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Soap, Class, and State
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Soap and Society

In relation to each other, the social groups involved in the process of soap production were shaped exactly like the tananir (inverted cones of stacked soap cubes left to dry) that stood like silent sentinels in the al-mafrash. At the bottom, supporting the entire structure, were the peasants who produced the olive oil, the bedouins who provided the qilw, and unskilled workers. Above them were the various groups of middlemen and small merchants who operated like the numerous suction cups of a giant octopus: small-time buyers and sellers, creditors, agents, and supervisors.

Interspersed among the second layer was a relatively small group of skilled and semiskilled soap-factory workers who held the core jobs in soap manufacturing. Their position depended on an internal hierarchy based on the type of job performed, family background, and patronage ties with the factory owners. Their ability to carve out a privileged space for themselves over time is illustrated by the fact that most of these workers belonged to families that monopolized various stages of the production process, from long before the nineteenth century up to the Mandate period in the twentieth century.

Near the very top were the soap merchants who, either individually or in groups, provided the oil, commissioned tabkhas, and marketed the soap. Many of these merchants dealt primarily in other goods. Their ranks, for example, included most of the wholesale textile merchants. At the apex were the proprietors of the soap factories who, along with their partners, provided the facilities, the equipment, and all of the raw materials except oil and who supervised the organization of production. The inner core of their ranks up to the early nineteenth century included the ruling political families and the ranking members of the religious hierarchy.

Of all the social groups involved in soap production in Jabal Nablus from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, we know the most about the soap-factory owners and, to a lesser extent, the soap merchants. These two groups left a substantial trail for historians to follow, for they generated documents every time they purchased, sold, endowed, or exchanged immovable properties. They were also involved in lawsuits and petitions and/or had their inheritance estates registered in court. Through such documents, one can trace changes in their social composition and, consequently, changes in the ruling elite of Jabal Nablus as a whole. Before embarking on a detailed look at this documentary trail, however, a few words must be said about the role of workers and bedouins in the soap industry.

Soap-Factory Workers

Soap production was not a labor-intensive process, did not require a wide range of skilled workers, and generated little by way of related industries. Aside from the fixed assets, the equipment—shovels, pails, jars, stirring oar, mortars, and pestles—was simple and required no special design or quality. Some artisans, usually from the Fatayir or Shami families, specialized in making stiff sacks designed to minimize friction between the soap cubes so that they would maintain their weight and shape over the long trip to Egypt and other regional markets. As for the copper vat, it lasted for many years, and there is no evidence that it was made locally in specialized shops.

Inside the factory itself, labor was organized in two general groups: those who worked “downstairs” in the cooking process and those who worked “upstairs” with the cooked soap. Fewer than fifteen workers were involved in the cooking process on the ground floor. The first person a peasant or merchant was likely to meet when he brought oil for sale or storage was the oil-measurer (shayyal). The shayyal placed the leather oil pouch on a slanted table and checked to see whether water collectedon the bottom. His examination of the oil determined its purity, quality, and price. It was not unusual for those who were desperate to sell their oil to pass on a little extra to the measurer, for their fate was in his hands.[56]

Deeper inside the huge building, the most prominent person—usually standing with a long, wooden, oarlike stirring stick (dukshab) in his hands—was the “chief” or “boss” (ra’is). Most of the workers around him were “his” men; that is, they were part of a team (joqa) that went from factory to factory as work slowed down in one place and picked up in another. The members of the team operated within a strict hierarchy in which the chief was the uncontested leader. For them, job security and their ability to pass the line of work down from father to son were key advantages that balanced the difficult work conditions, the unexceptional pay, the sometimes arbitrary rule of the chief, and the seasonal nature of the job. In short, it was to their advantage (considering the unskilled nature of most of the work) to be part of a patronage relationship based on long-standing ties that expressed themselves through social and kinship networks.

For the chief, acceptance of the social limitations of such an arrangement in terms of his power over who was or was not included in the team was balanced by the consequent privileges he gained as the sole mediator between proprietors and workers: status, authority, and much higher wages. The proprietors’ acceptance of this semicollective labor arrangement deprived them of total control of the workers and increased the cost of labor. At the same time, however, this arrangement reduced the surface area for friction between employer and employee, because it allowed the chief to play a strong mediating role.

The chief’s job required skills that could only be acquired through long experience, and his decisions directly affected the quality of the soap produced. His main duty, aside from supervising workers, was to closely follow the minute transformations in the coagulated liquid as it brewed in the copper vat over a number of days. He alone was allowed to stir the liquid, and he alone determined when the soap was ready. This was done by dipping a 60-centimeter-long wooden stick (shammama) into the vat and smelling the hot soap that coated it. If the proprietor did not agree with the chief’s assessment, a local expert would be called in to arbitrate.[57]

