of Zamalka, near Damascus.

The agent testified that the plaintiff had advanced Shaykh Ibrahim the sum of 5,000 piasters a year and a half earlier in a lawful silent partnership (sharikat mudaraba) for the purpose of speculation. Their understanding was that no matter what the profits might be, they would split them evenly. The purpose of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was to make sure that Shaykh Ibrahim Jarrar would pay back the original investment of 5,000 piasters plus half of the profits. Shaykh Ibrahim admitted to the business arrangement and testified that the profit he had made over the past eighteen months (2,600 piasters) exceeded half the principal. What he contested was the status of Hajj Abdullah as a lawful agent for the plaintiff. Hajj Abdullah proved to the satisfaction of the judge that he did indeed represent the plaintiff, and Shaykh Ibrahim Jarrar had to hand over 6,300 piasters.

The most striking aspects of this lawsuit were, first, the reversal of historic roles between peasant and ruling subdistrict chief. A rich villager enrolled his subdistrict chief as an agent in a contract calculated to take advantage of the latter’s connections. In the process he subverted the chief’s traditional patronage network by turning it into a business instrument within his own modern network.[99] Second, this lawsuit also shows how the new networks of the rural middle class cut across not only social and political boundaries but also geographic ones. The plaintiff initiated this lawsuit in Damascus using a peasant from the Syrian village of Zamalka as an agent. The defendant came from the same village as the plaintiff but was now a resident of Nablus. The supporting witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff, meanwhile, came from the village of Silat al-Dhaher, in the Sha‘rawiyya al-Sharqiyya subdistrict of Jabal Nablus. In short, this villager from Jaba was, at one and the same time, a soldier who traveled widely and an investor who made business connections that integrated people from a number of areas.[100]

Third, the rich villager, by initiating this partnership while absent from his home base, assumed that his investment—which took the form of a business partnership recognized as legitimate by Islamic law—would be protected even against the possible extortion of a clan that had ruled generations of his ancestors. This case confirmed that his assumption was well founded: lawsuits that hinge on the status of an agent to one of the parties were widely used as legal mechanisms to prevent future disputes. In other words, there was no real disagreement. Rather, Shaykh Ibrahim wanted to protect himself from the possibility that the plaintiff, upon his return from Damascus, would demand the same moneys again by claiming that Hajj Abdullah was not his lawful agent.

On a political level, villagers also resorted to urban legal institutions, specifically the Islamic court, in order to challenge the authority and sometimes arbitrary practices of subdistrict chiefs. For example, on March 18, 1861, Odeh al-Bab, a well-to-do villager from Burqa, accused Shaykh Isma‘il son of Shaykh Khader al-Burqawi—a member of one of the two clans, Sayf and al-Ahfa, that ruled the subdistrict of Wadi al-Sha‘ir—of unlawfully usurping six pieces of land and an olive oil press through “force, compulsion, imprisonment, and threats.”[101] Shaykh Isma‘il al-Burqawi claimed that he had bought these lands in 1856–1857 for 7,000 piasters, but he lost the case when the plaintiff produced two credible witnesses from both of the ruling clans mentioned above. It is not known whether the court’s order that these properties be returned was ever carried out, but the fact remains that the subdistrict chief was forced to appear and defend himself in the Islamic court against a peasant from his own seat village.

As this and other cases cited throughout this chapter suggest, therefore, the internal transformation of peasant society was an important dynamic in the declining influence and status of subdistrict chiefs. This does not mean that rural shaykhs were completely marginalized: the post of subdistrict chief remained under the control, by and large, of the same families that had dominated the hinterland for generation. Many also continued to wield real power, at least as far as most peasants in their subdistricts were concerned. But during the 1700–1900 period these individuals were transformed from a virtually independent and powerful group of rural leaders into appendages of the urban merchant and political elite, as well as into servants of the state. Their networks and political autonomy were undermined to the point that the real meaning of “subdistrict chief” came to approximate more and more the official (but long unrealized) Ottoman vision of their role: tax collectors and rural administrators whose powers stemmed solely from the fountainhead of the central bureaucracy.

