Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.

Family, Culture, and Trade


Sometime around the end of the nineteenth century, Hajj Isma‘il Arafat received the following letter from a peasant who was preparing to attend a wedding:

Our Respected Brother, Abu Ahmad…
After inquiring about that most dear to us, the health of your Noble Person, I put before you that since you will be receiving, through Mustafa Abd al-Latif, 2.5 French liras, 0.25 Majidi, 5 piasters, 1.5 bishlik, and 1 Majidi riyal, for a total of 336 [piasters], you might find it convenient to fill our order. We need a Haffari dimaya of pleasing form and fixed color; a dark-colored cloak [abaya] like the one you sent us earlier, with a head cover…and of a kind that you know to be of good quality. The [cloak’s] length should be to below the knee. [Also send us] a fez and shoes. For the ladies, [send us] two and a half good-quality pieces of Haffari dima of fixed color, so that [the women] can tailor them at home. [Also], four arms’ lengths of mansuri [cloth] and a large fez…and, very important, two undergarments, four pieces of good-quality ibrim ansiri, and four ladies’ handkerchiefs. Make a bill of sale for the value of the goods, so that we could sign on to it verbally and in writing, as we did last year. Trustworthiness is yours; please do not worry [about the payment] and convey our regards to your children, and we wish you all the best.


Uthman Abd al-Wahhab

[P.S.] We hope that you can send us the cloak immediately, before the other goods, because the one I have is no longer adequate. [For] you are well aware that there is a wedding coming up at Abu Muhammad’s, and a new cloak is important for a good image because strangers as well as relatives will be attending. In any case, if you do not have [such a cloak], please get it from someone else. If no one has the kind I described to you earlier, send us a good-quality one made out of wool.[95]

The above is one of many such letters involving the purchase of textiles in preparation for a wedding. Religious holidays and major life events all were occasions for the purchase of clothes, but weddings were the most important by far. Like other rituals, weddings served many purposes: enhancing or affirming status, redistributing wealth among poor family members and neighbors, making allies, reconciling enemies, and sealing kinship bonds. Weddings, in short, were important exercises in power and influence and were central to the formation and cementing of ties within peasant clans and village communities.[96]

The purchase of clothes for weddings was a major social, economic, cultural, and political undertaking. The bride and groom were not the only ones who received clothes. Depending on the amount of resources available, the state of relations between families and clans, parents, paternal and maternal uncles, other relatives, neighbors, and even leaders of other clans in the village could also expect to receive gifts of clothes.[97] The aim was to reinforce clan solidarity, to recognize the importance of the village collective, and to secure the blessings of both.

In the estates of Shaykh Abd al-Razzaq Arafat and of his grandson, Sa‘id, one can find all the varieties of textiles usually worn by peasants, especially items for weddings: silk belts (sing. zinnar harir), brightly colored silk headbands (sing. asaba), scarves (manadil), and plenty of kamkh, a type of velvet traditionally worn at weddings.[98] These and other basic items of formal outerwear for men and women, when put together, formed a kiswa.

According to Darwaza, “A few [Khan al-Tujjar] merchants sell textiles that only city people use. Most sell textiles used by both the city and village people, and most of those trade primarily in the kiswa needs of village people.”[99] Although the word kiswa is popularly associated with the clothes bought for a bride before her wedding, it was also used in a much more general sense to refer to a set of clothes or wardrobe which might include nontextile items, such as shoes or jewelry.[100]

Each type of kiswa had specific components. These components differed according to local preferences and changed over time. Both Darwaza and Masri described the specific components of various kiswas and the ways in which they were prepared. Darwaza, for example, noted that at around the turn of the twentieth century many large textile merchants prepared the basic kiswas of daily wear in advance and sold them as ready packages to peasants:

Some [merchants in Khan al-Tujjar] prepared kiswas for village people [consisting] of qanabiz [sing. qunbaz], sadari [waistcoats], qumsan [shirts], and sarawil [trousers]. Some were good at tailoring, so they cut [clothes], then put them out to home-based women who sewed them. Some sent the clothes to tailors.…My father and other colleagues were the kind who prepared kiswas and sold them ready-made. My father and grandfather used to cut the cloth with their own hands and then send them to our women and the women of our neighbors to sew them.[101]