The lowest paying, least prestigious, and most difficult jobs—stoking the furnace with crushed olive pits, lifting oil from the wells, and carrying barrels of hot liquid soap up the steep and narrow stone stairs—were done by the same group of all-around menial workers. This work was physically demanding and dangerous: flying sparks and embers sometimes blinded the stokers (rashshash, pl. rashshashin), and it was not always possible for carriers to maintain their footing over the soap-caked stone surface. The rest of the workers pounded the qilw, mixed it with lime, put the mixture into fermentation pits, and channeled hot water from the bottom of the copper vat to the pits. This mixture was poured back into the copper vat, and the process was repeated dozens of times, until the alkaline content reached the desired levels. The downstairs workers were usually recruited from the Fatayir, Hudhud, Asi, Takruri, M‘ani, Marmash, or Ghalayini families. Usually the chief came from one of the first three.[58]

Upstairs the primary job was laying out, cutting, stamping, stacking, and packaging the soap (see Plate 5). Here the work was also monopolized for generations by a small number of families, such as the Hijazi, Annab, and Kukhun. But the most famous by far were members of the Tbeila family. Indeed, the name of this family became so closely identified with upstairs work that the word “tbeila” became a generic one. Until now, and even though members of this family no longer pursue this type of work as a primary occupation, it is not unusual for a soap-factory owner to ask another the question, “Who is your tbeila?”—that is, who is working upstairs for you? Ironically, the Tbeila family in the early eighteenth century produced some of Nablus’s leading merchants and religious leaders, as indicated by their titles of fakhr al-tujjar (pride of merchants), khawaja, and shaykh. They also owned a soap factory and were intermarried with the Khammash and other leading families. Apparently they were reduced to artisan status by the late eighteenth century.[59]

Soap-factory workers were paid in cash and kind after each cooked batch. There is no information on the range of wages for each type of job during the nineteenth century, but no doubt the rate differed substantially within the hierarchy of work and that there were ample opportunities to embezzle oil and other raw material. Payment in kind was in olive oil and in the finely ground, charcoallike remains of the crushed olive pits after they had been burned. The latter, called (duqq) are still used today by many as fuel for braziers.

There is also no information on the tensions between workers and proprietors or between the workers themselves and no record of lawsuits over the conditions of work or of strikes until the Mandate period. No doubt, and as suggested by anecdotal evidence in interviews, these tensions did exist; but the patronage-type arrangements typical of mobile teams of laborers meant that problems were resolved without recourse to the Islamic court for arbitration. Indeed, the impressive continuity of control over the limited number of soap-factory jobs by a few families made it imperative that disputes be handled within the informal arena of custom, precedent, and solidarity, not the abstract rules of Islamic law. Nevertheless, and as the soap-manufacturing sector expanded, family control over these jobs diminished, and by the early Mandate period the major factory owners preferred to import skilled soap workers from Egypt rather than to accede to local strikes and demands for better wages.[60]


Of all the social groups in Palestinian society during the Ottoman period, bedouins have been the most stereotyped. Advocates of modernization theory who contrast the so-called traditional period with the modern era place a heavy explanatory burden on bedouins by portraying them as the agents of backwardness, stagnation, and anarchy. For example, in setting the stage for the beginnings of modernization in Greater Syria, Moshe Ma‘oz described the period before the Egyptian invasion in unambiguously negative terms, giving bedouins the lion’s share of the blame: “[Bedouins were] the chief cause of the destruction of the countryside and the subsequent ruin of agriculture and commerce. These powerful nomads infested the Syrian provinces, pillaged caravans and travellers along the roads, ravaged large pieces of cultivated land, and even dared to raid villages that were situated on the outskirts of big towns.”[61]

In support of his view that the Egyptian occupation “put an end to a long period of confusion and backwardness, and opened a new era in Syrian history,” Ma‘oz casts the bedouin in a role similar to that of the ancient barbarians at the gates of Rome.[62] The inevitable results, we are told, were anarchy, depopulation, and a drastic decline in economic productivity.[63]

Although sometimes nomads could be very destructive, the view of bedouins as essentially predatory and a threat to civilization is no longer widely shared. The emphasis has shifted from antagonism to linkages, gray areas, and complementary roles between the settled and nomadic populations as they interacted in a larger socioeconomic system.[64] In the words of Talal Asad:

The basic opposition, therefore, is not between nomads and sedentaries, but between those who engage in the production of surplus and those who have control of such surplus.…This is especially important in the historic Middle East where pastoral, agricultural, and trade activities are interdependent parts of a single economic system, where different elements of the exploitable population are mobilized at different levels to support the power structure, and where—in consequence—popular rebellions have often involved the temporary alliance of peasants and pastoralists.[65]

There is much in the history of Jabal Nablus to support Asad’s contentions. To begin with, the lines between nomads and peasants in Palestine were blurred. M. Volney, whose work is often cited to support the view of bedouins as predators, had this to say about the interpenetration of bedouin and peasant life:

[A]s often as the different hordes and wandering tribes find peace and security, and a possibility of procuring sufficient provisions, in any district, they take up their residence in it and adopt, insensibly, a settled life, and the arts of cultivation. But when, on the contrary, the tyranny of governments drives the inhabitants of a village to extremity, the peasants desert their houses, withdraw with their families into the mountains or wander in the plains, taking care frequently to change their place of habitation, to avoid being surprised.[66]