Gone were the days when the subdistrict chiefs were personally visited by the governor of Damascus in their seat village and dressed in a cloak that symbolized their status as equal to the mutasallim of Nablus. By the 1850s they were sent a brief letter of appointment that they had to register in the Nablus Islamic Court, and then they had to be sworn in by the Nablus Advisory Council.[102] Even their official title had changed, from the broad and respectful shaykh al-nahiya to the more narrowly defined and bureaucratic muhassil (tax collector).[103]

The subdistrict chiefs did not forgo their traditional privileges easily. The contested nature of this transformation can be seen in the following letter from the governor of Sidon province to the Nablus Advisory Council and its head, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, dated December 20, 1850:

Under the excuse that they are unsalaried, the supervisors and shaykhs of the subdistricts of Jabal Nablus are taking moneys from the people and villages under their administration above and beyond the assessed [amount] of state taxes and using these moneys for their own purposes. As a result, the people and residents are in a disturbed and weakened state. These aforementioned supervisors and shaykhs do not have salaries set aside for them, but they do enjoy the respect and admiration of their peers as a result of our utilizing them in these positions, and this is an act of great generosity and providence [on our part]. Therefore, their aggression toward the people under their care with the excuse that they have no salaries contravenes the Supreme Wishes. [This behavior] is absolutely forbidden, and it is imperative that it be stopped quickly.[104]

Just a century before, the central government would not have even considered holding subdistrict chiefs responsible for illegal taxation, much less attempted to interfere. In response to the new realties, some of the subdistrict chiefs, such as the Abd al-Hadis, quickly assimilated to the changing political economy of Palestine and used it to their advantage. Others, such as the Jarrars, became internally divided over which course the extended family should pursue in the context of an eroding economic, political, and social base. Most took the middle road. In this regard, the justification used by these chiefs for their actions is revealing. By emphasizing the lack of salary they were, at one and the same time, protesting the onerous duties and limitations imposed on them and opening the door to further integration into the government bureaucracy.[105]

The process of differentiation was also accompanied by serious dislocations and internal power struggles within each village. Tensions heightened as villagers manipulated their fellow villagers and became embroiled in disputes with their neighbors, clan members, and even their own families. By the turn of the twentieth century, the divisive impact of moneylending and the dominant role of merchant capital was a festering sore, apparent to all. During their tour through the villages of Jabal Nablus in 1916–1917, Tamimi and Bahjat quoted one peasant from Dayr Istiya as saying that “the Nabulsis have set brother against brother”[106]—clearly implying that many well-to-do villagers and merchants were allied in a single system that tore at the social fabric of each village. Some peasants from Salfit articulated the situation to Tamimi and Bahjat in these terms: “Nabulsis, for their own personal gain, have sown the seeds of discord, and now we have become like them: hurting others so we can get ahead.…The Nabulsis have profited from these conflicts: they appropriated all that we have, with the excuse that they are saving us from the pitfalls we put ourselves in. Now we are poor, powerless prisoners in the hands of the Nabulsis.”[107]

Resistance and Notions of Justice

The shifting boundaries of political and economic power in the rural sphere generated intense conflicts that threatened the stability of Jabal Nablus as a whole. In the above letter the Sidon governor’s claim that the peasants of Jabal Nablus were in a “disturbed and weakened state” contained more than a grain of truth. Most peasants did not reap the benefit of Palestine’s economic growth during this period, for this growth was predicated largely on the enhanced ability of urban merchants to gain access to and control their surplus.

The slow dissolution of patronage ties between peasants and their long-time ruling subdistrict chiefs, as well as the transformation of the latter into agents of urban interests (and eventually into urban merchants and landholders), no doubt exacerbated the peasants’ feelings of alienation, isolation, and lack of control over their lives. Peasant notions of identity, political authority, and justice, therefore, were bound to be challenged and redefined, especially as their various means of resistance were often repressed by force.[108]

Peasant petitions provide important clues as to these notions and show that peasant complaints were usually precipitated by attempts of the local government to enforce moneylending contracts, especially olive oil salam contracts. For example, in early February 1852 the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya[109] submitted a petition to the governor of Jerusalem, Hafiz Pasha, in which they said:

[We] the destitute…of Asira village from the district (sanjaq) of Nablus have paid all the taxes (miri) required from us in cash and kind to the last penny (para)…and the account books of the treasury are cleared of all that was or could be [required of us]. A few days ago, Ahmad al-Yusuf [Jarrar]—[on the basis] of his power, influence, and lack of fear of the rule of law—demanded from us, in a criminal and corrupt manner, a sum [of money and crops] for no legitimate reason. He has crossed the line and broken the rules of [decent behavior] and just regulations. [As part of his illegal behavior] he sent cavalrymen [who] picked ten persons from among us and imprisoned them in Nablus. They have been imprisoned for more than eight days and remain there for no satisfactory reason. Because this overstepping of bounds is a matter contradictory to your [sense of] justice, we have found the courage to petition your Munificent Highness and beg that you issue an order to Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi, the qa’immaqam of Nablus, [instructing him] to go over the tax books. If a single penny or the smallest measure of crops is found to be owed by us, we will bring it over. If nothing [owed by us] is found, then our people should be released, for the disposition of your justice does not condone or allow…a person, such as the above mentioned, to imprison our people [just to satisfy] his aim for bribery. Our just government has the power to remove the above mentioned.
The Poor of Asira, Nablus District[110]

