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The Meanings of Autonomy
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The Hinterland of Nablus

Palestine’s small size, remarkably diverse geographical terrain, and dependence on rain-fed agriculture precluded large-scale farming and the development of a monocrop economy. Peasants, approximately 80 percent of the total population, developed varied sources of income by learning how to utilize every topographical feature. Fields were sown with grains, legumes, and vegetables; hills were terraced and planted with trees; and higher-up stony lands were used for grazing. Until the last decades of Ottoman rule, most peasants were small landholders concentrated in the interior hill regions where horticulture, especially the tending of olive groves, was a way of life.

The peasants of the hill regions lived in close-knit village communities that varied in size from a few dozen to a few hundred inhabitants. Most had an average of two to four constituent clans and some large extended families. The basis of collective solidarity was the organization of peasant society into clans (hamulas): patrilineal descent groups related by the fifth degree from a common ancestor. The clan system provided a safety net which supported individual families at times of difficulty, and it was well suited to the vagaries of rain-fed agriculture and the poor soil of hill regions. Clans were also responsible for defending their members in times of trouble, negotiating settlements or taking revenge for bodily harm. These duties were organized and directed mostly by the clan elders. They settled internal disputes according to commonly accepted legal and cultural norms embodied in a deeply rooted system of unwritten customary practices, known as urf, which spelled out rights and responsibilities and elucidated the mechanisms for conflict resolution, compensation, and punishment.[43]

This set of norms differed significantly from the application of Islamic law (shari‘a) that was prevalent in the urban centers and reflected the “tribalization” of peasant society, in that urf drew a great deal on concepts originally articulated in bedouin communities. In this respect, therefore, peasant society had its own internal cultural and legal autonomy. Consequently, and as detailed in Chapter 5, before the mid-nineteenth century peasants rarely went to the urban-based Islamic court to settle disputes, form partnerships, buy property, contract loans, or conduct a host of matters relating to personal status, such as marriage, divorce, or inheritance.[44]

This relative autonomy even extended to criminal matters as late as the mid-nineteenth century. In a revealing letter to the governor of Sidon province dated February 18, 1853, the Nablus council members cited peasant urf traditions and what they called “stupid customs” to explain why some suspects from Jamma‘in village could not be released from prison despite a lack of proof of their guilt. Briefly, the council members emphasized that the obstacle to the extension of the state’s legal codes to individual peasants was that they were not simply individuals but members of clans that insisted on overall collective rights. Until the real culprits could be identified, they argued, the release of the suspects would only inflame the situation and cause problems on an even wider scale.[45]

Clans varied in size and power. The number of adult males in each clan, the internal cohesion in their ranks, the size of the lands they controlled, and the efficacy of their political alliances determined their overall power and prestige. Because each village was usually home for the same clans for generations, Palestinian peasants—like their counterparts in Syria, Lebanon, and communities all over the rim of the Mediterranean Basin—developed a strong sense of local identification, which still survives.[46] Communal belonging and solidarity were expressed in a variety of cultural, social, and economic ways. For example, the peasants of each village usually paid their taxes and even contracted their loans on a collective basis (see Chapter 4). It was also common practice to build new homes collectively and to render mutual assistance during the harvest season.

Wedding rituals included all of these elements of village solidarity. It was not unusual for the elders of a village’s various clans to be consulted prior to a village member’s marriage to an outsider (meaning someone from another village). Once their blessing was obtained, the village elders could receive gifts, and they, in turn, were expected to mobilize their constituents to participate fully in the preparations. Some wedding practices combined local identification with the patriarchal character of clan organization in strikingly revealing ways. Certain villages in the Galilee, for example, had a heavy rock which was set aside for the purpose of competition prior to marriage ceremonies. For an outsider to be allowed to marry one of the village women, the strongest man in the groom-to-be’s village had to be able to lift the host village’s “marriage rock”—assuming that the host village had someone who could lift this rock also.[47] This ritual carried within it a gendered symbolism of power relations between villages and clans: the bride’s village agreed to submit—or, more accurately, to lose one of its women because the wife relocated to the husband’s home—on the condition that the groom’s village passed a test of virility (physical strength).

