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Soap, Class, and State
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Of all the social groups in Palestinian society during the Ottoman period, bedouins have been the most stereotyped. Advocates of modernization theory who contrast the so-called traditional period with the modern era place a heavy explanatory burden on bedouins by portraying them as the agents of backwardness, stagnation, and anarchy. For example, in setting the stage for the beginnings of modernization in Greater Syria, Moshe Ma‘oz described the period before the Egyptian invasion in unambiguously negative terms, giving bedouins the lion’s share of the blame: “[Bedouins were] the chief cause of the destruction of the countryside and the subsequent ruin of agriculture and commerce. These powerful nomads infested the Syrian provinces, pillaged caravans and travellers along the roads, ravaged large pieces of cultivated land, and even dared to raid villages that were situated on the outskirts of big towns.”[61]

In support of his view that the Egyptian occupation “put an end to a long period of confusion and backwardness, and opened a new era in Syrian history,” Ma‘oz casts the bedouin in a role similar to that of the ancient barbarians at the gates of Rome.[62] The inevitable results, we are told, were anarchy, depopulation, and a drastic decline in economic productivity.[63]

Although sometimes nomads could be very destructive, the view of bedouins as essentially predatory and a threat to civilization is no longer widely shared. The emphasis has shifted from antagonism to linkages, gray areas, and complementary roles between the settled and nomadic populations as they interacted in a larger socioeconomic system.[64] In the words of Talal Asad:

The basic opposition, therefore, is not between nomads and sedentaries, but between those who engage in the production of surplus and those who have control of such surplus.…This is especially important in the historic Middle East where pastoral, agricultural, and trade activities are interdependent parts of a single economic system, where different elements of the exploitable population are mobilized at different levels to support the power structure, and where—in consequence—popular rebellions have often involved the temporary alliance of peasants and pastoralists.[65]

There is much in the history of Jabal Nablus to support Asad’s contentions. To begin with, the lines between nomads and peasants in Palestine were blurred. M. Volney, whose work is often cited to support the view of bedouins as predators, had this to say about the interpenetration of bedouin and peasant life:

[A]s often as the different hordes and wandering tribes find peace and security, and a possibility of procuring sufficient provisions, in any district, they take up their residence in it and adopt, insensibly, a settled life, and the arts of cultivation. But when, on the contrary, the tyranny of governments drives the inhabitants of a village to extremity, the peasants desert their houses, withdraw with their families into the mountains or wander in the plains, taking care frequently to change their place of habitation, to avoid being surprised.[66]

A few pages later Volney offered a second significant observation: not all bedouins are the same. Those of the Beka valley, Jordan, and Palestine, he noted, “approach nearer to the conditions of the peasants; but these [tribes] are despised by the others who look upon them as bastard arabs.”[67] John Lewis Burckhardt, another contemporary observer, described how the nomads of the Jordan Valley cultivated wheat, barley, and dhura (a variety of sorghum). He also noted that some tribes “belonged” to Nazareth and Jabal Nablus—meaning that they were linked to the urban centers in a subordinate manner.[68]

There is little doubt that bedouin tribes were indeed within the sphere of mobilization of urban power centers. During the 1854–1858 internal conflict in Nablus, for example, both urban-led factions boasted bedouin allies and referred to them as junior—though fierce and valuable—partners.[69] The same held true during factional struggles in the Jerusalem, Hebron, and Gaza regions.[70] Nimr’s view of relations between bedouin tribes and the leaders of Jabal Nablus uncannily supports Asad’s argument: “The princes of Jabal Nablus did not subordinate themselves to the bedouin but exploited them instead. They disciplined the bedouin of neighboring regions and forced them to abide by an alliance system in order to secure the means of transportation, so that the caravans of Nablus were able to reach all neighboring regions and from there to the various parts of the Ottoman Empire.”[71]

As Nimr’s comments explain and, more important, as the prosperity of Jabal Nablus in the eighteenth century clearly demonstrates, economic life could and did thrive through continually reproduced and negotiated alliance systems.[72] The occasional breakdowns were merely the exceptions that proved the rule. If one puts aside spectacular accounts of a few bedouin raids and focuses on the routines of everyday life, mutual dependency and cooperation become clear. For instance, the area east of the River Jordan where most of the bedouins dwelled was economically integrated by Nabulsi merchants as a source of, among other things, olive oil, livestock (sheep, goats, horses, camels), clarified butter (samn), and, most of all, qilw. This district also constituted an important market for Nabulsi manufactures and trade goods, such as textiles, weapons, and metal products. This is not to mention the fact that many of the clans that made Jabal Nablus their home could trace their origins to the eastern desert. As shown in Chapter 1, this economic integration was expressed politically through the creation of a combined district in 1867 called Jabal Nablus and al-Balqa.

