Sherene Seikaly. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 30, Issue 3. 2018.
On 5 April 1948, Fuad Saba, founder of the accounting firm Saba and Company, wrote the Arab Higher Committee (AHC)—the Palestinian national leadership body that originally came together during the Great Revolt of 1936-9—to request an exit permit. Khalil Sa’ada, the assistant director of Saba’s Jaffa office (founded in 1920) was moving to the company’s Baghdad branch. Along the way, he would stop at the firm’s Beirut and Damascus offices. Once in Baghdad, Sa’ada could better serve the Arab Bank and other Palestinian businesses that were relocating their headquarters. The year 1948 marked the birth of Israel and the death of contiguous Palestine. A 17 March 1948 letter from the National Committee of Bir al-Sab’i implored the AHC: “We are being attacked and the Jews are close to taking over all of the transportation roads between Palestine and Egypt, please lend us tanks and heavy machinery or direct us to where we can buy [them] … We have sent you many requests but have not received military attention or organization … we are without leadership or direction.”
Urgency and desperation united the requests the AHC received in those momentous months on the eve of the Palestinians’ massive displacement. But Saba’s tone was measured. Saba and the businessmen he traveled with were rapidly transferring their capital and interests to other parts of the Arab world as they faced the national defeat that would indelibly mark their trajectories. In the 1930s, these men drew on diverse philosophies to craft economic thought and envision an economic nahda, or renaissance. They defined themselves as “men of capital” (rijal mal). These men (and to a lesser extent women) preached to their elite brethren about the proper spending and saving patterns that would ensure Palestinian progress in a pan-Arab utopia of free trade, private property, and self-responsibility.
In their developmentalist projects, Saba and his colleagues did their best to sever the economic from the political. They lobbied the British colonial government for institutions, statistical surveys, and calculations. They believed these were necessary for realizing a healthy economic life. They knew that the British Mandate and its foundational commitment to the Zionist enterprise in Palestine subordinated them as political subjects. They both collaborated with and resisted this subordination, engineering initiatives that wedded economic achievement to national independence. Shut out of institutional spaces, men of capital proselytized the economy not as a science of markets but as a science of the self. They differentiated between needs and luxuries and emphasized the imperative of management while creating and guarding new notions of class and status. In their periodical, Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-‘Arabiyya (Arabic economic journal), these men of capital were careful not to address the “Great Revolt” (1936-9). At the same time, some of them funded the rebels. During this time, Saba himself took part in the AHC’s effort to wrestle the revolt from the hands of the rebels and contain one of their most radical demands: social change. The British colonial government exiled Saba and his colleagues, such as the banker and dissident Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, for this leadership.
The end of the 1930s was a period of devastation for the farmers and villagers, who were the large majority of Palestinians. Landlessness and indebtedness had plagued most Palestinians throughout the mandate period (1923-48). The British colonial government’s brutal counterinsurgency during the revolt further heightened these conditions. Bankruptcy, unemployment, house demolitions, mass detentions, torture, and the wounding, imprisonment, exile, or killing of over 10 percent of Palestinian males were the consequences of this brutality (Khalidi 2006, 108). In 1939, Saba and Ibrahim, alongside the better-known Palestinian national leader, al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini, waited in their Seychelles exile for news from the ground. The news came. Total war was on the horizon, and it would irreversibly change the course of the years to come.
The onset of World War II meant an influx of capital, war-induced industrialization, and the implementation of ambitious rationing, distribution, and marketing schemes. The British colonial government transformed Palestine into the Empire’s second largest military base in the Middle East after Egypt. A crisis of supply and an abiding fear of further upheaval forced the British colonial government to begin calculating bodies and their consumption in Palestine. New indices such as the calorie and the cost of living, wrapped in the ambiguous folds of the science of nutrition and the aim of colonial development, became tools of governing. War forced British colonial rule to measure people and their consumption. Their incoherent efforts to assure “food for all” and implement a “nutritional economy” revealed the depth of two decades of apathetic rule and the extent to which British rule could never envision a future for Palestine or the Palestinians (Seikaly 2016, 77-102).
