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The Political Economy of Olive Oil
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Islam, the Rural Middle Class, and the Subdistrict Chiefs

Hitherto, the decline of subdistrict chiefs has been attributed solely to state intervention from above; that is, to the Egyptian occupation (1831–1840), which crushed centrifugal forces, disarmed the peasantry, and imposed a centralized administrative apparatus. These actions, the argument continues, paved the way for the implementation of the Tanzimat (reforms) and the extension of centralized Ottoman rule.[89] Although the centralizing tendencies of Egyptian and Ottoman rule were indeed important, they only accelerated a number of ongoing processes on the economic, cultural, and political levels.

On the economic level, moneylending, in addition to laying some of the groundwork for the commoditization of land, helped deepen the cleavages among peasants by, among other things, widening the social space of the rural middle class. The spread of market relations encouraged many well-to-do peasants to reproduce the business practices and institutions developed by urban merchants on the village level. This, in turn, helped clear a path for urban, coastal, and foreign merchant activities in the interior of Palestine. One indication of increasing differentiation is that by the mid-nineteenth century it had become common for peasants to sue each other in court over disputed olive oil salam contracts, over the purchase of rural lands, and even over business partnerships.[90] Recall the examples in Chapter 2 of how some rural agents for textile merchants established their own commercial networks and ventured into retail trade in the countryside, as well as examples in this chapter of the moneylending activities by the Rummani family in Bayta and by Salama Makhluf in Bayt Jala.

The social space between the majority of peasants and the few rural-based ruling families first expanded in the large villages of each subdistrict: Tubas, Bayta, Burqa, Umm al-Fahm, Jaba, Dayr al-Ghusun, Arraba, Qabatya, Ya‘bad, and Salfit, to name a few. These and similar villages have long been centers of commercial activities that mediated relations between the city of Nablus (as well the town of Jenin) and the more remote and smaller villages. It is not clear when the expansion of this rural middle class began in earnest, but this process in the central highlands of Palestine probably reflected a larger, regionwide process beginning around the mid-eighteenth century. In her study of Zahleh, a village in Mount Lebanon that grew into an important market town, Alixa Naff argues that “a nebulous middle stratum” before the nineteenth century had become “an unmistakable class of entrepreneurs” by 1840.[91] Dina Khoury also shows how internal and regional dynamics in the hinterlands of Mosul (in today’s Iraq) during the 1750–1850 period precipitated the expansion of commercial agriculture and the de facto privatization of land. Both developments, she continues, led to an increase in social differentiation on the village level, including the rise of “middle” and “rich” peasants who were able to “exploit the labor power of other peasants.”[92]

In any event, not until the mid-nineteenth century did the cases registered in the Islamic Court of Nablus begin to reveal the pervasiveness and sophistication of entrepreneurial activities of this class. An example is a document, dated May 19, 1849, dividing the profits of a company set up by five villagers:

Before this date, the Pride of Honorable Scholars, Shaykh Uthman al-Labadi from the village of Kafr al-Labad and Hasan Khattab, Muhammad al-Bab, Khalil Abd al-Rahim, and the Master Yusuf Elias the Christian, all from the village of Burqa, formed a silent partnership company (sharikat mudaraba) with a capital of 4,000 piasters. All of the money belonged to Shaykh Uthman al-Labadi. Hasan Khattab received the money in order to buy and sell, take and give, loan and collect on oil, wheat, barley, and other [crops].…Whatever profit God bestowed on them, Shaykh Uthman would receive one-half because he provided the capital and the rest would equally share the other half. The aforementioned Hasan Khattab invested the…money in oil and other [crops] through salam [contracts] and, needing more money, he borrowed 243 piasters…to put more money into the oil salam that belonged to this company. On this date, they appeared [in court]…and settled the company’s accounts.…The profit was 743 piasters, from which the 243 piasters that Hasan Khattab had borrowed…were deducted.[93]

The owner of capital was a religious leader from a medium-sized village; the other partners were residents of Burqa, one of the largest villages in Jabal Nablus and the administrative headquarters for the subdistrict of Wadi al-Sh‘ir.[94] Burqa had an artisanal sector, and some of its families worked in textile production. The partners from Burqa were ideally suited for negotiating salam contracts because their village acted as a hub for smaller ones around it and therefore enjoyed a built-in network of relations. Again, the preferred business mechanism was the salam system of moneylending, and the commodities that were the object of speculation—oil, wheat, and barley—were the main cash crops of Jabal Nablus.

None of the partners belonged to ruling clans or to the majority of poor peasants. Their partnership also cut across geographical, kinship, and religious boundaries: Burqa was far from Kafr al-Labad, and the partners were not of the same clan or even the same religion. The combination of these factors—the pooling of capital for investment in commercial agriculture through moneylending and the social diversity of the moneylenders—constitutes a classic characteristic of a rural middle class united by the search for profit and capital accumulation.