Malik Masri, who learned the trade from his father and paternal uncles, wrote that wedding kiswas during the early twentieth century always included a silk saya (a type of qunbaz) and cloaks, the most expensive of which were made out of camel hair. He added that many textile merchants supplied headbands as complementary gifts to those peasants who came to the city and bought a kiswa.[102] He also made a distinction between kiswas for the bride and groom and those for relatives.[103] The former, for example, were formally divided into three parts—underwear, outerwear, and headwear—each of which had its specific components. Masri also claimed that the types and colors did not change over time, implying that the kiswa packages may have become rigidly formalized by the early twentieth century. Yet, judging from a series of textile orders included in the Arafat family papers, changes in fashion did take place, and there seems to have been a wide range of fabrics, colors, and styles from which to choose.[104] The final product reflected individual preferences because most peasant households, as the above letter illustrates, tailored their own everyday clothes. Masri, for example, noted that except for headgear and expensive silks, these textiles were sold by the shaqqa (piece), measuring around seven arms’ lengths, or approximately 475 centimeters. These pieces were cut from a large bolt, and whatever could not be sewn by the peasants themselves was sent to tailors in the city. He added that peasants from the western part of Jabal Nablus normally wore brighter colors than did those from the easter part and that they preferred silk belts made in Lebanon.[105]

In order to purchase the kiswa, peasants walked or rode donkeys to Nablus (and later on Jenin[106]) in groups referred to as mawkibal-kassaya (procession of the wedding-wardrobe purchasers), so named because they usually entered the city with fanfare: singing, dancing, and carrying gifts in kind. James Finn, British consul in Jerusalem, stumbled on such a scene in the vicinity of Haifa in mid-September, 1855:

Next day passing Tantoora and Athleet, and round the promontory of Carmel as the sun set, we arrived at Caifa, where we remained a few days, during which the ladies had the opportunity of seeing peasant holiday costumes different from those of the far south country; for a wedding being about to take place at Teereh [village], all or nearly all of the women repaired together in procession to Caifa, to purchase dresses and ornaments for the occasion, and they returned in similar line wearing the new dresses, very bright in colours, and singing a chorus as they swiftly shuffled along the road. Another similar body from another village did the same two or three days later, but returned with the music of drums and flutes.[107]

Because most villages were a day’s travel away from Nablus, peasants remained one to three nights in the merchant’s house, where they were provided with dinners, coffee, and sleeping accommodations. Masri recalled that females stayed in an extra room in their house, usually reserved for this purpose, while the men slept in the garden (hakura).[108] He added that the dinners were fairly substantial. Usually the meal consisted of big chunks of lamb over rice which, in turn, lay on a bed of bread soaked with cooked yogurt or tomato sauce.[109] According to Najib and Saba Arafat, sleeping accommodations at Hajj Isma‘il’s big house, located in the Qaryun quarter (demolished by the British during the 1936–1939 rebellion), were also segregated. Peasant women were housed in a room upstairs; accommodations for male peasant clients were set aside on the ground floor, which also contained a diwan (large reception room), stables, a water cistern, and a large fruit orchard.[110] Najib Arafat added that although food and lodging were made available to them, the same was not extended to their animals, which they had to leave somewhere else.

For the older members of merchant families, peasant guests were, more often than not, a burden. But for the younger members, especially females who did not venture far into public space, the evening festivities were one of the most pleasant memories of childhood. Umm Walid, Najib Arafat’s wife, observed that “peasants added a beautiful atmosphere to the house, because the occasion was one of happiness. After dinner, they would take out the dirbakka [a conical, one-headed hand drum open at one end] and sing and dance all night long.”[111]

Although some clients offered a small downpayment at the time of the purchase, most asked to have their payment postponed until the grain- or olive-harvest season. In letter after letter to Hajj Isma‘il Arafat, peasants assured him that he should not worry about payment. Typical is the following letter from a well-to-do peasant dated April 24, 1900; that is, the beginning of the wedding season:


1.5 [pieces] solid white thawb [light cotton cloth worn under the qunbaz]

1.5 [pieces] black thawb

5 blue hatta [head covers], of large size

5 manadil [head kerchiefs], red…

3 manadil…with black tassels

1/2 bundle of blue shalayil [long round columns made of cotton/silk strings].

To the most eminent and high standing, our father, Hajj Isma‘il Afandi Arafat, may he be preserved. Amen!

