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Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
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Competition and Sabotage

The tight control of Nabulsi merchants over the surplus of Jabal Nablus was a constant source of irritation for the Ottoman authorities. Indeed, in a letter dated June 30, 1852, the non-Nabulsi customs inspectors, Haqqi Afandi and Khawaja Casper, accused Nabulsi leaders of treating the hinterland as if it were their tax-farm for life (malikane).[69] In order to break this stranglehold the central government actively recruited foreign and regional merchants to take part in the bidding process for the zakhayir.[70] This way, bidding prices would be invigorated while outside merchants who loudly protested the difficulties they faced in penetrating this region could be appeased. Much to the chagrin of Nabulsi merchants, the central government occasionally rejected some local bids and, often at the last minute, substituted bids from these outside merchants (see Chapter 5 for a detailed example).

Unable to challenge the central government’s insistence that it approve all final bids, the Nablus Council occasionally resorted to delay and sabotage tactics—that is, if we are to believe the angry accusations leveled against the council by outside merchants. One example is the above letter from Adham Pasha, in which he noted that he was unable to interest Beiruti merchants in offering bids because samples from Nablus “were not received in time.” Another, more detailed, example of resistance to outside competition and the volatility caused by European demand is the following dispute. Sometime in early 1852, Sayyid Muhammad Afandi Halawani, most likely a Beiruti merchant, successfully bid on 550 kaylas of wheat from the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin. He was enraged, however, when the wheat he received turned out to be damaged by worm and rot, or so he claimed in a lawsuit that asked for compensation for the moneys he had lost in the process. Sayyid Halawani was obviously important enough to initiate an investigation of this matter by the highest-ranking fiscal officer in the province. On May 29, 1852, the Nablus Council received a letter from the treasurer (daftar dar) of Sidon province, in which he requested a sample of the wheat sold to Sayyid Halawani in order to examine his allegations. The council replied that all of the wheat in the storehouses had already been sold but that they would send the sample that was kept on the council’s premises and on whose basis, they claimed, Sayyid Halawani had made his purchase. They also provided an alternative explanation for the wheat merchant’s loss:

When the bidding commenced, [wheat] prices reached a level much higher than their real worth. [This was] due to chance, because during that week there was a strong demand for [wheat] to be shipped to the ports. So the city (Nablus) was cut off from wheat for a number of days, causing prices to double. Buyers, hoping to take advantage of rising prices, paid 28 piasters per kayla…But, by the time Sayyid Halawani’s bid was accepted and his agent Fayyad Beik Tuqan arrived to receive the [wheat], the price had already fallen steeply because a great deal of wheat came into the city [in response to the high prices]. So the agent was forced to sell the wheat quickly, and at a loss (before prices fell even further).[71]

If we are to believe the Nablus Council, Sayyid Halawani was a victim of circumstances. Working around the “export season” was imperative, for even an experienced merchant could be caught off guard and forced to bear a substantial loss. This held especially true for those merchants who risked investment in the products of a far-away city and its hinterland. Thus Sayyid Halawani paid dearly for being distant from the local scene by purchasing at the wrong time, even though he had hired a Nabulsi merchant precisely for the purpose of avoiding this mistake. The other possibility, of course, is that the Nablus Council used the phenomenon of European demand as an excuse to cover up what might have been a clever scheme to unload rotten grains on a faraway merchant who could not hold them accountable for their actions. But whether the council’s explanation was truthful or not, the fact that it was used shows that the themes of outside competition from the port cities and the vagaries of European demand were already ingrained in the business discourse of Palestinian peasants and merchants, including those of an interior region like Jabal Nablus. There is little doubt that this discourse can be traced back at least as far as the eighteenth century.

What the council’s letter also makes impressively clear is the dizzying speed with which peasants, merchants, and transporters responded to the lure of high prices offered by regional and foreign traders operating from the port cities: Nablus was emptied of its stocks within days. Thus the volatility of European demand and the ability of foreign merchants to pay high prices added another element of unpredictability into an increasingly contested and tense market. On more than one occasion the council’s letters specifically stated that local merchants were aware that speculation in agricultural commodities must take into account the fact that prices for wheat, cotton, oil, and other crops rose sharply with the arrival of trade ships from overseas, then dropped off considerably after they left.[72]

Arab merchants from the regional metropolitan centers around Nablus, especially those from Beirut, faced numerous problems when dealing with their counterparts in Jabal Nablus.[73] For example, on April 4, 1850, the Nablus Council received a communiqué from the governor of Sidon province ordering the sale of wheat in the storehouses of Nablus and Jenin to Khawaja Ilyas Najjar, a Christian merchant from Beirut who also served as an employee of the U.S. consulate in that city.[74] If we are to believe the governor’s accusations, the Nablus Council delayed the delivery for several weeks, and even then it remained incomplete.[75] Throughout, Khawaja Najjar bitterly complained that he was still waiting for the full amount and that the ship he had hired was sitting idly at the port.