Peasant involvement in trade and moneylending created new opportunities for upward mobility, as attested to by the inheritance estates of rich villagers (who were not members of ruling clans) registered in the Nablus Islamic Court.[95] Over time, the expansion of commercial activities generated from within the hinterlands crossed not only geographic and religious boundaries but also social, cultural, and political ones. Urban-rural intermarriage, adoption of city habits, alliances with urban merchants, resort to the Islamic court for settling disputes, and eventually moving into the city, were all becoming common phenomena (see below).

On the cultural level, the undercutting of patronage networks based on customary law was accomplished primarily by the reproduction in the rural sphere of urban legal, social, and business practices based on Islamic law.[96] In order to facilitate their profitable commercial activities and to consolidate their social position, members of the rural middle class turned their backs on the folk religious practices common among peasants and began to appropriate the system of meanings articulated in what one might call orthodox or urban Islam. As will be seen in greater detail below, they used Islamic law not only to construct and legally protect moneylending networks and investment companies but also to weave a new tapestry of relations with both poorer peasants and their long-time ruling clans; that is, to expand their own social space at the expense of both. This process was hastened in the second half of the nineteenth century, when mosques were built in many villages and when Islamic courts were introduced into the seat villages of the subdistricts during the 1850s.[97]

Islamic law proved ideologically and practically well suited for the capitalist transformation of the countryside. As a universal ideology it cut across social boundaries, such as those of kinship, regional identity, and other particularistic customs typical of vertical loyalties. Trade and investment, moreover, are not considered in Islamic law as undesirable activities or somehow inferior to, say, landholding. On the contrary, Islam celebrates honest profits from commercial activities and provides legitimacy to those who convey themselves as God-fearing and righteous businessmen. On a practical level, Islamic law—especially the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which, as mentioned earlier, was officially adopted by the Ottoman government—makes available a detailed body of rules and regulations well suited for structuring moneylending contracts, business partnerships, and so on. It also provides a clear set of guidelines for the resolution of disputes. In short, Islamic law offers a common denominator or, more precisely, a set of shared reference points that made it an appealing framework at a time when market relations were carving an ever-larger space in the hinterlands of the interior.

An example that combines all the above issues is a business dispute dated April 29, 1864.[98] The plaintiff, Abdullah son of Muhammad al-Hammud, was a rich villager from Jaba village who was then temporarily living in Damascus while serving as a recruit in the Ottoman military. The defendant, Shaykh Ibrahim son of Shaykh Abdullah Jarrar, was the head of the most powerful rural-based clan in that subdistrict (Mashariq al-Jarrar) and had recently relocated to the city of Nablus. The plaintiff’s agent in the Nablus court, Hajj Abdullah Abu Ali al-Zaybaq, came from the village of Zamalka, near Damascus.

The agent testified that the plaintiff had advanced Shaykh Ibrahim the sum of 5,000 piasters a year and a half earlier in a lawful silent partnership (sharikat mudaraba) for the purpose of speculation. Their understanding was that no matter what the profits might be, they would split them evenly. The purpose of the plaintiff’s lawsuit was to make sure that Shaykh Ibrahim Jarrar would pay back the original investment of 5,000 piasters plus half of the profits. Shaykh Ibrahim admitted to the business arrangement and testified that the profit he had made over the past eighteen months (2,600 piasters) exceeded half the principal. What he contested was the status of Hajj Abdullah as a lawful agent for the plaintiff. Hajj Abdullah proved to the satisfaction of the judge that he did indeed represent the plaintiff, and Shaykh Ibrahim Jarrar had to hand over 6,300 piasters.

The most striking aspects of this lawsuit were, first, the reversal of historic roles between peasant and ruling subdistrict chief. A rich villager enrolled his subdistrict chief as an agent in a contract calculated to take advantage of the latter’s connections. In the process he subverted the chief’s traditional patronage network by turning it into a business instrument within his own modern network.[99] Second, this lawsuit also shows how the new networks of the rural middle class cut across not only social and political boundaries but also geographic ones. The plaintiff initiated this lawsuit in Damascus using a peasant from the Syrian village of Zamalka as an agent. The defendant came from the same village as the plaintiff but was now a resident of Nablus. The supporting witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff, meanwhile, came from the village of Silat al-Dhaher, in the Sha‘rawiyya al-Sharqiyya subdistrict of Jabal Nablus. In short, this villager from Jaba was, at one and the same time, a soldier who traveled widely and an investor who made business connections that integrated people from a number of areas.[100]

Third, the rich villager, by initiating this partnership while absent from his home base, assumed that his investment—which took the form of a business partnership recognized as legitimate by Islamic law—would be protected even against the possible extortion of a clan that had ruled generations of his ancestors. This case confirmed that his assumption was well founded: lawsuits that hinge on the status of an agent to one of the parties were widely used as legal mechanisms to prevent future disputes. In other words, there was no real disagreement. Rather, Shaykh Ibrahim wanted to protect himself from the possibility that the plaintiff, upon his return from Damascus, would demand the same moneys again by claiming that Hajj Abdullah was not his lawful agent.