The social history of soap fits well with Talal Asad’s contention that interdependency of economic activities was the organizing framework. There was not a single relationship of an everyday nature that tied bedouins with Jabal Nablus in a subordinate but mutually dependent manner more thoroughly than the supply of qilw for soap production. Until the introduction of caustic soda in the 1860s, large numbers of bedouins from the Bani-Sakhr, Huwaytat, and Adwan tribes gathered barilla in the valleys of M‘an, especially around Salt and Tadmur (Palmyra).[73] In the summertime they piled these plants in towering stacks, burned them, gathered the ashes and coals into sacks, and carried them to Nablus in large caravans.[74]

Burckhardt witnessed this process in 1812, and had this to say about the complex reciprocal obligations built around the qilw trade and other economic contacts with bedouins:

The Arabs of the Belka [Balqa], especially the Beni Szakher [Bani Sakhr], bring here Kelly or soap-ashes, which they burn during the summer in large quantities: these are bought up by a merchant of Nablous, who has for many years monopolized the trade in this article. The soap-ashes obtained from the herb Shiman, of the Belka, are esteemed the best in the country…They are sold by the Arabs…but the purchaser is obliged to pay heavy duties upon them. The chief of the Arabs of El Adouan…exacts for himself five piasters from every camel load, two piasters for his writer, and two piasters for his slave. The town of Szalt [Salt] takes one piaster for every load, the produce of which duty is divided among the public taverns of the town. The quantity of soap-ashes brought to the Osha market amounts, one year with another, to about three thousand camel loads. The Nablous merchant is obliged to come in person to Szalt in autumn. According to old customs, he alights at a private house, all the expenses of which he pays during his stay; he is bound also to feed all strangers who arrive during the same period at Szalt; in consequence of which the Menzels [public taverns] remain shut; and he makes considerable presents on quitting the place. In order that all the inhabitants may share the advantages arising from his visits, he alights at a different house every year.[75]

Burckhardt’s observation that three thousand camel loads were sent to Nablus annually in the early nineteenth century seems to be fairly accurate. Each tabkha of soap required at least 7 camel loads, or qintars of qilw. Because Nablus soap production ranged, at the very least, from 100 to 400 tabkhas a year, a minimum of 700 to 2,800 camel loads arrived in Nablus annually. Merchants from Nablus and the town of Salt also exported qilw to nearby soap-producing centers, such as Gaza, Jaffa, Lydda, Jerusalem, and Acre.[76]

Nablus merchants put conditions on the type and quality of qilw as well as on the time of delivery. According to Nimr, caravan shaykhs expected, in return, a certain percentage of the overall price as commission upon delivery, as well as some “gifts” in kind. For instance, Nimr claims that for every 100 camel loads, the caravan leader received money plus one large basket (quffa) of rice, as well as one ratel each of tobacco, sugar, soap, and coffee. He also received a cloak, a pair of boots, and a fur saddle blanket.[77]

This system did not materialize overnight, nor was the web of relations connecting Jabal Nablus with Salt and the bedouin tribes so fragile that it could not overcome the bedouins’ alleged natural urge to pillage. On the contrary, the key elements of this network of mutual dependency, rights, and obligations—sometimes contested, sometimes jealously guarded—were reproduced over time and space by the conscious participation of all of its members.

This network was also flexible enough to adjust to changing conditions, such as the tripling of demand for qilw supplies to Nablus over the course of the nineteenth century. In addition, when the Ottoman state established a permanent military presence on the east bank of the River Jordan beginning in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, these relations became channels for the large flow of capital into this area. Wealthy Nabulsi families quickly established a permanent presence and soon became the region’s leading moneylenders, landowners, merchants, and, later on, public officials.[78] Not surprisingly, many of these families came to occupy important positions in the Jordanian government during the twentieth century.

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