Still another example of perceived delay tactics is the following commercial dispute, recorded on September 26, 1850, in which a foreign consul accused the Nablus customs inspector—then a Nabulsi who was replaced soon after by an outsider—of failing to deliver the ginned cotton he had successfully bid on:

[Today], the Customs Inspector of Nablus, Mas‘ud Agha, and the Customs Treasurer, Khawaja Arakil, appeared before the council. [They] testified that Khawaja “Escowage,” consul at Acre, has accused them of delaying the shipment of ginned cotton that his Nablus agent, al-Abd Ikhrem, had purchased; and that due to their delay of the ginned cotton, he suffered a loss because the ship was forced to leave [empty]. He has demanded adjudication by the Acre Council to settle the account between him and the Nablus Customs Inspector. The aforementioned Mas‘ud Agha and Khawaja Arakil testified that in no way did they delay any of…Khawaja Escowage’s ginned cotton. [On the contrary], at the time of purchase, [it was sent with carriers] under the direction of Hajj Ahmad Najib Ashur, Hajj Yasin Qaraman, Ali [al-Ghlayyan?], and Salih Ikhrem, who signed out the ginned cotton in his name and in the name of his cousin, al-Abd Ikhrem, the agent of the aforementioned Khawaja Escowage. The above-mentioned individuals [were brought] before the council and asked about the testimony of Mas‘ud Agha and the treasurer. They…testified that [the accused] in no way delayed or prevented the delivery of any of the ginned cotton purchased by the Khawaja [Escowage].[76]

The outcome of the case is not mentioned, but this is not our primary concern. More significant is the set of clues that this memorandum provides as to the tensions inherent in the relationship between local and foreign agents and, just as important, as to competition between Nabulsi merchants themselves, for it is clear that some sought to profit from this lucrative trade by acting as agents for the foreign merchants.

Consul “Escowage” resorted to the Acre Council, which raised the matter with its counterpart in Nablus. The Nablus Council naturally turned a sympathetic ear not to the foreign consul but to its fellow merchants, who simply denied the charges. Herein lies the crux of the new politics of trade: the “free” market in cotton was only free in the sense that it was no longer monopolized by a single ruling strongman, such as Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzar, and not in the sense that there were no political restrictions at all. On the contrary, local merchants “adjusted” the conditions of trade to work in their favor through their networks and through the Advisory Council. Foreign traders, in contrast, were strangers to the peasants and did not have the power, at least not in mid-nineteenth-century Nablus, to ensure the fulfillment of contracts. Also, there was not a single powerful ruler in Jabal Nablus to whom they could turn for redress, as there had been in the days of Zahir al-Umar in Acre or of Muhammad Ali Pasha in Egypt. That they wished for one was demonstrated by Alexander Schölch, who detailed the efforts of European powers to convince the Ottoman authorities that one single governor, based in Jerusalem, should be made responsible for all of the surrounding regions in Palestine.[77]

Still, foreign merchants had the ability to offer high prices, a factor that became increasingly important with the passage of time. The large profits to be made were recognized not only by the minority merchant communities in the coastal cities but also by Muslim merchants from the interior. As shown in the previous example, some Nabulsi merchants worked as agents for foreign traders. No doubt they were sought out because they were perceived to be more effective in managing commercial transactions in semiautonomous interior regions. Thus, Consul “Escowage” chose the Nabulsi merchant, al-Abd Ikhrem. The latter, in turn, employed both his cousin and three other locals to purchase cotton, and he signed out the consignment from the government storehouse in his name. It would not be accurate, therefore, to assume that all Nabulsi merchants were of one mind or presented a united front toward outsiders. Indeed, breaking ranks was one of the quickest ways for small merchants to gain access to credit from European traders, to assure themselves an outlet for their goods and, in general, to increase their fortunes and compete with the established merchants in their community.[78]

The integration of Palestine into a world economy, therefore, cannot be satisfactorily explained through the often-used dichotomies of internal/external, passive/active, or penetration/response. Rather, each link in the movement, measurement, storage, sale, and transport of commodities was a contested arena that involved competition among a wide variety of actors: peasants, village brokers, Nabulsi merchants, regional trading houses, and European traders, all within the fluid political context of an Ottoman state in the midst of reorganization and reform. This is not to say that all the participants enjoyed the same degree of power to make the new politics of trade work to their advantage. But, at least until the early 1850s, Nabulsi merchants had sufficient tools at their disposal to hold on to the lion’s share of their hinterland’s agricultural surplus. Documents detailing the results of auction bids on zakhayir over the five-year period (1848–1853) for which records are available, for example, show that the overwhelming majority of successful bids were made by Nabulsi merchants and that European and regional merchants were only occasionally able to successfully bid on wheat, cotton, and sesame, and then usually with the help of the central government.[79] Nevertheless, the trends were already in place for a shift in favor of those who controlled the largest reserves of capital and who had access to the corridors of power in Europe and Istanbul: foreign merchants and regional trading houses. Beginning in the 1850s, the power of local councils to affect the outcome of commercial disputes was steadily eroded, as commercial tribunals became dominated by Europeans and, more important, as European commercial laws were adopted and enforced by the Ottoman government.[80] Thus each delaying tactic only postponed the inevitable, as Jabal Nablus became irreversibly enmeshed in a world economic system dominated by Europe.

The other face of European competition was the export of machine-produced commodities that competed with local artisanal production.Textiles, usually made of cotton, were especially vulnerable to such achallenge, for they faced competition from the most advanced Europeanindustrial sector. The following analysis of how the textile sector in Nablus fared can shed light on the pace and rhythm of restructuring in the manufacturing sphere experienced by the market towns in the interior regions of Greater Syria.

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Cotton, Textiles, and the Politics of Trade
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