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Resistance and Notions of Justice

The shifting boundaries of political and economic power in the rural sphere generated intense conflicts that threatened the stability of Jabal Nablus as a whole. In the above letter the Sidon governor’s claim that the peasants of Jabal Nablus were in a “disturbed and weakened state” contained more than a grain of truth. Most peasants did not reap the benefit of Palestine’s economic growth during this period, for this growth was predicated largely on the enhanced ability of urban merchants to gain access to and control their surplus.

The slow dissolution of patronage ties between peasants and their long-time ruling subdistrict chiefs, as well as the transformation of the latter into agents of urban interests (and eventually into urban merchants and landholders), no doubt exacerbated the peasants’ feelings of alienation, isolation, and lack of control over their lives. Peasant notions of identity, political authority, and justice, therefore, were bound to be challenged and redefined, especially as their various means of resistance were often repressed by force.[108]

Peasant petitions provide important clues as to these notions and show that peasant complaints were usually precipitated by attempts of the local government to enforce moneylending contracts, especially olive oil salam contracts. For example, in early February 1852 the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya[109] submitted a petition to the governor of Jerusalem, Hafiz Pasha, in which they said:

[We] the destitute…of Asira village from the district (sanjaq) of Nablus have paid all the taxes (miri) required from us in cash and kind to the last penny (para)…and the account books of the treasury are cleared of all that was or could be [required of us]. A few days ago, Ahmad al-Yusuf [Jarrar]—[on the basis] of his power, influence, and lack of fear of the rule of law—demanded from us, in a criminal and corrupt manner, a sum [of money and crops] for no legitimate reason. He has crossed the line and broken the rules of [decent behavior] and just regulations. [As part of his illegal behavior] he sent cavalrymen [who] picked ten persons from among us and imprisoned them in Nablus. They have been imprisoned for more than eight days and remain there for no satisfactory reason. Because this overstepping of bounds is a matter contradictory to your [sense of] justice, we have found the courage to petition your Munificent Highness and beg that you issue an order to Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi, the qa’immaqam of Nablus, [instructing him] to go over the tax books. If a single penny or the smallest measure of crops is found to be owed by us, we will bring it over. If nothing [owed by us] is found, then our people should be released, for the disposition of your justice does not condone or allow…a person, such as the above mentioned, to imprison our people [just to satisfy] his aim for bribery. Our just government has the power to remove the above mentioned.
The Poor of Asira, Nablus District[110]

It must have been disconcerting for the governor of Jerusalem to receive this petition, because it laid the matter squarely on his shoulders and boldly challenged him to dismiss a government official. Also, by addressing the petition to him instead of going through normal hierarchy of political authority in Jabal Nablus, the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya implicitly accused the council in general, and Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi in particular, of complicity in what they deemed to be an unjust act. After all, it was the urban ruling elite of Nablus who controlled the cavalry that made the arrests and ran the prisons in which the men were incarcerated.

A few days later, on February 12, 1852, the assistant governor of Jerusalem sent a copy of the petition to Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi, along with this terse and hardly impartial note: “Provide in a memorandum a detailed explanation of the reasons for imprisoning the aforementioned individuals and the foul misdeeds that necessitated their imprisonment.”[111] The council’s answer is worth quoting in full:

The reason for the imprisonment of some individuals from Asira village is that one of the oil merchants, Shaykh Muhammad Abu Hijli, is owed through a salam contract by the peasants of the aforementioned village an amount of oil for which they received money in advance in order to pay the taxes due from their village. When he demanded his right, the people of the village gave excuses…so he complained very persistently. Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf, chief of the al-Jarrar subdistrict, requested cavalrymen…and sent them with a representative of his in order to collect the merchant’s due. When his representative arrived in the village, some of its people gathered around him and pelted him with stones. His sword was broken, and the metal piece fitted on the sword sheath below the handle fell. [Also] one of the pistols tucked in his belt was broken, and his cloak [mashlah] fell, as did the tassel on his fez and his money pouch. He arrived back to these parts in this state. Your Excellency knows that such disrespect for the state’s cavalry is considered insolence toward the government. The punishment of these individuals could not be overlooked. So an investigation was made about those persons who headed this movement, and four were found. They were brought [here] and put into prison so that they can be taught a lesson [min ajl al-tarbiya]…and made an example to others. They can be released only after they promise not to display such insolence again. But now the cavalryman has been brought in [to the council’s premises] and the missing items noted. He deserves [the payment of] 120 piasters from the aforementioned imprisoned men in order to fix his sword and gun and to replace his coat, the missing money from his money pouch, the fez’s tassel, and the metal piece of his sword.…He received all…and the prisoners were released.[112]

The major elements of this story should be familiar by now. The inhabitants of an entire village had entered into a salam moneylending contract with an olive oil merchant so that they could pay their taxes. The oil merchant, Muhammad Abu Hijli, was himself a member of the rural middle class, for he had only recently relocated to the city. This illustrates once again the differentiation within the rural sphere and the reproduction, by this class, of urban commercial networks. In fact, the Abu Hijli clan—most of whose members were still in Dayr Istya, their home village—was already well-to-do in the 1830s. During that time, they were involved in moneylending to other peasants and controlled a fair amount of timar lands.[113] By the Mandate period they were large landlords. In Chapter 2, recall, we met a wealthy villager by the name of Hajj Ahmad Isma‘il Abu Hijli who, in the year 1900, still lived in Dayr Istiya. This also fits the development pattern of rural middle-class families: they usually relocated only some of their members to the city, leaving others behind to supervise agricultural workers on their lands.