A few pages later Volney offered a second significant observation: not all bedouins are the same. Those of the Beka valley, Jordan, and Palestine, he noted, “approach nearer to the conditions of the peasants; but these [tribes] are despised by the others who look upon them as bastard arabs.”[67] John Lewis Burckhardt, another contemporary observer, described how the nomads of the Jordan Valley cultivated wheat, barley, and dhura (a variety of sorghum). He also noted that some tribes “belonged” to Nazareth and Jabal Nablus—meaning that they were linked to the urban centers in a subordinate manner.[68]

There is little doubt that bedouin tribes were indeed within the sphere of mobilization of urban power centers. During the 1854–1858 internal conflict in Nablus, for example, both urban-led factions boasted bedouin allies and referred to them as junior—though fierce and valuable—partners.[69] The same held true during factional struggles in the Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza regions.[70] Nimr’s view of relations between bedouin tribes and the leaders of Jabal Nablus uncannily supports Asad’s argument: “The princes of Jabal Nablus did not subordinate themselves to the bedouin but exploited them instead. They disciplined the bedouin of neighboring regions and forced them to abide by an alliance system in order to secure the means of transportation, so that the caravans of Nablus were able to reach all neighboring regions and from there to the various parts of the Ottoman Empire.”[71]

As Nimr’s comments explain and, more important, as the prosperity of Jabal Nablus in the eighteenth century clearly demonstrates, economic life could and did thrive through continually reproduced and negotiated alliance systems.[72] The occasional breakdowns were merely the exceptions that proved the rule. If one puts aside spectacular accounts of a few bedouin raids and focuses on the routines of everyday life, mutual dependency and cooperation become clear. For instance, the area east of the River Jordan where most of the bedouins dwelled was economically integrated by Nabulsi merchants as a source of, among other things, olive oil, livestock (sheep, goats, horses, camels), clarified butter (samn), and, most of all, qilw. This district also constituted an important market for Nabulsi manufactures and trade goods, such as textiles, weapons, and metal products. This is not to mention the fact that many of the clans that made Jabal Nablus their home could trace their origins to the eastern desert. As shown in Chapter 1, this economic integration was expressed politically through the creation of a combined district in 1867 called Jabal Nablus and al-Balqa.

The social history of soap fits well with Talal Asad’s contention that interdependency of economic activities was the organizing framework. There was not a single relationship of an everyday nature that tied bedouins with Jabal Nablus in a subordinate but mutually dependent manner more thoroughly than the supply of qilw for soap production. Until the introduction of caustic soda in the 1860s, large numbers of bedouins from the Bani-Sakhr, Huwaytat, and Adwan tribes gathered barilla in the valleys of M‘an, especially around Salt and Tadmur (Palmyra).[73] In the summertime they piled these plants in towering stacks, burned them, gathered the ashes and coals into sacks, and carried them to Nablus in large caravans.[74]

Burckhardt witnessed this process in 1812, and had this to say about the complex reciprocal obligations built around the qilw trade and other economic contacts with bedouins:

The Arabs of the Belka [Balqa], especially the Beni Szakher [Bani Sakhr], bring here Kelly or soap-ashes, which they burn during the summer in large quantities: these are bought up by a merchant of Nablous, who has for many years monopolized the trade in this article. The soap-ashes obtained from the herb Shiman, of the Belka, are esteemed the best in the country…They are sold by the Arabs…but the purchaser is obliged to pay heavy duties upon them. The chief of the Arabs of El Adouan…exacts for himself five piasters from every camel load, two piasters for his writer, and two piasters for his slave. The town of Szalt [Salt] takes one piaster for every load, the produce of which duty is divided among the public taverns of the town. The quantity of soap-ashes brought to the Osha market amounts, one year with another, to about three thousand camel loads. The Nablous merchant is obliged to come in person to Szalt in autumn. According to old customs, he alights at a private house, all the expenses of which he pays during his stay; he is bound also to feed all strangers who arrive during the same period at Szalt; in consequence of which the Menzels [public taverns] remain shut; and he makes considerable presents on quitting the place. In order that all the inhabitants may share the advantages arising from his visits, he alights at a different house every year.[75]

Burckhardt’s observation that three thousand camel loads were sent to Nablus annually in the early nineteenth century seems to be fairly accurate. Each tabkha of soap required at least 7 camel loads, or qintars of qilw. Because Nablus soap production ranged, at the very least, from 100 to 400 tabkhas a year, a minimum of 700 to 2,800 camel loads arrived in Nablus annually. Merchants from Nablus and the town of Salt also exported qilw to nearby soap-producing centers, such as Gaza, Jaffa, Lydda, Jerusalem, and Acre.[76]

Nablus merchants put conditions on the type and quality of qilw as well as on the time of delivery. According to Nimr, caravan shaykhs expected, in return, a certain percentage of the overall price as commission upon delivery, as well as some “gifts” in kind. For instance, Nimr claims that for every 100 camel loads, the caravan leader received money plus one large basket (quffa) of rice, as well as one ratel each of tobacco, sugar, soap, and coffee. He also received a cloak, a pair of boots, and a fur saddle blanket.[77]

This system did not materialize overnight, nor was the web of relations connecting Jabal Nablus with Salt and the bedouin tribes so fragile that it could not overcome the bedouins’ alleged natural urge to pillage. On the contrary, the key elements of this network of mutual dependency, rights, and obligations—sometimes contested, sometimes jealously guarded—were reproduced over time and space by the conscious participation of all of its members.