After greetings and inquiry about your most distinguished person…our father, we need these goods from you. Please choose them from high-quality materials and do not delay at all in sending them to us with the bearer of this letter. He has with him one French lira, and the rest put on our account. We, God willing, will come to see you soon, and please do not worry. We plead with you emphatically that you choose good [pieces] and do not delay in sending them.…Our greetings to you and your family and children and all those in your well-endowed shop.…

Your Son,

Sa‘id Hajj Zubayda

[P.S.] Let the bearer know the remaining cost.[112]

The writer’s promise to travel soon to Nablus usually meant soon after the harvest season, when payment was expected in cash, not kind.[113] Sometimes, however, arrangements were made for payment in jars of olive oil or measures of wheat.[114] Darwaza described the process as follows:

Some [textile] merchants sold to whoever passed by, others had agents, and some combined both. My father and other colleagues were of the latter kind. The agents were mostly peasants who bought their kiswa on credit until the grape, fig, oil, wheat, or barley seasons. Of course, the price was higher than cash sales [and varied] according to the length of the loan. They used to write IOUs on the peasants, specifying the payment date. When the harvest season…arrived, the agents came to sell their seasonal harvest and to pay their debts. The shop owners used to go to their agent’s villages to check on their loans. My father and grandfather had agents in the villages of Hajja, Bayta, and Bayt Amrayn.…I went with them more than once.[115]

Upon arrival, textile merchants usually tied their horses next to the oil press (badd) or the threshing floor (baydar), symbolically signaling their intention to collect their due. Practically, they could keep an eye on the economic health of both the overall harvest and the individual peasant household. Sometimes they would remain steadfast in this prime location until the entire debt was paid. Larger and richer merchants, such as the Arafats, employed horsemen (khayyala), each referred to as al-jabi (collector), who would ride into these villages and demand payment. The collectors, often peasants themselves, were well suited for this task, for they were keenly attuned to possible evasive tactics and tricks. Often the peasants could not or would not pay. But the collectors prolonged their stay, thus taking advantage of the peasant tradition of hospitality (diyafa), whereby the village collectively provided lodging, food, and other services to visitors in a special room in the village square (madafa).[116]

To maximize their returns while maintaining some flexibility, the textile merchants—like tax collectors, politicians and subdistrict chiefs—played the “good cop/bad cop” game.[117] According to Najib Arafat, his half-brother Ahmad and Ahmad’s sons, including Tawfiq, relied heavily on horsemen to collect debts, whereas his other brothers were less strict with the peasants.

Because a peasant’s ability to pay fluctuated widely, depending on a number of factors from weather conditions to tax burdens, bankruptcies were not uncommon in the ranks of textile merchants who operated on a system of credit. The estate of Abd al-Razzaq Arafat is a case in point. More than a century later, two of Hajj Isma‘il Arafat’s sons also went bankrupt, when they were unable to collect from peasants.[118]

In large villages, such as Jaba, the agents of textile merchants alsodoubled as middlemen who collected debts, placed orders on behalf of other peasants, and recommended potential customers from other villages. One such agent was Salih Yusuf, from the village of Kafr Qaddum. In 1897, he sent a letter of introduction to Hajj Isma‘il: “Please note that you will soon be visited by Ahmad Abadi, from the village of Kafr Qari. He intends to purchase his kiswa from you. So please, and for my sake, take care of him with good-quality tailoring and kamkh [cloth]. My regards.”[119]

In another letter, Mustafa Abu Asa, a long-time customer/agent, informed Hajj Isma‘il that he was placing a large order on behalf of a relative. Apparently the relative thought that he would get a better price and special treatment if he went through the connection (wasta) of an agent. Mustafa requested that the bill be put on his account and stated that he would personally come to pay it off. Then he asked Isma‘il Arafat to give his relative a discount as a gesture of their friendship.[120]

Some of these agents took advantage of their urban connection to venture into the retail trade in the countryside. As the following debt contract shows, they bought large quantities of textile goods on credit from wholesale urban merchants:

Price of a bundle (farda) of unprocessed [calico] foreign-made goods: 3210.10        
Price of foreign-made yarn, 9.5 ratl: 487.10        
Only 3,739 piasters and no more. Price of piaster: 5.75; price of warzi: 7 piasters.

Today, a man in his majority, Qasim son of Muhammad I‘days al-Hammur from the village of Jaba, acknowledged and testified that he…owes…Isma‘il Arafat the above-mentioned amount…for the [above-mentioned goods] which he legally purchased.…Payment is delayed for a period of three months, starting today, November 23, 1879. Mansur al-Mas‘ud al-Hammur and Amir al-Kaffan from the above-mentioned village have guaranteed the entire loan and assured complete payment, including penalty.[121]

Family, Culture, and Trade

Preferred Citation: Doumani, Beshara. Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1995 1995.