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Keys to the City

The manner in which local trade networks were constructed and reproduced assumed a set of mutual obligations that allowed both peasants and merchants to create space for themselves in the other’s territory. Just as textile merchants used these networks to establish a foothold in the hinterland, peasants used merchants as their key to the city and its resources. A merchant’s place of business was the headquarters for peasant clients who needed to store their surplus, purchase goods, send communications, receive credit, make connections with political figures, obtain legal council in the Islamic court, and so on.

Thus, even though poor peasants who bought on credit found themselves, more often than not, trapped by debts and enmeshed in patronage networks, they could still make a merchant’s life very difficult by finding ways not to pay. Moreover, they were capable of taking their business to another merchant. An element of mutual trust and dependency, as illustrated by the merchants’ provision of the above accommodations and services, was therefore crucial to the stability and continuity of local trade networks. Just as the sons of merchants “inherited” their father’s customers, sons of peasants also claimed their parents’ “key to the city.”

For example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the peasants of Bayt Wazan, a village on the western edge of Nablus, usually sold their onion crops to the Asi merchant family, whose members visited the village annually during the onion-harvest season. In return, this family was the Wazanis’ urban agent, and its stores became this village’s urban nexus of operations.[122] It was members of the Asi family who accompanied the Wazanis when they bought their wedding and other kiswas from a well-established textile merchant, Hajj Abd al-Rahman Anabtawi, whose shop was conveniently located in Suq al-Basal (onion market). The Asi family provided a mediating influence in price negotiations and, just as important, an urban reference or a guarantee for purchase on credit. They also indirectly extended credit by purchasing and storing goods needed by the Wazanis, such as copper kitchenware. A few times every the year the Wazanis would visit the city to collect these goods and to arrange for future payment.

As the Bayt Wazan case illustrates, the peasants’ key to the city was usually the merchant who purchased or helped market the most important agricultural cash crop they produced. Peasants who produced primarily olive oil in the village of Burqin, for example, usually sold this product to the Ashur family, who deposited it in wells beneath their soap factory.[123] Similarly, it was at the Ashur family’s house that peasants from Burqin stayed for two or three nights every time they traveled to Nablus to take care of their needs and to sell their goods. The relationship of the Burqin villagers to the Ashur family differed among peasant families, depending on their financial situation. For example, those who borrowed and were in debt usually paid a 30 percent interest rate and were forced to sell their olive oil immediately after the harvest, when prices were low. Those who were not in debt could deposit the oil at the soap factory and usually chose to sell it at a later date, when prices were higher.[124]

Cheese merchants constructed similar networks. Khalid Qadri noted that during the cheese-making season from mid-February until June, his grandfather’s shop received peasants primarily from four villages in the subdistrict of Mashariq al-Jarrar—Tubas, Tammun, Rujib, and Salim—as well as bedouins from the vicinity of Jabal al-Khalil. The peasants did not have to bring their cheese into the city, for many merchants sent agents out to the countryside. Yet they preferred to make the arduous trip, because these agents were often suspected of using inaccurate weighing scales with the intent of taking advantage of them. An established merchant in his city shop was assumed to be more trustworthy.[125]

Khalid’s grandfather was neither a shaykh nor a hajj, but he was widely known as a straightforward and deeply religious man and as the person who officially opened the neighborhood mosque every morning for prayers. The villagers would leave the cheese at his shop and often receive neither cash nor receipts in return, only his word as to the amount and the price. He benefited from this arrangement, because this process increased his liquid capital and allowed him to extend loans to peasants as well as to expand his business. At the same time, however, peasants expected not only to receive their moneys upon demand but also to be granted loans when they experienced hard times.

Khalid Qadri’s grandfather was called on to provide a wide range of other services, such as purchasing equipment and supplies for peasants, storing them, and charging the amount to that peasant family’s account with him. He was frequently asked to intervene in his suppliers’ behalf when they needed to purchase not only their kiswa but also gold, furniture, and other goods associated with wedding preparations. As with the Asi family, the Qadri family had prearranged deals with the textile and gold merchants to whom they would bring in customers for a commission, very much like today’s tourist guides in Jerusalem and Bethlehem who bring buses to gift shops selling religious icons made out of olive wood and mother-of-pearl.