This network was also flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions, such as the tripling of demand for qilw supplies to Nablus over the course of the nineteenth century. In addition, when the Ottoman state established a permanent military presence on the east bank of the River Jordan beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these relations became channels for the large flow of capital into this area. Wealthy Nabulsi families quickly established a permanent presence and soon became the region’s leading moneylenders, landowners, merchants, and, later on, public officials.[78] Not surprisingly, many of these families came to occupy important positions in the Jordanian government during the twentieth century.

Factory Owners

In a small city the size of Nablus, soap-factory owners constituted an exclusive club of powerful individuals who combined political power with wealth and high social status. Points of entry into this exclusive club were determined by two coexisting dynamics: long-term structural transformation in Nabulsi society, on the one hand, and relatively sudden shifts in the balance of political power within the ruling elite, on the other. Perhaps the words that best describe each dynamic would be infiltration and accession, respectively. Thus one would speak, for example, of the slow but steady infiltration of merchants and, at the same time, of the dramatic accession of new ruling families, such as the Abd al-Hadis.

These two dynamics were related, and they reinforced each other over time. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries their interaction had an integrative effect: they both led inexorably to the emergence of a single elite with a common material base. This integrative effect can be clearly seen in the case of old ruling families, such as the Tuqans and Nimrs, that managed to maintain a foothold in this exclusive club throughout the Ottoman period. Their continued membership was due primarily to the transformation of their material base. In all but name and reputation, these old ruling families that successfully adapted to the changing political economy of Jabal Nablus came more and more to resemble merchants or, more accurately, what it meant to be a merchant in the mid-nineteenth century.

Despite the intertwined nature of old and new, changes in the social composition of soap-factory owners can easily be detected when one compares cross-sections of the membership at different points in time. A telling (and dramatic) moment in this regard took place one day in February 1807, when the most prominent soap merchants and factory owners of Nablus gathered in the Islamic court. They had come to participate in the disposal of the estate of Sayyid Abd al-Qadir Afandi Hanbali, the naqib al-ashraf (steward of the descendants of the Prophet) of Nablus, owner of the Ya‘ishiyya soap factory, and a man deeply in debt when he died.[79]

Also present in the court was Sayyid Muhammad Afandi Daqqaq, a special envoy of Muhammad Ali Khalidi, the judge of Jerusalem at the time. The deceased’s family had used its close ties to the religious leaders of Jerusalem to make sure that a respectable outsider would oversee the disposal of the properties.[80] The family needed outside protection because Sayyid Abd al-Qadir’s death came at a very inopportune moment: his only male heir was still a child in his legal minority. This situation, combined with the inevitability of having to sell the deceased’s considerable immovable properties in order to satisfy debtors, left the family at the mercy of the wealthy and powerful of Nablus who were attracted to the court like bears to honey.

Sayyid Muhammad Daqqaq came armed with an official letter of appointment that contained clear instructions for protecting the family’s interests, especially those of the child. Facing him in the court were the mutasallim, Musa Beik Tuqan; the chief of sipahis of Nablus, Hasan Agha Nimr; the new naqib al-ashraf,Sayyid Muhammad Salih Afandi Hanbali;[81] Yusuf son of Shaykh Sulayman Afandi Bishtawi; and the latter’s brother, Salih.[82] Also present were a number of merchants, including Sayyid Hasan Tuffaha Husayni; Shaykh Mustafa Ashur; Shaykh Mahmud Arafat son of Abd al-Razzaq Arafat; and Shaykh Abd al-Ghani Zayd Qadri. Members of the former group were soap-factory owners;[83] members of the latter were oil, soap, and textile merchants who commissioned tabkhas from the deceased.[84]

First picks went to Tuqan family. Musa Beik Tuqan purchased the right of use (khuluw) of the deceased’s soap factory. He also purchased the all-important copper vat, the qilw and the lime left in the factory, and the grand new residence that the deceased had recently built. Shortly thereafter, Shaykh Ashur bought a number of properties, including half of a very large oil-storage well (bahra, lit. lake) in an abandoned soap factory owned by the deceased, plus another, smaller, oil well. Leading members of the Bishtawi, Shammut, and Arafat families, all of which had business dealings with the deceased, also bought commercial properties, mostly shops and warehouses.[85]

The events unleashed by Sayyid Abd al-Qadir Hanbali’s death neatly anticipated future trends in the social composition of soap-factory owners. First, with the exception of the Khammashs,[86] all of the soap-factory-owning families (that we know of from the sources) that did not make an appearance in court—Akhrami, Sawwar, Shafi‘i, Bustami, and Tbeila—were to lose all or most of their shares in soap factories by 1840.[87] The first three were old ruling families with timar and za‘ama holdings dating to the late seventeenth century. The Bustamis were part of the established ulama elite, and the Tbeilas, as discussed above, were both merchants and ulama who later became artisans. In contrast, the factory owners who did show up in court—Nimr, Tuqan, Hanbali, and Bishtawi—were the only members of the old Nablus elite to retain a foothold in this exclusive club.