It must have been disconcerting for the governor of Jerusalem to receive this petition, because it laid the matter squarely on his shoulders and boldly challenged him to dismiss a government official. Also, by addressing the petition to him instead of going through normal hierarchy of political authority in Jabal Nablus, the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya implicitly accused the council in general, and Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi in particular, of complicity in what they deemed to be an unjust act. After all, it was the urban ruling elite of Nablus who controlled the cavalry that made the arrests and ran the prisons in which the men were incarcerated.

A few days later, on February 12, 1852, the assistant governor of Jerusalem sent a copy of the petition to Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi, along with this terse and hardly impartial note: “Provide in a memorandum a detailed explanation of the reasons for imprisoning the aforementioned individuals and the foul misdeeds that necessitated their imprisonment.”[111] The council’s answer is worth quoting in full:

The reason for the imprisonment of some individuals from Asira village is that one of the oil merchants, Shaykh Muhammad Abu Hijli, is owed through a salam contract by the peasants of the aforementioned village an amount of oil for which they received money in advance in order to pay the taxes due from their village. When he demanded his right, the people of the village gave excuses…so he complained very persistently. Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf, chief of the al-Jarrar subdistrict, requested cavalrymen…and sent them with a representative of his in order to collect the merchant’s due. When his representative arrived in the village, some of its people gathered around him and pelted him with stones. His sword was broken, and the metal piece fitted on the sword sheath below the handle fell. [Also] one of the pistols tucked in his belt was broken, and his cloak [mashlah] fell, as did the tassel on his fez and his money pouch. He arrived back to these parts in this state. Your Excellency knows that such disrespect for the state’s cavalry is considered insolence toward the government. The punishment of these individuals could not be overlooked. So an investigation was made about those persons who headed this movement, and four were found. They were brought [here] and put into prison so that they can be taught a lesson [min ajl al-tarbiya]…and made an example to others. They can be released only after they promise not to display such insolence again. But now the cavalryman has been brought in [to the council’s premises] and the missing items noted. He deserves [the payment of] 120 piasters from the aforementioned imprisoned men in order to fix his sword and gun and to replace his coat, the missing money from his money pouch, the fez’s tassel, and the metal piece of his sword.…He received all…and the prisoners were released.[112]

The major elements of this story should be familiar by now. The inhabitants of an entire village had entered into a salam moneylending contract with an olive oil merchant so that they could pay their taxes. The oil merchant, Muhammad Abu Hijli, was himself a member of the rural middle class, for he had only recently relocated to the city. This illustrates once again the differentiation within the rural sphere and the reproduction, by this class, of urban commercial networks. In fact, the Abu Hijli clan—most of whose members were still in Dayr Istya, their home village—was already well-to-do in the 1830s. During that time, they were involved in moneylending to other peasants and controlled a fair amount of timar lands.[113] By the Mandate period they were large landlords. In Chapter 2, recall, we met a wealthy villager by the name of Hajj Ahmad Isma‘il Abu Hijli who, in the year 1900, still lived in Dayr Istiya. This also fits the development pattern of rural middle-class families: they usually relocated only some of their members to the city, leaving others behind to supervise agricultural workers on their lands.