On a political level, villagers also resorted to urban legal institutions, specifically the Islamic court, in order to challenge the authority and sometimes arbitrary practices of subdistrict chiefs. For example, on March 18, 1861, Odeh al-Bab, a well-to-do villager from Burqa, accused Shaykh Isma‘il son of Shaykh Khader al-Burqawi—a member of one of the two clans, Sayf and al-Ahfa, that ruled the subdistrict of Wadi al-Sha‘ir—of unlawfully usurping six pieces of land and an olive oil press through “force, compulsion, imprisonment, and threats.”[101] Shaykh Isma‘il al-Burqawi claimed that he had bought these lands in 1856–1857 for 7,000 piasters, but he lost the case when the plaintiff produced two credible witnesses from both of the ruling clans mentioned above. It is not known whether the court’s order that these properties be returned was ever carried out, but the fact remains that the subdistrict chief was forced to appear and defend himself in the Islamic court against a peasant from his own seat village.

As this and other cases cited throughout this chapter suggest, therefore, the internal transformation of peasant society was an important dynamic in the declining influence and status of subdistrict chiefs. This does not mean that rural shaykhs were completely marginalized: the post of subdistrict chief remained under the control, by and large, of the same families that had dominated the hinterland for generation. Many also continued to wield real power, at least as far as most peasants in their subdistricts were concerned. But during the 1700–1900 period these individuals were transformed from a virtually independent and powerful group of rural leaders into appendages of the urban merchant and political elite, as well as into servants of the state. Their networks and political autonomy were undermined to the point that the real meaning of “subdistrict chief” came to approximate more and more the official (but long unrealized) Ottoman vision of their role: tax collectors and rural administrators whose powers stemmed solely from the fountainhead of the central bureaucracy.

Gone were the days when the subdistrict chiefs were personally visited by the governor of Damascus in their seat village and dressed in a cloak that symbolized their status as equal to the mutasallim of Nablus. By the 1850s they were sent a brief letter of appointment that they had to register in the Nablus Islamic Court, and then they had to be sworn in by the Nablus Advisory Council.[102] Even their official title had changed, from the broad and respectful shaykh al-nahiya to the more narrowly defined and bureaucratic muhassil (tax collector).[103]

The subdistrict chiefs did not forgo their traditional privileges easily. The contested nature of this transformation can be seen in the following letter from the governor of Sidon province to the Nablus Advisory Council and its head, Sulayman Beik Tuqan, dated December 20, 1850:

Under the excuse that they are unsalaried, the supervisors and shaykhs of the subdistricts of Jabal Nablus are taking moneys from the people and villages under their administration above and beyond the assessed [amount] of state taxes and using these moneys for their own purposes. As a result, the people and residents are in a disturbed and weakened state. These aforementioned supervisors and shaykhs do not have salaries set aside for them, but they do enjoy the respect and admiration of their peers as a result of our utilizing them in these positions, and this is an act of great generosity and providence [on our part]. Therefore, their aggression toward the people under their care with the excuse that they have no salaries contravenes the Supreme Wishes. [This behavior] is absolutely forbidden, and it is imperative that it be stopped quickly.[104]

Just a century before, the central government would not have even considered holding subdistrict chiefs responsible for illegal taxation, much less attempted to interfere. In response to the new realties, some of the subdistrict chiefs, such as the Abd al-Hadis, quickly assimilated to the changing political economy of Palestine and used it to their advantage. Others, such as the Jarrars, became internally divided over which course the extended family should pursue in the context of an eroding economic, political, and social base. Most took the middle road. In this regard, the justification used by these chiefs for their actions is revealing. By emphasizing the lack of salary they were, at one and the same time, protesting the onerous duties and limitations imposed on them and opening the door to further integration into the government bureaucracy.[105]

The process of differentiation was also accompanied by serious dislocations and internal power struggles within each village. Tensions heightened as villagers manipulated their fellow villagers and became embroiled in disputes with their neighbors, clan members, and even their own families. By the turn of the twentieth century, the divisive impact of moneylending and the dominant role of merchant capital was a festering sore, apparent to all. During their tour through the villages of Jabal Nablus in 1916–1917, Tamimi and Bahjat quoted one peasant from Dayr Istiya as saying that “the Nabulsis have set brother against brother”[106]—clearly implying that many well-to-do villagers and merchants were allied in a single system that tore at the social fabric of each village. Some peasants from Salfit articulated the situation to Tamimi and Bahjat in these terms: “Nabulsis, for their own personal gain, have sown the seeds of discord, and now we have become like them: hurting others so we can get ahead.…The Nabulsis have profited from these conflicts: they appropriated all that we have, with the excuse that they are saving us from the pitfalls we put ourselves in. Now we are poor, powerless prisoners in the hands of the Nabulsis.”[107]

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