Second, and without exception, all of the merchant families listed in the estate as having commissioned soap from the deceased were destined to become soap-factory owners (see below for details).[88] Third, it so happens that the one person who accounted for more than half of the deceased’s total debt was Mustafa al-Ahmad, a resident of Arraba village. There are no clues as to who this person was or why he was owed the then considerable sum of 13,000 piasters, but Arraba was the home village of the Abd al-Hadi family, which came to dominate the politics of Jabal Nablus in the 1830s as well as to own and operate three soap factories.

Encapsulated within this inheritance case, therefore, were the three trends in the changing composition of soap-factory owners: the decline of the old urban elite during the first two decades of the nineteenth century; the rise of a recently urbanized elite during the next two decades; and, finally, the eventual domination by the merchant community in the 1850s and 1860s. Before we consider the next three cross-sections of the social composition of factory owners—dated 1839, 1842–1843, and 1853—the timing of and dynamics behind these three trends need to be detailed.

The turn of the nineteenth century was an important watershed. The slowly eroding material base of the old ruling sipahi families over the course of the eighteenth century was suddenly subjected to intense pressures during the reign of Musa Beik Tuqan in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Musa Beik Tuqan’s drive for political centralization was mirrored by an equally aggressive drive to dominate soap production by acquiring soap factories. To appreciate the importance of this development to the changing composition of soap-factory owners, one need only follow the paper trail in the Islamic court records, as well as note the heavy-handed exercise of power involved. For example, Muhammad son of Ali Tuqan forced a waqf exchange of the entire Shafi‘iyya soap factory from Qasim Shafi‘i for the ridiculously low sum of 150 piasters in 1801.[89] Three years earlier, in September 1798, the Tuqan family had arranged the purchase of part of the Rukabiyya soap factory by one of its followers, who then turned it over to them.[90] A few months later, in early January 1799, they consolidated their hold over the Uthmaniyya factory through a waqf exchange with a less wealthy branch of their family.[91] In February 1807 Musa Beik Tuqan gained control of the Ya‘ishiyya from the Hanbalis after the leading member of that family died indebted.[92] In mid-December 1811 the Tuqans endowed two-thirds of the Shaytaniyya as a private family waqf, the implication being that this share was newly acquired.[93] In another instance, Musa Beik Tuqan “persuaded” Muhammad son of Isma‘il Qadi-Shwayka to invalidate a previous sale of his right of use of one-quarter of the Bashawiyya soap factory to Muhammad Sa‘id Bustami in December 1815/January 1816 and to sell it to him instead.[94] Finally, in April 1817 he purchased the allegedly damaged Gharzaniyya after another waqf exchange within his own extended family.[95]

This process of concentration in the context of prolonged conflict and civil strife set the stage for fundamental changes in the social composition of soap-factory owners over the next two generations. Musa Beik Tuqan’s sudden death, coming soon after he had managed to undermine the hold of other members of the old ruling elite on Nablus’s soap factories, created a vacuum. His death also unleashed a flurry of investments that were held in reserve pending the outcome of the drawn-out political struggle. As seen in the first section, those members of the old elite who managed to hold on to some shares of soap factories during his reign—Nimr, Sawwar, Akhrami, and Hanbali—now surged forward with renewed vigor. More important, new faces emerged, both through infiltration and through accession. Muhyi al-Din Arafat’s nervous purchase of the Hallaqiyya factory from the Tuqans signaled the beginning of a sustained campaign of infiltration by merchants into the exclusive club of soap-factory owners. As to accession, the first order of business for the two subdistrict chiefs who led the fight against Musa Beik Tuqan—Ahmad Qasim Jarrar and Qasim al-Ahmad—was to acquire soap factories.[96]

These two chiefs’ accession to membership in the soap-factory-owner’s circles had more than just economic significance. Soap factories were icons of power, and the transformation of peasant-produced oil into urban-manufactured soap symbolized their own metamorphosis from subdistrict chiefs based in seat villages to mutasallims based in Nablus. Unfortunately for them, however, the Egyptian invasion of 1831 caused yet another shift in political power: that is, it precipitated another wave of accession, directly at their expense. Qasim al-Ahmad led an unsuccessful uprising against Ibrahim Pasha and lost both his soap factory and his head as a result. Ahmad Qasim Jarrar, meanwhile, plotted to assassinate Ibrahim Pasha by inviting him to see his soap factory, then throwing him into a copper vat full of boiling soap.[97] He also failed and lost his soap factory.

The plot was allegedly uncovered by Ibrahim Pasha’s right-hand man in southern Syria, the Nabulsi subdistrict chief, Husayn Abd al-Hadi, who came from the village of Arraba. Like Qasim al-Ahmad, he relocated to the city, and like all the mutasallims before him, he immediately proceeded to buy a soap factory. His first acquisition was almost literally registered in blood: he bought, for only 8,000 piasters, one-half of both the house and the soap factory of Qasim al-Ahmad on October 16, 1834, not long after the latter was executed by Ibrahim Pasha.[98]

The Abd al-Hadi’s other purchases were not so convenient: all of the prime urban properties in Nablus at that time—whether they be large residential compounds, soap factories, or shops and warehouses in the commercial districts—were already endowed as family waqfs and could not be legally sold. The only way around this obstacle was to arrange for waqf exchanges (istibdal). For this type of transaction the judge’s permission was needed, because a number of conditions had to be satisfied in order for the exchange to be valid. For example, the waqf superintendent had to prove that the property concerned was no longer revenue producing or was in a deteriorating condition due to lack of repair, lack of money, or natural disaster, among other things. He also had to show that the property he was to receive in return was equal or greater in value.

