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Concentration and Integration

Closely connected to the expansion of soap production was the concentration of wealth within the merchant community, a process that led to the vertical integration of production by the mid-nineteenth century. The inheritance estate of two merchants—Sayyid As‘ad son of Yusuf Bishtawi and his brother Sayyid Sa‘id—dated July 2, 1857, provides a rare look into the organization of soap production. As it happened, Sayyid As‘ad died while the al-mafrash was still full of recently cooked soap that had not yet been distributed to the various merchants.[47] Consequently, the court’s inventory had to take account of business arrangements that were left suspended.

The income and expense columns in the inheritance estate show that the Bishtawi brothers headed what can only be described as a highly centralized family firm or, put more precisely, a corporate three-generational patrilocal household the resources of which were monopolized and concentrated by two brothers. Thus, even though only one died, the court had to take into account the estates of both because they jointly owned both commercial and personal property. For instance, they jointly financed the construction of the soap factory and evenly split all business expenses and profits. They also held equal shares in the family’s residence, shops, warehouses, agricultural lands, olive groves, fruit orchards, miscellaneous goods, cash reserves, and outstanding loans. They even jointly owned furniture, copper kitchen utensils, and the clothes they wore.[48] Putting into and eating out of the same pot, so to speak, lent itself to capital accumulation and concentration in ways far better suited to large-scale investments than if each adult family member managed his or her separate income and expenses.

The forces behind this concentration did not dissipate as a result of Sayyid As‘ad’s death, for the deceased’s oldest son, Hajj Yusuf, quickly moved to take his father’s place. In fact, Hajj Yusuf secured his appointment as the legal guardian (wasi) over his male siblings—all in their legal minority—before his father died. He also became the legal agent for his two sisters, who were in their legal majority, and represented them in court. With the competition out of the way and his father’s half of the family firm’s resources intact and centralized in his own hands, the fast-paced accumulation of property and wealth interrupted by his father’s death continued without delay. Only a few days after the estate was settled in court, Hajj Yusuf and his uncle resumed in earnest the purchase of dozens of olive groves, shops, oil presses, and houses, each paying half the cost.[49]

This reconstitution of the family firm was consolidated through an orchestrated set of appearances before the court by Hajj Yusuf’s relatives. Only four days after the settlement was recorded, his mother went to court and testified that she was entitled to nothing from the property of her husband, other than what she had received when the estate was divided.[50] That same day Hajj Yusuf bought all of her shares in twenty parcels of agricultural land—mostly olive groves and fruit orchards located just outside the city—in addition to her shares in three shops inside the city.[51] None of these shares included property in the soap factory, residence, warehouses, olive presses, or other such real estate. Because none of these properties was mentioned in the inheritance estate, one can safely assume that she (in)voluntarily excluded herself from the bulk of the revenue-producing immovable properties that the Bishtawi brothers had accumulated. This, in itself, was not an unusual situation. Women in corporate households, as Deniz Kandiyoti has persuasively argued, consider sons their most critical resource, and “ensuring their life-long loyalty is an enduring preoccupation.”[52] If a woman was to enjoy protection as well as exercise control and authority, especially over other women and certainly over her daughters-in-law, the support of her sons was absolutely essential. Handing over inherited commercial properties to her sons, therefore, could enhance both their status in the household and their loyalty to her.

A few months later Hajj Yusuf also bought one of his sister’s shares in exactly the same properties that their mother had sold. Two days after that, his other sister went to court and testified that she had no claims against her brother. Even the extended family was not spared this quest for centralization: Hajj Yusuf and his uncle put up equal capital to buy parcels of agricultural land, mostly olive groves on the outskirts of Nablus, from less wealthy relatives.[53]

The concentration of wealth was paralleled by the vertical integration of soap production. Sayyids As‘ad and Sa‘id financed the construction of their own soap factory by converting a building of warehouses and shops in the Wikala Asaliyya.[54] They also purchased shares in another soap factory.[55] Not content to cook soap for merchants in return for a fee, profitable as that arrangement was, they also cooked soap for their own account—that is, they combined the role of soap merchants with that of factory owners.

At the time of Sayyid As‘ad’s death 80 percent of the soap left on the floor of their factory’s al-mafrash was commissioned by other merchants. As illustrated in Table 8, the amount of soap commissioned varied from merchant to merchant and was measured in terms of the oil provided.

8. Commissions for Soap in the Bishtawi Estate, 1857
Name Oil Jars Value of Cooked Soap (in Piasters)
Source: NICR, 12:205-206.    
Hajj Ahmad Abi Odeh 187.5 16,875
Ahmad and Abdullah Qumhiyya 250.0 22,500
Hajj Salman Sadder 400.0 36,000
Hajj Umar Tamimi 437.5 38,765
Qasim Nabulsi 62.5 5,625
Khawaja Salim Zarifa 250.0 22,500
Khalil Mustafa Masri 5.0 450
Wife of Sa‘id Bishtawi 2.5 220
Total 1595.0 142,940

Each of these items was recorded as “To [name of merchant], oil cooked into soap [zayt matbukh sabun],” which shows that the merchant’s share of soap was measured by the amount of oil he provided. Except for the Sadder brothers, there were no joint commissions for soap production, but some merchants only commissioned parts of one tabkha.

The key point here is that the Bishtawi brothers cooked for their own account 20 percent of the factory’s entire output for that cycle (each cycle filled the al-mafrash and, as soon as the soap was dry enough to be cut and stacked, another cycle was started). This meant an investment of 40,000 piasters in this particular cycle (there were 180,000 piasters’ worth of uncut soap still lying on the mafrash floor). This was a sizable investment, but only part of the whole: still left in the storage rooms inside their factory were 297 qintars of qilw, 375 qintars of lime, and 644 piasters’ worth of jift. These amounts of raw materials were adequate for at least 28 to 30 more tabkhas of soap, or three and a half times as much as had already been cooked.

In order to secure the large amounts of olive oil they needed every year, the Bishtawi brothers pursued a two-track strategy: landownership and moneylending. They acquired numerous olive groves outside the city, along with olive-oil presses, and they established a network of salam moneylending contracts with individual peasants to cover the shortfall. At the time of Sayyid As‘ad’s death, a number of salam loans were left outstanding with peasants from eight villages: Asira, Rafidya, Aqraba, Bayta, Adhmut, Salim, Ajansinya, and Bayt Dajan. All but one are located in a single subdistrict. The geographic concentration of moneylending patterns fits with the usual practice of urban merchant networks that sought to carve out spheres of influence in the hinterland.

In short, the Bishtawi brothers had the capital and political influence to finance and organize the production of soap from the ground up. They were at one and the same time moneylenders, oil merchants, soap manufacturers, and large landowners. Their estate also showed that they traded in rice, coffee, grain, and other goods. As mentioned in Chapter 2, labels such as “merchant,” “manufacturer,” and “landowner” should not be thought of as separate categories or as denoting discrete classes. Most wealthy Nabulsi households engaged in all of these activities simultaneously, though they rarely divided their resources equally among them. Patterns of investment strategies, therefore, are important indicators of larger political and economic developments. In this particular case, the Bishtawi brothers’ heavy emphasis on soap production illustrates the shifting investment strategies that laid the material basis for the entry of merchants into the formerly exclusive club of soap-factory owners and, indirectly, the crystallization of a new ruling elite by the mid-nineteenth century.

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