Allied with the olive oil merchant was Ahmad Yusuf al-Jarrar, head of the Mashariq al-Jarrar subdistrict. As shown in Chapter 1, the Jarrars were famous as key protectors of Jabal Nablus by virtue of their military resources and control of the formidable Sanur fortress. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, their influence was much reduced, and, as far as the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya were concerned, they had become repressive local shaykhs whose actions—extortion of peasants in their subdistrict and use of force and intimidation in the collection of debts, even those owed to an oil merchant who came from another subdistrict (Jamma‘in)—placed them outside the rule of law.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar, in turn, was supported by the qa’immaqam of Nablus as well as by the Advisory Council. They legitimated his actions by granting his request for cavalry and by branding the peasants’ resistance to his demands as “insolence toward the government.” At least, this is the impression they sought to convey to the governor of Jerusalem in order to represent themselves as the forces of law and order in Jabal Nablus.[114] The peasants of Asira, like those in Mount Lebanon during this period, were openly challenging the authority and privileges of their long-time ruling subdistrict chiefs.[115] However, unlike the situation in Mount Lebanon, where there was a spatial division of political authority (Dayr al-Qamar) and economic life (Beirut)—the location of Nablus at the very heart of the core hill region meant that this city combined both. Hence the welding of rural shaykhs, rich merchants, and urban ruling families into a united political bloc that weighed heavily on the majority of peasants.

Both this petition and the one from the village of Jaba cited earlier show that the peasants of Jabal Nablus were very much aware of this alliance, as well as of its internal hierarchy. By communicating their grievances to the governor of Jerusalem, they made it clear that they expected no justice from the council and the qa’immaqam of Nablus, much less from the traditional rural leaders of their subdistrict. Indeed, the wording of the Asira al-Shamiyya petition clearly implied that the urban political elite was a coconspirator, if not the main culprit, in this affair.

This accusation was based on bitter experience, not posturing. During the same year, for example, the Nablus Council made excuses for not sending a member of the Jarrar family who had been accused of murdering villagers to Beirut, where he was to stand trial.[116] In yet another case, the council lamely justified the reason why witnesses against another member of the Jarrar family, also accused of murder, could not be sent to Beirut to testify.[117]

Under the suffocating weight of both the rural and the urban elites of Jabal Nablus, the peasants’ best hope of carving out a political space for themselves lay in involving the state and appealing to its sense of justice. The Asira peasants’ concepts of state justice and the rule of law are not entirely clear, because they were only expressed in exclusionary terms in the petition—that is, the unlawful behavior of their subdistrict chiefs and the Advisory Council of Nablus. What is clear is that their appeal was calculated to take advantage of the state’s own propaganda, which harped on the need to protect the peasant base of production. In written orders during the 1840s and 1850s, the government passionately called for justice and the rule of law, specifically warned city councils and subdistrict chiefs against the abuse of peasants, and tacitly recognized the social differentiation within villages, as well as the concentration of landholdings. These issues were ideologically framed as an appeal both to Islam and to the common citizenship of all Ottoman subjects and were driven by the need to reinforce the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of all of its subjects, including peasants.[118]

On June 24, 1841, for example, the central authorities warned that the flight of peasants from the land due to extortion, corvée labor, or unfair practices leading to undercultivation or loss of land would not be tolerated. In this letter to the Nablus Advisory Council, the governor of Damascus ordered, among other things, the cancellation of all illegal taxes and a stop to the practices that forced peasants to sell their crops for less than half of their worth.[119] He also forbade the confiscation of animals for free transportation and, most important, the eviction of those who were unable to pay their debts.[120] On December 2, 1850, the mutasarrif of Jerusalem reminded the Nablus Council that the harvest season was at hand, yet in every subdistrict and village there were “poor and old persons who do not possess the means to plow and plant…[and] who need either lands or threshing floors or animals or…all of these things combined.”[121] He went on to urge all Muslims to help those poor villagers because “the equitable and just will of our Sultan will not allow the existence of a single person who is deprived of earnings and enjoyment.” Significant here is that non-Muslims of means were encouraged to do the same, because “those who are not coreligionists are [still] brothers in the fatherland [ikhwan fi al-watan].”[122] He then called on people of means to help through loans, through permission to use threshing floors, and through sharing “some of the surplus lands that are in their hands.” Finally, he commanded that copies of this order be sent to all subdistrict chiefs and that a list of poor people in every village be compiled. Next to each name the council was to describe the manner in which that person had been put back in a position that would allow him to pursue his vocation as a productive peasant.

