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The Labyrinthine Journey

During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries the social space of Jabal Nablus grew geographically, demographically, and economically. In fits and starts its merchants and artisans benefited from the opportunities created by the imposition of Ottoman rule in terms of expanded regional trade and from the government’s consistent efforts to safeguard and finance the annual pilgrimage caravans from Damascus to the Hijaz. The local political and religious leadership that emerged in the late seventeenth century proved to be stable, strong, and durable: Jabal Nablus was not caught in an unbreakable cycle of violent internal conflict, it shook off all attempts by the rulers of Acre and other regional powers to dominate it, and many of the leading political and religious families continued to exercise a significant degree of influence until virtually the end of the Ottoman period.

Over the course of the eighteenth century Nablus emerged as the trading and manufacturing center of Palestine, and its hinterland became the largest producer in all of Greater Syria of the single most important commodity exported to Europe: cotton. The expansion of commercial agriculture empowered Nablus’s already strong merchant community by providing ample opportunities for investment in the production, trade, and processing of agricultural commodities. Neither the decentralized political structure in Jabal Nablus nor the weakness of the Ottoman government during this period proved to be serious obstacles to the accumulation of capital. On the contrary, merchants adapted to these circumstances by constructing resilient, flexible, and culturally rooted trade networks, which they successfully used to control the movement of commodities and to undermine the attempts by the rulers of Acre to monopolize the trade in cotton. These networks, for example, made Nablus the center of cotton processing and trade in Palestine, even though many of the cotton-producing villages were located closer to the port cities.

It was this set of circumstances that allowed Nablus to play a leading role in the capitalist transformation of Palestine during the eighteenth century and that set the stage for the accelerated pace of centralization during the nineteenth century. The spread of a money economy, greater urban control of peasant production, and the growing influence of a middle peasantry all eroded the material underpinnings of the vertical patronage networks that provided the hinterland with a critical degree of autonomy from the city for generations. Merchant networks, in other words, seriously undermined the power of subdistrict chiefs in the hinterland long before these chiefs were dealt severe political blows by the Egyptian invasion and the implementation of Ottoman reforms. By the mid-nineteenth century, both individual peasants and entire villages were inextricably enmeshed in commercial networks emanating both from the city and from the large central villages: moneylending became far more pervasive, taxes were more efficiently collected, and debt contracts were more strictly enforced. Well-to-do peasants began to enter into business partnerships with long-time ruling clans and learned how to take advantage of the latter’s social and political connections for the purposes of speculation and investment. Eventually, the reproduction of urban business practices and legal norms on the village level fully exposed most peasants to the volatility of market forces, exacerbated social tensions within and between villages, increased disparities in landholdings, and undermined traditional loyalties.

These social and economic developments both precipitated and were driven by escalating political upheaval, as symbolized by the power struggles over the post of mutasallim. The Tuqan family’s bid for control of the subdistrict of Bani Sa‘ab in the 1760s marked the opening round of a process of political centralization in much the same pattern as seen elsewhere in the Ottoman domains. The pace of socioeconomic change, however, was slow and uneven enough to preclude resolution of these power struggles. This can be seen by contrasting the political economy of silk in Mount Lebanon with that of cotton in Jabal Nablus. In the former, silk production for French merchants transformed the mountain villages of the interior, because that was where mulberry trees flourished. In contrast, cotton production in the latter, also for French merchants, skirted the core concentration of highland villages, which remained olive based. This is one reason why Amir Bashir succeeded in subordinating the other ruling families of Mount Lebanon, whereas Musa Beik Tuqan, after two decades of aggressive and bloody maneuvers, failed to militarily overcome the subdistrict chiefs in Jabal Nablus.

The political vacuum created by the sudden demise of Musa Beik Tuqan in 1823 only quickened the process of urban domination of the hinterland as the merchant community, the only cohesive internal force, again took advantage of the stalemated political situation. The capital that accumulated during the prosperous eighteenth century (but that had been held in reserve during the upheavals of the preceding two decades) was now released. The 1820s, in effect, signaled the beginning of a vigorous investment campaign in agricultural production, urban real estate, regional trade, and, most important, the soap industry. The Egyptian occupation energized these trends. The primacy of the city, for example, was assured after Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian military commander, crushed the 1834 rebellion led largely by the subdistrict chiefs of Jabal Nablus. His economic and administrative policies—central control, encouragement of commercial agriculture, and establishment of advisory councils, to name but a few—also opened additional vistas for leading members of the merchant community and helped thrust them into positions of political authority.

