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The Discourses of Modernity

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a new ruling elite and a new type of notable emerged in Jabal Nablus, as did a new political discourse. This elite was composed of the beneficiaries of the changing political economy of Jabal Nablus: those who had access to capital and who were willing to invest, primarily through moneylending, in the production, trade, and processing of agricultural commodities for regional and international markets. Merchants were in the best position to take advantage of the new opportunities, as were those families and individuals of the old political and religious elite who were willing to subordinate their pride and devote most of their energies to playing an aggressive role in business matters. Over time, the boundaries separating these formerly disparate groups collapsed as survivors within each, despite political differences and varying perceptions of their identity, came to share a material base characterized by a diverse portfolio: moneylending, land ownership, urban real estate, trade, and soap manufacturing.

The Nablus Advisory Council became the forum of this new composite elite of urban notables. These notables used the council to bargain with the Ottoman government over the boundaries of political authority and tried to promote their own interpretations of the meanings of citizenship, identity, custom, and tradition. The central government had little choice but to cooperate. It could not even replace the tax-farmers with a salaried expatriate bureaucratic cadre of its own, much less abolish the tax-farms as the reforms publicly intended to do. As late as the mid-nineteenth century, the only resident non-Nabulsi official with any authority was the head of customs. Newly appointed along with an assistant, his correspondence was full of bitter complaints against the council, which, in his opinion, worked diligently to undermine his authority.

The central government’s attempt to play a much more direct and intrusive role in the affairs of Jabal Nablus through a local council that it did not fully control was bound to falter frequently. To complicate matters further, this new political discourse was conducted in the context of the fluid and transitional political atmosphere of the Tanzimat era, not to mention the dislocations caused by the Egyptian occupation. Thus the emergence of a new configuration of political reference points took place one crisis at a time: that is, through the accumulation of dozens of separate negotiated deals concerning specific issues, the outcomes of which spilled over into an ever-widening political and cultural space.

Most of these specific issues revolved around the struggle over access to and control of the rural surplus and its disposition and, consequently, over knowledge about the political economy of Jabal Nablus. Patiently and with remarkable persistence, the Ottoman government tried to gather information about a range of matters, from population figures to the bidding procedures for commodities collected as taxes-in-kind. Just as patiently and with great stubbornness, the Advisory Council members spoon-fed their insatiable superiors a constructed reality and often invoked a whole range of alleged traditions and customary practices (whether real or invented), which they insisted had to be respected. In each bargaining session, their responses to requests and admonitions from the central authorities were designed to facilitate their own objectives and, at the same time, to secure the state’s recognition of their legitimacy.

The Nablus Advisory Council records provide many fascinating accounts of these encounters and of the tense and complicated give-and-take that ensued: the disputes over the composition of the council’s membership, the monitoring of the movement of zakhayir (taxes collected in kind) into and out of storehouses, the bidding procedures for these taxes, the methods of storing olive oil, and the implementation of new customs regulations affecting the production and export of soap. In all of these disputes, two primary contradictions stood out. The first, faced by the central authorities, concerned the double role of new bureaucratic institutions such as the Advisory Council. On the one hand, these institutions were formed in order to implement the state’s reform policies, especially those concerning tax collection and conscription. On the other hand, they were manned by the very social elements that stood to lose from an uncensored implementation of these policies. Instead of faithfully carrying out government instructions, these local elements used their official positions to resist, alter, and only selectively execute those measures that best suited their own interests.

For example, the council admitted into its ranks certain individuals who were specifically excluded by the state and excluded others who were supposed to hold a position. In one instance they not only included the naqib al-ashraf despite repeated warnings to the contrary, they also made him head of the council.[7] They also tried to reduce the number of people registered as inhabitants of Jabal Nablus, even though they, along with the shaykhs of the city’s quarters and the subdistrict chiefs, put their signatures on the document containing the results of the population count immediately upon its completion.[8] The council members also politely but vigorously challenged the central government’s efforts to free the bidding process on taxes collected in kind by sabotaging bids made by outsiders and, in one case, by refusing to sell olive oil to merchants not from their city. Most important, they waged a protracted tax strike, involving hundreds of thousands of piasters, that lasted for more than two years.

The second contradiction was faced by the council members. On the one hand, they needed the political legitimacy, administrative power, and control over the local militia, all of which were offered by the state, in order to protect their privileges and to enforce the expropriation of the rural surplus from a disgruntled peasantry. On the other hand, they could not prevent the state from using its leverage to make inroads on their share of the rural surplus or to stop it from slowly chipping away at their long-standing tradition of self-rule. The unequal relationship was illustrated by the fact that they were forced, albeit after long delays, to submit to the central government’s selection procedures for membership in the council and to pay most of the taxes on soap exports that they had withheld.