Only eighteen days later, as mentioned above, the governor of Sidon province warned the tax collectors (muhassils) of the subdistricts of Nablus and Jenin that they would be severely punished if they continued their practice of extorting moneys and crops from peasants under the pretext of being unsalaried government employees who were merely covering their expenses.[123] We know from the council’s own records that they sent copies of this order to all 13 muhassils, as well as to 213 villages in Jabal Nablus. The order was read aloud in each village square, and the inhabitants were specifically instructed that any complaints about extortion should be addressed to the Nablus Advisory Council.[124]

Within this context, it is significant that the authors of both the Asira al-Shamiyya and Jaba petitions decided to deliberately bypass the Advisory Council. More important, their arguments echoed the main thrust of Tanzimat ideology: equality before the law. In the words of the peasants of Asira, Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar “crossed the line and broke the rules of [decent behavior] and just regulations.” The peasants were saying, in effect, that all of the inhabitants of Jabal Nablus were members of a much larger polity (the Ottoman Empire), whose boundaries of legitimacy and rules of behavior were clearly delineated, and that all members of this polity were subject to those rules regardless of their official position, historical privileges, or personal power. The long-time rulers of Jabal Nablus, even though they were native sons, were portrayed in the petitions as public servants with a clear (and limited) mandate. The ultimate source of political authority, the peasants insisted, was the Ottoman state or, more accurately, an abstract notion of what state meant.

A key constituent element of the meanings ascribed to this abstract notion, as suggested by the wording of the petition, was the peasants’ right as tax-paying citizens to protection by the central authorities from arbitrary extortion. It was not a coincidence that the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya began their argument with the premise that they had paid all their taxes in full. As long as they met this responsibility, the state had an obligation to protect them. Local authorities, they insisted, had no right to impose other demands on them, no right to interfere in their affairs.

The political essence of the Asira petition, therefore, was an attempt to reduce the political space of the ruling elite of Jabal Nablus and to draw the state’s protective boundaries around themselves. This is why the underlying and primary cause of the conflict, a debt incurred to an oil merchant through a salam contract, was not mentioned by the peasants. Hoping to deal with the oil merchant on their own terms, the peasants were asking, “Why should Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar and the entire ruling elite of Nablus get involved in this matter? Our taxes are paid and that is all they should be concerned with!”

It must have been an embarrassing and humiliating experience, as well as politically inconvenient, for the Nablus Council and Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi to have the governor of Jerusalem dragged into a local matter by the peasants of Asira. Not only did they receive the petition via Jerusalem, but it suggested that they be “ordered” to check the tax books when they knew full well, as did the petitioners, that these taxes had indeed been paid. This is why the memorandum from the council, like the previous one concerning the Jaba petition, first presented the issue of debt as the root of the dispute then relegated it to the background and did not indicate whether and how it was resolved. Rather, the council focused the governor’s attention on the organic link between their common interests and those of the state, by portraying peasant resistance to them as a challenge to state authority. Unhappy about the prospect of further outside interference, especially in such vital issues as collection of debt and enforcement of salam contracts, the council’s aim was to short-circuit these petitions and neutralize their negative effects while maintaining a free hand in dealing with the peasantry. Consequently, the council moved quickly to defuse the situation by setting the prisoners free, with the excuse that they had been taught a lesson and that damages to the injured cavalryman—that is, a small fine of 120 piasters—had been paid.[125]

The Asira and Jaba petitions also demonstrate that local disputes between merchants and peasants, in both instances over salam contracts for olive oil, escalated to the point that the Ottoman state, through the office of the governor of Jerusalem, was dragged in and entangled. In other words, internal contradictions and pressures from below, as much as reforms from above, served to increase the role of the state in local affairs. This is key to a fuller understanding of the driving forces behind the Ottoman state’s policies of centralization and administrative and fiscal restructuring during the nineteenth century. Just as the promulgation and implementation of the 1858 land code were precipitated and guided, respectively, by concrete long-term changes in the land regime, Ottoman reforms and policies in general during the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century were just as much responses to as initiators of changes in the political economy of the regions under their control.

The changes that overtook peasant society during the Tanzimat period allowed for more than one political trajectory. Judging from the two petitions, the peasants of Jabal Nablus extended their hand to the Ottoman authorities and expressed a willingness to become active participants in a new political order—under certain conditions, of course. But the latter’s responses to the brewing crisis in urban-rural relations were often determined by pragmatic political concerns rather than by their publicly stated policy of protecting the peasant base of production. In this and similar cases in Jabal Nablus during the mid-nineteenth century the response was a conservative one, more concerned with shoring up urban notables in order to maintain the status quo than with effecting any real change.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Tamimi and Bahjat had this to say upon concluding their visit to Salfit: “Of course, the Salfitis are ignorant of the sacred patriotic [symbols] such as the flag, the nation, and sacrifice. The government in their eyes is nothing but subdistrict administrators and a number of police…and a door that does not answer the complaints of the people.”[126]

previous sub-section
The Political Economy of Olive Oil
next sub-section