Because of their fairly sudden move into the city, the Abd al-Hadis could not wait indefinitely for the waqf superintendents of the properties they coveted to step forward and exchange these properties for cash—which was all the Abd al-Hadis had to offer in return, because they did not own any real estate in Nablus. Even if the waqf superintendents were willing to come forward, the transactions would not meet the necessary legal conditions, because most of the key commercial and residential properties were either well kept or had been renovated during the economic expansion of the 1820s. The Abd al-Hadis therefore used their power and wealth to persuade the superintendents to offer these properties, then left it to the judge and other religious scholars to supply the necessary legal cover. It was through these means, for example, that the Abd al-Hadis exchanged for cash the Sawwariyya soap factory from the Sawwar, Akhrami, and Nimr families and the very large residential complex of the Sultan family, both concluded during 1832–1833.[99]

Representing the Abd al-Hadis in court were usually members of the Jawhari and Bustami families, which had held important positions in the religious hierarchy during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The key figure, however, was the judge himself, Abd al-Wahid al-Khammash, who served longer in this position than any other judge in Nablus during the nineteenth century.[100] Early on, he formed an alliance with the Abd al-Hadis, approved all of their exchange bids, and organized a petition against the pro-Ottoman sympathies of Ahmad Agha Nimr, which led to the latter’s deportation.[101] Abd al-Wahid’s political instincts served him well: he was annually reconfirmed as judge during the entire Egyptian period, and he accumulated enough capital to become one of the few individuals at the time who could afford to build a new soap factory from scratch. Constructed sometime in the mid-1840s, the masbanant al-qadi (judge’s soap factory), as it has been called since, was still operational at the time of this writing, albeit on a much-reduced scale.[102]

Politically powerful, wealthy, and on the ascendent, the Abd al-Hadis and their allies acquired ownership of a number of soap factories during the 1830s, usually at the expense of the old elite. For example, Ahmad Agha Nimr was forced to exchange his waqf share in the Sawwariyya with Husayn Abd al-Hadi for 1,250 piasters in November 1836, at the height of the olive-harvest season.[103] The real blow for the Nimrs came thirteen months later, in January 1838, when they were forced to exchange half of the Yusufiyya, their family’s prized soap factory, which they had operated continuously for more than 250 years, with Hajj Ibrahim Muhammad Anabtawi, an ally and business partner of Husayn Abd al-Hadi, for 18,000 piasters.[104] Ironically, this waqf exchange took place exactly when the soap-making season was about to start.

The Nimrs, up to that point, had not openly protested the Egyptian occupation, despite their pro-Ottoman sympathies. Ahmad Agha had even enrolled his son in the Egyptian military.[105] Moreover, he wisely chose Sayyid Mahmud Tuffaha Husayni as a partner in the Yusufiyya soap factory. In addition to being family allies and wealthy merchants, the Tuffahas were also one of the most respected ashraf families in Nablus. Their status provided some protection for an enterprise which, only a few years earlier, had been renovated at the cost of 20,000 piasters.[106] This partnership lasted for most of the Egyptian period (1245/1829–1830 to 1253/1837–1838) but ended abruptly with the forced waqf exchange mentioned above.[107] It is not surprising, therefore, that when the end of the Egyptian occupation seemed imminent in 1840, Ahmad Agha Nimr publicly declared his loyalty to the Ottomans. Unfortunately for him, his timing was premature. He was promptly exiled to Egypt (then Sudan) just months before the final withdrawal of the Egyptian forces.[108] By the time he was allowed to return to Nablus (1841–1842), he was blind and sickly.[109]

The Nimr family did not easily forget this series of events. Abd al-Fattah Nimr, resentful over the loss of half of the Yusufiyya in 1838 and angered by the exile of his father, waited until the judge Abd al-Wahid Khammash was removed from his office in 1865, then took over the half of the Yusufiyya that his father had been forced to exchange with the Anabtawis. In a lawsuit recorded in late March of that year, Abd al-Fattah was accused by Sayyid Hasan son of Hajj Ibrahim Muhammad Anabtawi of “putting his hands” on the entire Yusufiyya factory even though half of it had been legally exchanged in 1838 and then had been endowed in 1849 as a waqf by his father, Ibrahim Anabtawi.[110] Abd al-Fattah, however, easily won the case by proving what was obvious all along: namely, that the exchange was illegal because the soap factory was operational and profitable and not without benefit, as had been claimed at the time of exchange. The exchange was invalidated, as was Hajj Anabtawi’s waqf. In return, Abd al-Fattah agreed to reimburse the 18,000 piasters to the Anabtawi family and gained full control, once again, of the Yusufiyya.