Allied with the olive oil merchant was Ahmad Yusuf al-Jarrar, head of the Mashariq al-Jarrar subdistrict. As shown in Chapter 1, the Jarrars were famous as key protectors of Jabal Nablus by virtue of their military resources and control of the formidable Sanur fortress. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, their influence was much reduced, and, as far as the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya were concerned, they had become repressive local shaykhs whose actions—extortion of peasants in their subdistrict and use of force and intimidation in the collection of debts, even those owed to an oil merchant who came from another subdistrict (Jamma‘in)—placed them outside the rule of law.

Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar, in turn, was supported by the qa’immaqam of Nablus as well as by the Advisory Council. They legitimated his actions by granting his request for cavalry and by branding the peasants’ resistance to his demands as “insolence toward the government.” At least, this is the impression they sought to convey to the governor of Jerusalem in order to represent themselves as the forces of law and order in Jabal Nablus.[114] The peasants of Asira, like those in Mount Lebanon during this period, were openly challenging the authority and privileges of their long-time ruling subdistrict chiefs.[115] However, unlike the situation in Mount Lebanon, where there was a spatial division of political authority (Dayr al-Qamar) and economic life (Beirut)—the location of Nablus at the very heart of the core hill region meant that this city combined both. Hence the welding of rural shaykhs, rich merchants, and urban ruling families into a united political bloc that weighed heavily on the majority of peasants.

Both this petition and the one from the village of Jaba cited earlier show that the peasants of Jabal Nablus were very much aware of this alliance, as well as of its internal hierarchy. By communicating their grievances to the governor of Jerusalem, they made it clear that they expected no justice from the council and the qa’immaqam of Nablus, much less from the traditional rural leaders of their subdistrict. Indeed, the wording of the Asira al-Shamiyya petition clearly implied that the urban political elite was a coconspirator, if not the main culprit, in this affair.

This accusation was based on bitter experience, not posturing. During the same year, for example, the Nablus Council made excuses for not sending a member of the Jarrar family who had been accused of murdering villagers to Beirut, where he was to stand trial.[116] In yet another case, the council lamely justified the reason why witnesses against another member of the Jarrar family, also accused of murder, could not be sent to Beirut to testify.[117]

Under the suffocating weight of both the rural and the urban elites of Jabal Nablus, the peasants’ best hope of carving out a political space for themselves lay in involving the state and appealing to its sense of justice. The Asira peasants’ concepts of state justice and the rule of law are not entirely clear, because they were only expressed in exclusionary terms in the petition—that is, the unlawful behavior of their subdistrict chiefs and the Advisory Council of Nablus. What is clear is that their appeal was calculated to take advantage of the state’s own propaganda, which harped on the need to protect the peasant base of production. In written orders during the 1840s and 1850s, the government passionately called for justice and the rule of law, specifically warned city councils and subdistrict chiefs against the abuse of peasants, and tacitly recognized the social differentiation within villages, as well as the concentration of landholdings. These issues were ideologically framed as an appeal both to Islam and to the common citizenship of all Ottoman subjects and were driven by the need to reinforce the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of all of its subjects, including peasants.[118]

On June 24, 1841, for example, the central authorities warned that the flight of peasants from the land due to extortion, corvée labor, or unfair practices leading to undercultivation or loss of land would not be tolerated. In this letter to the Nablus Advisory Council, the governor of Damascus ordered, among other things, the cancellation of all illegal taxes and a stop to the practices that forced peasants to sell their crops for less than half of their worth.[119] He also forbade the confiscation of animals for free transportation and, most important, the eviction of those who were unable to pay their debts.[120] On December 2, 1850, the mutasarrif of Jerusalem reminded the Nablus Council that the harvest season was at hand, yet in every subdistrict and village there were “poor and old persons who do not possess the means to plow and plant…[and] who need either lands or threshing floors or animals or…all of these things combined.”[121] He went on to urge all Muslims to help those poor villagers because “the equitable and just will of our Sultan will not allow the existence of a single person who is deprived of earnings and enjoyment.” Significant here is that non-Muslims of means were encouraged to do the same, because “those who are not coreligionists are [still] brothers in the fatherland [ikhwan fi al-watan].”[122] He then called on people of means to help through loans, through permission to use threshing floors, and through sharing “some of the surplus lands that are in their hands.” Finally, he commanded that copies of this order be sent to all subdistrict chiefs and that a list of poor people in every village be compiled. Next to each name the council was to describe the manner in which that person had been put back in a position that would allow him to pursue his vocation as a productive peasant.