Perhaps one could imagine that men like Saba and Ibrahim would welcome what appeared to be a colonial turn to a developing Palestinian economy. That economy, especially the “Arab” part of it, had never been fully legible, broken in its numerical representations into “Jewish” and “Arab” divides, with the former enjoying parastatal institutions and their calculations, of which the Palestinians could only dream. In the settler-colonial context of both British rule and Zionist settlement, the persistent juridical erasure of Palestinians as political actors meant they could never become developmental subjects. World War II brought this reality into stark focus. It was a time of deep crisis, exposing long-festering realities. Men like Saba and Ibrahim could no longer separate their economic visions from their political obligations. The self-proclaimed vanguard of the future turned away from their imaginings of a broad Arab horizon of commercial plenty. Through the nascent institutions of the chambers of commerce, they focused instead on the realities of scarcity and the urgency of managing basic needs. It was during the 1940s that they sought to address the many others who in the previous decade they had naturalized as their inferiors—those “Bedouins” and “peasants”—and as objects of representation. By that time, Palestinian men of capital understood that the economy was not simply a vehicle for individual and national uplift; it became linked to a continued presence in the land.
Very few would maintain that presence. The large majority of Palestinians, 700,000 to 800,000 people (Khalidi 1984), became stateless refugees as a result of the Nakba (or “catastrophe”) of 1948. The 150,000 Palestinians who did remain in the land became second-class citizens under military rule living in that 80 percent of Palestine that was now called Israel.
Saba, Ibrahim, and the businessmen and bankers who made money and shaped the economy in Palestine do not appear in the historical record. Their invisibility is not the result of one condition but a confluence of three factors. First is the historiography of settler colonialism in its British and Zionist articulations. Second are three characters that continue to dominate the historiographic scene: the aristocrat, the comprador, and the middle-class hero. Finally are the linked impulses of nostalgia, mourning, and idealization from pre-Nakba Palestine that flatten the topography of Palestinian social life.
Saba, along with Abd al-Muhsin al-Qattan, Hasib Sabagh, and Wahbe Tamari, among others, became leading figures in accounting, banking, contracting, and insurance throughout the Arab world. They accumulated wealth and expertise and took part in leading the commercial horizon they had imagined in the 1930s. Yet despite these successes, Saba was never the same after 1948. There was, his grandson explains, a lot of silence in the house. Saba remained in Beirut until his death. Not far from where he lived stood Sabra and Shatilla, refugee camps where many Palestinian refugees remain confined today.
Until 1948, the majority of Arabs in Palestine were small farmers and sharecroppers. The formation of large estates and the growing power of merchant capital in the late nineteenth century began causing the indebtedness and displacement that would come to characterize rural life (Anderson 2013, 379). Palestinians would survive the economic duress and famine of World War I only to face a new regime of colonial control that the League of Nations called mandatory rule. In 1919, the “Covenant of the League of Nations” divided the world into “advanced nations” and those peoples who were “not yet able to stand by themselves.” Based on the principles of “well-being and development,” the Covenant sought to provide “tutelage” to these not-yet-peoples of the former German and Ottoman territories, which the document further divided into a three-tiered hierarchy (A-B-C) based on potential for self-rule. The Covenant graded the Arab provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as A territories, whose independence could be provisionally recognized. Under the monitoring body of the Permanent Mandates Commission, the Mandate system was distinct from imperial frameworks because it promised eventual self-rule. At the same time, it continued what Uday Mehta (1999, 31) has called the metaphor of childhood that informed British liberal understandings of imperial subjects.
Mandatory rule in Palestine was exceptional. We typically interpret this exceptionalism as rooted in British support of Zionism, a result of conflicting promises to Arabs and Jews in a post-World War I order, and an outcome of British colonial ambiguity. These explanations lead to a faulty narrative framework that pits a settlement movement and a colonized people as equivalent national movements competing over one strip of land. This narrative has persisted until the present day, as has the reality on the ground of an occupier and an occupied that cannot be equated. The Mandate in Palestine was not exceptional simply because the colonial government supported one so-called side over another. The Mandate in Palestine was exceptional because it was the only case in which the Permanent Mandates Commission endorsed settler colonialism (Pederson 2005, 124).