This is not to say that each village constituted an autonomous and self-sufficient community. Villages were knit together into a variety of economic, political, social, and cultural networks (see Chapter 2).[48] The larger and more powerful clans, for example, had branches in a number of villages, and many clans were connected to each other through marriage, political alliance, and patronage networks. Many villages specialized in particular varieties of sought-after crops and artisanal products, such as watermelon, pottery, or baskets. Urban merchants, meanwhile, carved geographical spheres of influence in the hinterland through social connections that were passed from father to son. Religious Sufi orders, such as the Qadriyya order, also had branches in some of the larger villages. Furthermore, each village was part of a larger cluster of neighboring villages, and several of these constituted a subdistrict (nahiya). Each subdistrict had one or more central villages, larger in population size as well as landholdings—which functioned as political, economic, and social hubs of smaller villages. These central villages were often the administrative headquarters (seat or kursi) for the dominant clan of each subdistrict.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the social space of Jabal Nablus encompassed close to 300 villages, whose economic, social and, to a lesser extent, political life was more closely tied to the city of Nablus than to other urban centers. These villages filled a space stretching along the coastal plains from Haifa and Jaffa in the west to the Ajlun and Balqa regions beyond the River Jordan in the east and from the Galilee in the north to the hills of Ramallah and al-Bireh in the south (see Map 2).[49] The peasants of these villages farmed some of the richest agricultural lands in Palestine.

Not all of Jabal Nablus is equally well endowed, however. Rather, one can speak of three discrete zones: the western slopes, the central highlands, and the eastern slopes. The eastern slopes descend rapidly to below sea level, have precipitous crags, very narrow valleys, and little topsoil, and catch less of the rain that blows in from the Mediterranean Sea. Still, this zone receives adequate rain for the cultivation of wheat and barley, and it enjoys the advantage of a hotter climate and lower altitude, which allow agricultural crops to mature approximately a month earlier than they do in the rest of the region. In addition, Palestinian peasants and urban entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the steeply sloped eastern hills by channeling the rushing streams to power grain mills and to irrigate large parcels of land in valleys of Wadi al-Badhan and Wadi al-Far‘a.[50] Beginning in the 1820s, this region witnessed large investments by merchants and leading families who were eager to acquire mills and lands in order to meet the increased demand for grain.[51]

The eastern slopes contained the smallest number of villages because the terrain, on the whole, lent itself more to the raising of livestock than to cultivation. As a transitional zone between nomadic and settled life, its inhabitants, both villagers and bedouins, led a hybrid existence: many bedouins engaged in seasonal agriculture, and many peasants left their homes for long periods of time as they led their livestock through the surrounding grazing lands. For example, most of the men in the northeastern village of Tammun, one of the largest villages in the subdistrict of Mashariq al-Jarrar, moved around the grazing lands in the Ghur (Jordan Valley), while the women made cheese, clarified butter, woolen rugs, tents, ropes, and cloth bags.[52] That their primary source of income was livestock, not agriculture, was indicated in a petition addressed to the Nablus Advisory Council, in which they asked for relief from the collection of clarified butter (samn) as taxes-in-kind.[53]

The most fertile lands in Jabal Nablus tend to be concentrated in the western slopes. This zone receives much of the rainfall coming in from the Mediterranean because the clouds are trapped by the hills that divide the coast from the desert. The low angle of gradations makes for a thicker and less stony topsoil, especially where the hills give way to large fertile plains. Well suited for the planting of grain, legumes, cotton, fruits and vegetables—the best of these plains are concentrated in what is known today as the Jenin–Tulkarem–Qalqilya triangle. Consequently, this zone contained some of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus.

The best lands in this triangle are the hinterland of the town of Jenin (including the Marj Ibn Amir plain); the plain of Arraba; and the area southwest of the latter where the villages of Dayr al-Ghusun, Attil, Quffin, Shwayka, Bal‘a, and Anabta are located. Marj Ibn Amir, the most fertile plain in all of Palestine, was famous for its plentiful grain harvests as well as for the quality of its tobacco, watermelons, and cotton. This wide plain also had a strategic importance: it constituted the broadest expanse connecting the coast with the interior, and astride it ran one of the main trade routes to Damascus. On its soil numerous famous battles were fought from the time of the pharaohs to World War I, including the battle of Hitten (1187), during which Salah al-Din dealt a decisive blow to the Crusader armies. In the eighteenth century this plain became a bone of contention between the rulers of Jabal Nablus and Zahir al-Umar, the strong man of the Galilee; and in the nineteenth century its wide stretches of land not only produced large amounts of grains for the world market but also became concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners.[54]

The market town of Jenin, which guards the entrance to this large plain, was and remains one whose economy is predominantly agricultural. The storehouses for taxes collected in kind, for example, were located both in Nablus and in Jenin.[55] It is no coincidence that the Jarrar clan, long the most powerful of the subdistrict chiefs, was based in this area. The smaller Arraba plain (11 kilometers long and 4 kilometers wide) contained some of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus, including Arraba, Qabatya, and Ya‘bad. Parts of this area were forests, which were ideal for livestock and were an important source of charcoal. The most prized cheese in Jabal Nablus, for example, came from the village of Ya‘bad. The village of Arraba, it is worth noting, was home to the most important leading family in Jabal Nablus to emerge during the nineteenth century: the Abd al-Hadis.