The importance of local investment strategies in precipitating changes in the political economy of Jabal Nablus during the nineteenth century can be seen by contrasting the careers of two commodities: textiles and soap. Both had long been central to the urban economy of Nablus; both relied on home-grown cash crops (cotton and olive oil); and both were integrated into the same circuits of local and regional trade, with Cairo and Damascus as the nodal points. Yet by the early nineteenth century the textile sector had begun to stagnate, while the soap-manufacturing industry underwent a rapid and steady expansion. Why did the careers of these two commodities bifurcate?

The easy answer is that textiles had to compete with European machine-made goods, whereas soap did not. But European competition with locally manufactured textiles was not of great significance until the mid-nineteenth century, because the textile industry in Nablus was specialized in low- to medium-grade goods designed for the mass market. Also, European competition was offset by the availability of both raw materials and plentiful labor at low cost. In addition, the local market was difficult to penetrate: textile-merchant families had built, over generations, a resilient network of social and economic relations with villagers, making it very difficult for outside merchants to compete. In short, the textile sector in Nablus was strongest in precisely those areas in which the European competitors were weakest.

At the same time, however, the historical dependence on and popularity of Egyptian and Damascene textiles, as well as the increased importation of machine-made textiles from overseas, put limits on the expansion of local manufacturing, making it a poor choice for large capital investments. The textile trade also represented a piecemeal pattern of capital accumulation that was becoming less popular: capital was dispersed in countless small loans to peasants who purchased their clothes on credit and who, all too often, did not or could not pay their bills.

But the above arguments only tell half the story. They cannot explain the growth of the soap industry. One must, therefore, search for additional answers, and these can be found in the dynamics of capitalist transformation as defined by the Nabulsi merchants themselves. The merchants’ focus on soap was partly due, first, to the fact that the commercialization of agriculture and the growing pervasiveness of moneylending had paved the way for greater merchant access to the surplus of the olive-based villages in the central highlands and, second, to their growing political power, which helped them acquire the means of production, soap factories, from the old ruling families.

The soap industry was tailor-made for the new circumstances: it was capital intensive and rewarded the concentration of wealth; it efficiently exploited the number one cash commodity of Jabal Nablus, olive oil; it consistently turned high profits and enjoyed a secure and expanding market share; it encouraged the accumulation of agricultural lands, especially olive groves; and its factories were akin to banks that anchored large moneylending networks. In addition, it endowed the owner with great prestige, for soap factories had long been symbols of power, wealth, and social status. In short, soap production combined manufacturing with the more popular strategies of capital accumulation in the Ottoman domains at that time: moneylending, landownership, urban real estate, and trade.

Unless investigated from below, the transformations in the political economy of Jabal Nablus would not be readily apparent. If one were to gaze at Nablus through the eyes of Western observers or the central Ottoman authorities, the most striking image, judging from their writings and reports, would be that of a city frozen in time, or at the very least of a population that stubbornly resisted any changes in its modes of economic, social, or cultural organization. Nor would this image be necessarily contradicted by the inhabitants themselves. Even today most Nabulsis, like their counterparts in other socially conservative regions of the interior, take great pride in clinging to customs and practices that reinforce their sense of local identification. But, as we have seen in any number of cases discussed in previous chapters, the meanings of tradition were being constantly redefined, and the apparent continuity masked very important transformations in the material foundations of daily life.

For example, the methods and technologies used in the production of soap have remained the same for centuries, albeit with minor changes such as the substitution of industrially produced caustic soda for qilw. Yet a process of capital accumulation during the nineteenth century changed the financial organization of soap production from one characterized by multiple partnerships and a division of labor between oil merchants and soap-factory owners to one characterized by concentration and vertical integration. Since World War II, one might also add, the olive oil used in soap production no longer comes from Palestinian villages: it is imported, mostly from Spain. This last fact alone has fundamentally changed the relationship between soap-factory owners and the peasants of Jabal Nablus. Similarly, the meanings of power and status were redefined along with the transformation in the social composition of soap-factory owners from old ruling political families to rich merchants.

Another example is the partial transformation of the salam moneylending contract from a time-honored mechanism for guaranteeing future supplies of raw materials to urban manufacturers and traders into one also used for the local organization of agricultural production for overseas exports. Similarly, regional textile-trade networks were reproduced, seemingly unchanged, for generations. Yet Nabulsi merchants shifted from being direct managers who pooled capital and opened offices abroad to middlemen for powerful trade houses in Beirut and Damascus, which used them as agents for infiltrating the interior. Finally, we have the example of the urban ruling families themselves. The Nimrs, for instance, played a leading role for most of the Ottoman period. But the defining core of their material base metamorphosed from timar land grants to tax-farms and, by the 1830s, to trade and urban real estate.

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