The Egyptian occupation accelerated ongoing trends and led to permanent changes in the social composition of soap-factory owners. As the second cross-section shows, the major soap-factory owners in the late 1830s were a mixed bag of old and new faces representing the various components of an emerging composite ruling elite: old ruling families, merchants, the Abd al-Hadis themselves, and their recently urbanized wealthy peasant allies.

    Leaders of the Soap-Manufacturer’s Guild
    (jama‘at al-masabiniyya), 1839

  1. Sayyid Muhammad Afandi Murtada Hanbali
  2. Sayyid Abd al-Qadir Hashim Hanbali
  3. Sayyid Mahmud Tuffaha Husayni
  4. Shaykh Abdullah Hamid Qaddumi
  5. Hajj As‘ad Shammut
  6. Hajj Isma‘il Kamal
  7. Sayyid Muhyi al-Din Arafat
  8. Shaykh Yusuf Zayd Qadri
  9. As‘ad al-Tahir Salih
  10. Yusuf son of Khawaja Ahmad Tuqan[111]

This cross-section is based on a document, drawn up on the eve of the Egyptian departure, that reported an agreement by representatives of the soap-manufacturer’s guild on a formula for payment of taxes for the fiscal year 1838–1839. It must be emphasized that this was not an exhaustive list, but rather one of representatives. The composition of the representatives was skewed in favor of the largest proprietors and/or of those who adjusted well to the political climate of the Egyptian occupation. Missing from this list, for example, was Ahmad Agha Nimr. Instead, his partner, Mahmud Tuffaha Husayni, was included, even though he did not own a soap factory at the time. In addition, the Abd al-Hadis were not mentioned as part of the guild leadership, although the whole point of the document was to exempt them from having to pay taxes on the two soap factories they owned.

Still, the key soap manufacturers are mentioned, and there is no doubt that this exclusive club was now dominated by merchants, many of whom were religious leaders as well. The first three (Hanbali, Tuffaha, Qaddumi), for example, combined a religious career with soap production. The latter activity was one they had pursued for decades. The next three (Shammut, Kamal, and Arafat) came from merchant families that also produced religious scholars. Unlike the first three, however, they were infiltrators who finally acquired factories after many years of involvement in the soap trade. The next two (Qadri and Tahir) were allies of the Abd al-Hadis, on their way to becoming two of the largest soap manufacturers in Nablus. The latter was a member of the recently urbanized rural middle class. Both became soap-factory owners after the Egyptian occupation.[112] The last person, Yusuf Tuqan, was the only representative of old ruling elite that once dominated this industry, but even he was from the merchant (khawaja), not political (beik), branch of the family.[113]

The third cross-section (Table 9) shows that, only a few years later, the ranks of the old Nablus elite had thinned further and that the newly urbanized allies of the Abd al-Hadis had reinforced their position. The number of merchants, meanwhile, remained the same, though they probably accounted for a greater share of the output.

9. Account of the Soap Cooked in Nablus’ Soap Factories and of the Amount of Taxes Assessed for Each Individual, 1842–1843
Name Tabkhas Taxes (in Piasters)
Source: Abd al-Hadi Family Papers, 1.1.4; dated 1268/1851-1852.
As‘ad al-Tahir 7 5,852
Mahmud Ya‘ish 17 14,212
Abdullah Hamid Qaddumi 8 6,688
Ibrahim Qutub 16 13,794
Yusuf Shammut 9 7.542
Ibrahim Muhammad Anabtawi 7 5,852
Hassan Tuffaha Husayni 3 2,508
Abd al-Qadir Hashim Hanbali 5 4,180
Abd al-Wahid Khammash 5.5 4,598
Yusuf Zayd Qadri 12 10.032
TOTAL 90 75,240

The aim of this document—which detailed the amount of soap cooked by proprietors of soap factories ten years earlier and the amount of taxes due from them—was to exclude the Abd al-Hadis from taxation, even though this family had expanded its ownership of soap factories even further.[114] Although the list is partial, it shows that the most important change was the expansion in the number of the recently urbanized elite allied with the Abd al-Hadis. Most of the property they acquired changed hands between 1838 and 1840—that is, just before their Egyptian backers had left. One of their new members was Hajj Ibrahim Muhammad Anabtawi, who exchanged cash for half of the Yusufiyya from Ahmad Agha Nimr in January 1838.[115] Meanwhile, As‘ad al-Tahir, who was married to the daughter of Hajj Ibrahim Anabtawi, began a seventeen-year-long piecemeal purchase and renovation of the Rukabiyya soap factory in the fall of 1839.[116] At the same time, he purchased part of the Uthmaniyya factory from the Tuqan family (mid-September 1839).[117] Yet another close ally and business partner, Shaykh Yusuf Zayd Qadri, bought the Hallaqiyya factory from Muhyi al-Din Arafat in January 7, 1840, then sold half of it to Husayn Abd al-Hadi’s son, Mahmud, in late June 1841.[118]

Of the remaining three new members, one was Abd al-Wahid Khammash, the Nablus judge and an ally of the Abd al-Hadis, who built his own soap factory sometime between 1839 and 1842.[119] The other two were merchants. Mahmud Ya‘ish was a member of an old merchant family that has maintained its strong position since at least the eighteenth century. Nothing is known about Ibrahim Qutub, the last new member, except that he was part of the Qutub family in Jerusalem and that a relative of his, Ahmad Qutub, served as the judge of Nablus in the early 1860s.[120] The last two individuals most likely entered this exclusive club largely on the basis of their wealth, which must have been considerable, because their factories accounted for over 36 percent of the total taxable production of soap outlined in Table 9.