Of course, Nabulsi peasants, unlike foreign tourists, were familiar with local prices and business practices and did not blindly follow their key to the city. Still, peasants were the weaker party in this relationship, for urban merchants enjoyed higher status and commanded greater resources. Contracts, in any case, were usually verbal, because they were supposed to be based on mutual trust, word of honor, and commitment to a fair exchange. As mentioned earlier, peasants did not receive receipts for their goods, and many deposited money with merchants for safekeeping. In case of conflict, their word in court did not carry the same weight as did that of a respected merchant, nor could they easily find two credible witnesses in the city who would testify on their behalf. Most important, their disadvantage was structural: their needs were constant, but their meager resources fluctuated significantly in an economy based on rain-fed agriculture.

Less vulnerable were members of rural ruling families, as well as middle or well-to-do peasants who had significant land and financial resources and who were active in rural trade and moneylending.[126] True, both groups, especially the middle peasants, depended on urban connections but they were in a strong position to forge a more equal working relationship based on mutual advantage and services—as indicated in a number of letters from Hajj Ahmad Isma‘il Abu Hijli (from the village of Dayr Istiya) to Hajj Isma‘il Arafat around the turn of the century. Although the Abu Hijli clan was not part of the rural ruling families that had long monopolized administrative and tax-collecting positions, both the tone and content of these letters show Hajj Ahmad to be a wealthy man who perceived himself as an equal to his urban counterpart.[127] In these letters, he addressed Hajj Isma‘il Arafat as “my brother,” asked for the most expensive items in stock, requested that he locate certain coins for him, and made it very clear that money was not a problem:


—one dimaya, two hindazas and one-third long [163.5 cm] of the white malti kind with wide stripes, tailored for ladies…;

—one-half similar to the above, two hindazas and one-quarter long, for a quilt cover;

—one chintz of the expensive kind with a blue background, two hindaztayn and one-third long, for a lining…;

—one [silver]-lined head kerchief worth two Majidi riyals

—one-half…[word not clear] to our brother Yusuf…and a dima jacket with a malti [cloth] lining. Ahmad al-Hijjawi knows the length;

—one large bed cover…of the expensive kind;

—one dimaya…to Hasan like that of his brother Ali, and what is left of the cloth [to be made into] a jacket with malti [cloth] lining;

—nine ratls of cooked quince. Put it in six jugs.

Sir, my dear respected brother, Hajj Isma‘il Arafat, may God preserve you,

After inquiring about your Noble Person, I declare that the above-mentioned goods are for me. Please deliver them to Ahmad al-Hijjawi and charge the price of the dimaya for my son Hassan in his [Hassan’s] name. Please order one of your protected ones to buy the cooked quince and deliver it to the bearer [of this letter]; and register its price in our name. Charge my brother Yusuf’s [account] for the rest of the dima and chintz goods. Let me know the entire price, and I will send it with a bearer so he can receive the goods deposited with Ahmad [al-Hijjawi]. Whatever you do not deposit at Ahmad’s, give to the bearer. If you receive any orders from my brothers requesting anything at all, send them [goods] without hesitation. If you have any…[word not clear] liras, keep them and let us know how much they are worth and we will send you [money]. Previously, we asked you to tell us if any [such] liras fall in your hands. You replied that mukhkhamasat are not be found anywhere, but I don’t think that…[word not clear] is empty. Also, if you find majarrat of the good kind as we mentioned, send them. . . .

Ahmad Isma‘il Abu Hijli

January 10, 1900[128]

It was not unusual that cooked quince and rare coins were part of an order for clothes from a textile merchant. In fact, Hajj Ahmad routinely asked for a wide variety of items—special foods, coffee, tobacco, kitchenware, herbs, rope, a watch, and even onions—as well as favors, such as forwarding mail. He also sent carpets and other goods to be sold on his behalf and requested that the money made be subtracted from his account.[129]Hajj Ahmad and Hajj Isma‘il Arafat, in other words, were agents for each other’s interests; and the relationship they developed was, judging from both the tone and content of the letters, a close and fairly equal one. In one letter, for example, Ahmad Abu Hijli mentioned to Hajj Isma‘il that he came upon a fine leopard skin and that he was sending it to him as a gift on the occasion of the latter’s purchase of a new horse. He concluded: “As to your letter to us saying that you left our home satisfied and grateful, . . . there is no need for this sort of talk. God willing, . . . we will have a chance to be honored by seeing you at your place, and to kiss you. It is our fate and yours that the Almighty, may he be willing, will preserve you for us.…Amen.”[130]

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