Only eighteen days later, as mentioned above, the governor of Sidon province warned the tax collectors (muhassils) of the subdistricts of Nablus and Jenin that they would be severely punished if they continued their practice of extorting moneys and crops from peasants under the pretext of being unsalaried government employees who were merely covering their expenses.[123] We know from the council’s own records that they sent copies of this order to all 13 muhassils, as well as to 213 villages in Jabal Nablus. The order was read aloud in each village square, and the inhabitants were specifically instructed that any complaints about extortion should be addressed to the Nablus Advisory Council.[124]

Within this context, it is significant that the authors of both the Asira al-Shamiyya and Jaba petitions decided to deliberately bypass the Advisory Council. More important, their arguments echoed the main thrust of Tanzimat ideology: equality before the law. In the words of the peasants of Asira, Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar “crossed the line and broke the rules of [decent behavior] and just regulations.” The peasants were saying, in effect, that all of the inhabitants of Jabal Nablus were members of a much larger polity (the Ottoman Empire), whose boundaries of legitimacy and rules of behavior were clearly delineated, and that all members of this polity were subject to those rules regardless of their official position, historical privileges, or personal power. The long-time rulers of Jabal Nablus, even though they were native sons, were portrayed in the petitions as public servants with a clear (and limited) mandate. The ultimate source of political authority, the peasants insisted, was the Ottoman state or, more accurately, an abstract notion of what state meant.

A key constituent element of the meanings ascribed to this abstract notion, as suggested by the wording of the petition, was the peasants’ right as tax-paying citizens to protection by the central authorities from arbitrary extortion. It was not a coincidence that the peasants of Asira al-Shamiyya began their argument with the premise that they had paid all their taxes in full. As long as they met this responsibility, the state had an obligation to protect them. Local authorities, they insisted, had no right to impose other demands on them, no right to interfere in their affairs.

The political essence of the Asira petition, therefore, was an attempt to reduce the political space of the ruling elite of Jabal Nablus and to draw the state’s protective boundaries around themselves. This is why the underlying and primary cause of the conflict, a debt incurred to an oil merchant through a salam contract, was not mentioned by the peasants. Hoping to deal with the oil merchant on their own terms, the peasants were asking, “Why should Shaykh Ahmad al-Yusuf Jarrar and the entire ruling elite of Nablus get involved in this matter? Our taxes are paid and that is all they should be concerned with!”

It must have been an embarrassing and humiliating experience, as well as politically inconvenient, for the Nablus Council and Mahmud Beik Abd al-Hadi to have the governor of Jerusalem dragged into a local matter by the peasants of Asira. Not only did they receive the petition via Jerusalem, but it suggested that they be “ordered” to check the tax books when they knew full well, as did the petitioners, that these taxes had indeed been paid. This is why the memorandum from the council, like the previous one concerning the Jaba petition, first presented the issue of debt as the root of the dispute then relegated it to the background and did not indicate whether and how it was resolved. Rather, the council focused the governor’s attention on the organic link between their common interests and those of the state, by portraying peasant resistance to them as a challenge to state authority. Unhappy about the prospect of further outside interference, especially in such vital issues as collection of debt and enforcement of salam contracts, the council’s aim was to short-circuit these petitions and neutralize their negative effects while maintaining a free hand in dealing with the peasantry. Consequently, the council moved quickly to defuse the situation by setting the prisoners free, with the excuse that they had been taught a lesson and that damages to the injured cavalryman—that is, a small fine of 120 piasters—had been paid.[125]

The Asira and Jaba petitions also demonstrate that local disputes between merchants and peasants, in both instances over salam contracts for olive oil, escalated to the point that the Ottoman state, through the office of the governor of Jerusalem, was dragged in and entangled. In other words, internal contradictions and pressures from below, as much as reforms from above, served to increase the role of the state in local affairs. This is key to a fuller understanding of the driving forces behind the Ottoman state’s policies of centralization and administrative and fiscal restructuring during the nineteenth century. Just as the promulgation and implementation of the 1858 land code were precipitated and guided, respectively, by concrete long-term changes in the land regime, Ottoman reforms and policies in general during the last two-thirds of the nineteenth century were just as much responses to as initiators of changes in the political economy of the regions under their control.

The changes that overtook peasant society during the Tanzimat period allowed for more than one political trajectory. Judging from the two petitions, the peasants of Jabal Nablus extended their hand to the Ottoman authorities and expressed a willingness to become active participants in a new political order—under certain conditions, of course. But the latter’s responses to the brewing crisis in urban-rural relations were often determined by pragmatic political concerns rather than by their publicly stated policy of protecting the peasant base of production. In this and similar cases in Jabal Nablus during the mid-nineteenth century the response was a conservative one, more concerned with shoring up urban notables in order to maintain the status quo than with effecting any real change.

Not surprisingly, therefore, Tamimi and Bahjat had this to say upon concluding their visit to Salfit: “Of course, the Salfitis are ignorant of the sacred patriotic [symbols] such as the flag, the nation, and sacrifice. The government in their eyes is nothing but subdistrict administrators and a number of police…and a door that does not answer the complaints of the people.”[126]

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The Political Economy of Olive Oil
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