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Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1770-1900.

Reviewed by Mahmood Ibrahim

Professor Doumani has made an outstanding contribution not only to the study of Palestine but also to Ottoman studies as a whole. The framework that he utilizes is conceptually tight, yet elastic enough that it could serve as a model for different regions of the Ottoman empire, and other area studies as well:, thus making his contribution both empirically and theoretically meaningful. This framework, analyzing the "social lives" or career patterns of four locally produced commodities, allows him to discuss many aspects in the social, political and cultural history of Jabal Nablus, the economic and social center of Palestine during the 18th and 19th Centuries.

The sources Doumani employs are equally noteworthy. In addition to primary archival documents, (such as Islamic court records (sijills) and travel accounts), he introduces the records of the Municipal Council of Nablus and, most importantly, local family papers, most of which are made available here for the first time. All these sources were read critically and sensitively. Accordingly, Doumani weaves a rich tapestry of Palestinian society integrating the peasantry, the merchants, urban notables and government officials in an intimate yet accessible narrative of a society that is resilient and dynamic.

This aspect of Doumani's study is in stark contrast to the usual images of Palestine as a depressed, economically devastated, politically chaotic and sparsely populated region. Whether mobilizing to repulse foreigners like Napoleon or locals like al-Jazzar, notables, merchants and others in Nablus were conscious of an identity that did not wait for a firman to be stirred into action. The liveliness of Palestinian society is also evident in his discussion of the "social lives" and "social space" of cotton and textiles. Doumani brings to light how commercial agriculture developed, how it prepared the integration of Palestine in the world market economy, and the influence of such integration on local and regional political structures. He also discusses how textile merchants produced and reproduced their trading networks and how those merchants gradually integrated the hinterland of Nablus with its own urban structure. The importance of textile in the cultural context is discussed by Doumani and underscored by weddings, feasts and other holidays which became the very occasions not only for commercial transactions, but also for social and political construction of an identity.

The resiliency of this society is also shown in the discussion of the circumstances surrounding the rise of olive oil production and the creation of a market network and its regional and provincial extensions. Thus, after local textiles met stiff competition from European textiles, Nabulsi merchants shifted their investment priorities to olive oil and soap manufacturing, making it a profitable enterprise for Jabal Nablus and its merchants. In this context, the salam moneylending contracts and their effects on the peasant differentiation, monetarizing of rural economy, the commoditization of land, and the accumulation of profit and power of some merchants (urban and rural) are discussed. It becomes evident that much of these developments form the backdrop to similar transformations that took place in Palestine during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century (after the 1858 Ottoman Land Law) and the arrival of the Zionists.

Soap production, as Doumani explains, was a capital- and labor-intensive industry. In tracing the career pattern of soap, Doumani once again brings to light significant related issues such as the social hierarchy of soap production, marketing, organization and the resultant class transformation, especially the rise of rural and urban merchants and their domination of the newly formed Municipal Council which began to wield significant power vis-avis the centralizing efforts of the Tanzimat era.

This book is a welcome addition. In its sources, organizational framework, ideas and insights, the challenges it poses for the field, and its delightful and accessible prose, this study is an ideal model for classroom discussion on source utilization, peasant studies, and provincial history.

Mahmood Ibrahim is Chair, Department of History, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
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Author:Ibrahim, Mahmood
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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