If the 1830s and early 1840s were the best years for the Abd al-Hadis and their allies, it was wealthy merchant families that made the greatest inroads into the ranks of soap manufacturers during the rest of the century. As a rule, all of the new soap-factory owners were already oil merchants who had commissioned soap from the old political and religious elite of Nablus. They included, for example, the descendants of the soap merchants mentioned above who commissioned soap from Sayyid Abd al-Qadir Hanbali (Ashur, Shammut, and Arafat). The same held true for those merchants listed in Table 8, who commissioned soap from the Bishtawi brothers in 1857 (Tamimi, Sadder, Nabulsi, Masri, and Qumhiyya).

To these families we can add names from a list of the major soap merchants of Nablus in 1853 who signed a petition protesting the imposition of new export taxes on soap:

    Soap Merchants (tujjar al-sabun) of Nablus, circa 1853

  1. Khalil Qamhawi
  2. As‘ad Khayyat
  3. Isma‘il Ati
  4. Abdullah Kan‘an
  5. Abd al-Rahman Nabulsi
  6. Ibrahim Qutub
  7. As‘ad Bishtawi
  8. Mahmud Ya‘ish
  9. Muhammad Ashur
  10. Yusuf Zayd Qadri
  11. Abd al-Qadir Hashim Hanbali.[121]
All of these merchants who did not already own soap factories at that time would do so within a few decades. The most important of them (Nabulsi, Khayyat, Ashur, and Kan‘an[122]) had become owners by the early 1860s.

Symbolic of this trend was the Bishtawi brothers’ transformation of their shops and warehouses in the Wikala al-Asaliyya into a new soap factory.[123] Their decision illustrated the ongoing shift in the investment of merchant capital from some manufacturing and trading activities, such as in textiles, into soap. The highly centralized family firm of the Bishtawis was also symbolic of the process of concentration that was taking place in the soap industry. By the early twentieth century 75 percent of Nablus’s entire soap production was controlled by just ten families, even though 29 factories were in operation.[124] The most important was the Nabulsi family, which came to own three of the largest factories. They alone accounted for more than 40 percent of the city’s entire soap production during World War I.[125]

Some of these soap-factory owners were very wealthy. Tamimi and Bahjat estimated the average worth of a rich soap manufacturer during the early twentieth century to be about 10–15 million piasters.[126] Not surprisingly, the same individuals were also the major moneylenders, landowners, and merchants of Jabal Nablus. Moreover, they dominated the political positions in the city, especially the Municipal Council (formerly the Advisory Council). In short, these merchant families replaced the old elite of Nablus as the repositories of power, wealth, and social status.

On the surface, these three criteria for membership in the exclusive club of soap-factory owners had remained the same. In reality, the meanings of these criteria had changed along with the changing social composition of the membership. Wealth was now far more important than the other two criteria, and power no longer rested on military capability or domination of the top religious positions in the city. Indeed, the entire political atmosphere had been transformed: the rise of the merchant community and the imposition of direct Ottoman control combined to redefine the parameters of the discourse between local and central forces.

The changing social composition of soap-factory owners, therefore, reflects more than just the emergence of the merchant community into a position of leadership. The more fundamental change was the crystallization of a new elite, composed of a coalition of previously disparate elements: old ruling families and religious functionaries, tax-farmers, leading merchants, and the newly urbanized rural elite. These discrete elements maintained their social and cultural identities for a long time, in the sense that intermarriage between some of them was rare. Nevertheless, they developed common economic interests: all now were manufacturers, traders, landowners, and moneylenders.

The crystallization of this elite in the mid-nineteenth century was most evident in the united stand these groups took when it came to relations with the peasantry and with the Ottoman government, the two major sources of pressure from below and from above. On the one hand, it was imperative that they maintain their access to and control of the rural surplus in the face of increased peasant resistance. On the other hand, they wished to take advantage of the state’s protection and the opportunities offered by Ottoman reforms. At the same time, they greatly resented the central government’s efforts to undermine some of their political and economic privileges, and they were incensed by the arrival of non-Nabulsi government representatives eager to interfere in their daily business affairs.

It was these sets of circumstances that made the mid-nineteenth century a watershed period in the politics of notables of Jabal Nablus. Because soap manufacturers were the richest and most powerful members of the Nablus social elite and because the entire membership of the Advisory Council at midcentury—except for Dawud Tannus, representing the Christian community, and Salama al-Kahin, representing the Samaritan community—was composed of soap-factory owners, there is no better window on the material basis of the politics of notables and their relationship to the Ottoman state than the points of conflicts between them over issues related to soap production and trade.[127]

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