Caught between the two were the peasants of Jabal Nablus. Disarmed, conscripted, indebted, and largely abandoned by their long-time subdistrict chiefs, peasants tried to capitalize on the ambiguous political boundaries and contradictions between the central government and the local elite. Through violent resistance and petitions, they tried to drag the state into arbitrating their disputes with the subdistrict chiefs and the notables of Jabal Nablus. Both of the petitions discussed in Chapter 4 called on the state to live up to two publicly held principles that, in their eyes, legitimated the state’s right to tax its subjects: protection of the peasant base of production and accountability of all citizens before the law. Both principles posed a challenge to the exploitative practices of the local ruling elite, and both put limits on this elite’s room for maneuvering.

In so doing, the peasants were signaling their openness to the possibility of transforming their loyalties or, more accurately, of extending their self-definition to include not only their village, clan, and district but also the state, in the sense of becoming citizens, not simply subjects. The Ottoman government constantly vacillated in its response to this open invitation, caught, as it were, between the need to centralize its control by coopting local notables and the need to maintain its political legitimacy in the eyes of the peasants. Judging from its actions in Jabal Nablus up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman government, when forced to choose sides, usually backed the urban notables, albeit with occasional admonishments and slaps on the wrist. Nevertheless, the peasants often succeeded in effectively dragging in the state. From this perspective, one can see how the processes of Ottoman centralization and political recategorization of the population could be driven from below as much as from above.

Peasants, in short, were not simply the goose that laid the golden egg—that is, passive objects of competition for access and control between local merchant communities, ruling families, the Ottoman government, and foreign businessmen. Rather, they were an internally differentiated community whose members were fully capable of adjusting to new circumstances. The accelerated commercialization of agriculture, the further spread of a money economy, and the decline of the power of rural chiefs created numerous opportunities, not just difficulties. Speculation in rural production and trade in agricultural commodities, for example, were activities in which almost anyone with capital, no matter how small, engaged in because they offered the most promising avenues for upward mobility. The nineteenth century, in particular, witnessed the growing influence of a middle peasantry that occupied a crucial mediating position between urban merchants and the mass of poorer peasants. By reproducing urban business, legal, and social practices at the village level, they amassed lands, constructed their own moneylending and trade networks, and eventually established shops and residences in the city. Their movement in increasing numbers to Nablus and other urban centers, especially those along the coast, can be considered one of the central social and cultural dynamics of the modern period. Indeed, if the role of this group in Egypt and Syria during the same period is any indication, their story needs to be told in detail if we are to have a clear understanding of the history of Palestine during the late Ottoman and Mandate periods.

Writing the middle peasantry into history is only one of a myriad of research projects needed to excavate the wide-open field of the social, cultural, and economic history of Ottoman Palestine. The period from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries remains largely unexcavated, even though it was during this time that the institutional and cultural practices of Ottoman rule became rooted, with all the consequences that entailed for the next two centuries. Similarly, Hebron, Nazareth, Gaza, and their hinterlands, to mention but a few places, still await systematic study for almost the entire Ottoman period, as do artisans, ulama, women, bedouin, and other social groups.

Detailed knowledge about these places and groups can have significant implications for our conceptualization of the dynamics of Palestinian society during the British Mandate, as well for understanding the context in which the Zionist movement laid the foundations for a future state. For example, one could argue that the pattern of Jewish settlements and land purchases was determined largely by ongoing political, demographic, and economic changes, such as the process of commoditization of land, which began prior to the 1858 land code. By the same token, the pronounced social dimensions of the 1936–1939 revolt against British rule revolved around the issues of debt, loss of land, vulnerability to the machinations of urban elites, and internal power struggles, all of which also had their origins in the Ottoman period. Similarly, if we were to draw a line around the areas where the small landholding peasantry was rooted and where population settlements were the most stable historically, we would get the Galilee and what is known today as the West Bank. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Galilee remains the heartland of the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel, nor was it simply a coincidence of war that the West Bank has become the geographical center of a future Palestinian state.

Similar arguments could be made on the political and cultural levels. A cursory look at the surnames of leading members of the Palestinian national movement, as well as at those of the Palestinian members of Jordanian cabinets over the past two generations, shows that a preponderant number belong to families that constituted the core of the new composite elite which emerged during the nineteenth century. Their political discourse, from speeches to actions, has been encoded by the experiences they and their ancestors had under Ottoman rule. Finally, until we can chart the economic, social, and cultural relations between the inhabitants of the various regions of Palestine during the Ottoman period, we cannot have a clear understanding of the politics of identity, nor can we confidently answer the questions of when, how, why, and in what ways Palestine became a nation in the minds of the people who call themselves Palestinians today.

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