Closer to the coast, the seasonally alternating humid and hot weather allowed intensive cotton cultivation. The commercial production of this commodity helped pave the way for the eventual integration of Palestine into the capitalist world economy. Jabal Nablus played a leading role in this trade: its cotton was considered the best in Greater Syria, and it was this region’s largest producer. The amount of production far exceeded local demand, and most of the cotton was exported to France, Egypt, or Damascus (see Chapter 3). Consequently, this zone was the first to experience the socioeconomic changes associated with the intensification of commercial agriculture: peasant differentiation, commoditization of land, and expansion of moneylending practices, among other things (see Chapter 4).

Even though the coastal plains had greater agricultural potential than did the hill areas, most peasants were partial to life in the highland villages. The coastal areas were more vulnerable to attack and within easy reach of the government tax collector. They were also exposed to malaria and other diseases: much of the water that streamed from the hills failed to reach the sea, forming swamps instead. The hill villages, in contrast, provided protection from both political and physical dangers: the mountain air was healthier, and the rugged hills formed a natural barrier because the complexity of the folds allowed easy escape from and attack on conventional military forces. This zone included the largest number of villages and exhibited the steadiest level of population density in Palestine over the centuries, and its rough terrain and entrenched peasantry made it the backbone of Nablus’s autonomy.

The central zone was also home to the oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Due to population growth and increased pressure on the land, especially during the nineteenth century, it was quite common for “mother” villages in the hills to spawn “daughter” villages in the plains.[56] Peasants built temporary structures on the farthest lands under their control so that they would not have to travel back to the village during the harvest season. Called khirba (ruins), they were often mistaken by western travelers as remnants of once prosperous villages and cited as examples of agricultural decline in Palestine. In fact, the opposite was true, for many of these satellite settlements or offshoots became permanent villages in the nineteenth century.[57]

Interspersed among the hill villages were many small but fertile valleys, in which a variety of rain-fed crops, especially wheat, was grown.[58] Horticulture, however, was the most important agricultural pursuit in terms of time, effort, and income. The limited agricultural potential of the hill areas was conserved through the centuries by terracing, whichprotected the thin topsoil from erosion. Terracing is a strenuous, time-consuming task because the walls, made out of loosely stacked stones, have to be repaired annually after the winter rains. Even now the prosperity of a village is most easily judged by how well its terraces are maintained.

Most of the terraced hills were and still are covered with a variety of fruit-bearing trees and vines, mainly olives. Olive trees are especially well suited to the Mediterranean climate and, more important, to the high limestone base that is inhospitable to a wide variety of plant life. This is why olive trees and vines dominate the hill areas along most of the Mediterranean Basin from Spain, Italy, and Greece to the Syrian highlands and to parts of North Africa.[59] In the words of Fernand Braudel, “Everywhere [in the Mediterranean rim] can be found the same eternal trinity: wheat, olives, and vines, born of the climate and history; in other words an identical agricultural civilization, identical ways of dominating the environment” (see Plate 4).[60]

Nowhere in Palestine was the centrality of the olive tree more in evidence than in Jabal Nablus. Since ancient times this area has produced the largest olive-oil harvests in Palestine, a significant proportion of which, as in North Africa, was exported both regionally and internationally (see Chapter 4).[61] This tree’s central importance was evident in the manyways it was used. Its wood became fuel and was carved into small implements and decorative items. Its fruit was cracked, pickled, and eaten or pressed for oil. The oil remains a staple item in Palestinian cuisine. Olive oil was also used to make soap at home and in large factories and as fuel for lamps. In addition, olive oil has a variety of special purposes suchas medicinal ointments. The dried, crushed pits of pressed olives (jift), when burned, proved ideal as a long-lasting source of heat. Large amounts of jift were consumed every winter as fuel for braziers, and it was used throughout the year as fuel for cooking the large vats of soap in factories.

Olive oil was literally liquid capital, and it often served in lieu of money. Because it could easily be stored for at least one year, it was “deposited” in oil wells dug deep into the ground, both in the city and in many of the villages. Peasants, merchants, and others could then “draw” on these accounts or take money instead. Its status as a marker of wealth is the subtext of stories about how rich rural shaykhs supposedly used olive oil instead of water to mix the mortar which held together the stones of their fortresslike residential compounds.[62]

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