The November 1917 Balfour Declaration inaugurated the British commitment to “a national home for the Jewish people” with the qualification that this would supposedly not prejudice “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.” This memorandum rendered Jewish an ethno-national category in Palestine. It defined the land and its inhabitants by this category, despite the fact that Jews constituted five percent of the people who lived in Palestine at the turn of the twentieth century (Campos 2009, 12). The memorandum rendered the majority of the Palestinians who lived on the land nameless. Two parallel processes began to take root: the partitioning of people into categories of Jewish and non-Jewish (deserving and undeserving of a national home) and the erasure of the Palestinian (who appeared now as a non-Jewish inhabitant bearing religious and civil, but not political, rights). One of the first partitions that took place after World War I was the separation of Palestinian Jews from their former Muslim and Christian brothers under Ottoman rule (18). What Edward Said (1979, 14) called the malicious simplifications of Arab and Jew began to harden. Despite scholarly arguments that the Balfour Declaration was primarily a piece of war propaganda and not a blueprint for British rule (Renton 2010), the two principles that the Declaration inaugurated—the erasure of the Palestinian and the partition of the people into those deserving versus those undeserving of a national home—became the foundation of the Mandate Document. Article 2 of that document recognized the Jewish Agency as the body responsible for realizing the Jewish national home in Palestine. It was the only non-Anglo institution that received official recognition in Mandate Palestine. Article 6 committed British colonial rule to Zionist land settlement and Jewish immigration. From its inception, British colonial rule was premised on enabling the settler movement and denying the possibility of politics to Palestinians. Mandate rule brought into law the Zionist mantra of “a land without a people for a people without a land.”
This mantra has enjoyed an impressive longevity. However, we should qualify its meaning to get at the specific condition of Palestinian invisibility in colonial epistemologies. Zionists of the late nineteenth century did not imagine that there were no people in the land of Palestine but rather that they were not a people. Theodor Herzl (1988) described a set of caricatures that inhabited what he called the land of Israel: the wealthy effendis who could be had for a price and the remaining impoverished peasants who could be smoothly removed without incident. These people were a motley crew without anything defining or unifying them. Zionists from various political leanings did not share Herzl’s confidence that the people who lived in Palestine would not be attached enough to their land to resist displacement (Ha’am 2004, 31-4). However, the Zionist emphasis on the lack of a politically coherent and distinct people in Palestine continued.
Zionists were hard at work shaping a cohesive settlement community and a new ethno-national understanding of what it meant to be Jewish. They called themselves the Yishuv. Zionism promised Jews who had suffered religious, political, and racial persecution for centuries in Europe that they could finally become European and realize their own nation-state, but only by leaving Europe. Anti-Semitism and Zionism shared a belief that Jews could never assimilate in Europe (Arendt 2007, 46-121). But the process of becoming European by realizing a settler colony would become an abundant source of persecution: for the Palestinians the settler colony’s existence was premised on erasure; the Eastern (Mizrahi) Jews did not fit the Ashkenazi (European) mold; and for the Ashkenazi, the journey across the Mediterranean required killing centuries of tradition, language, and culture to fit the mold of the new Jew (Alcalay 1993).
By the 1920s, the Zionists had realized a network of institutions that would become the foundation of the Israeli state. These included the governing body of the Jewish Agency; the Jewish National Fund, which Zionists had established in 1901 to purchase land; the labor organization of the Histadrut, which organized Jewish laborers during the Mandate; the military organization of the Haganah; and the Vaad Leumi, which was a Jewish people’s council that would become the Israeli parliament or Knesset in 1948. The British colonial administration bolstered the legitimacy of each of these institutions. In addition, as various crises of supply and informal markets during World War II amply indicate, these institutions often outranked the British colonial government in capital and expertise (Smith 1993, 94).
The British colonial government also supported Zionist enterprise in Palestine. Conventionally, colonial policy deemed tariff manipulation “uneconomic” (Smith 1993, 46). But the colonial government departed from this convention, supporting Yishuv industry through tariff manipulation. Article 11 of the Mandate stated that the colonial government could arrange with the Jewish Agency “to construct or operate, upon fair and equitable terms, any public works, services and utilities, and to develop any of the natural resources of the country” (League of Nations Council 1922). It was on this basis that the colonial government granted three major monopoly concessions to Zionist interests in the 1920s: the electricity concession to the Palestine Electric Corporation Ltd (est. 1923; see Shamir 2013), the Dead Sea salt concession to the Palestine Potash Company (est. 1929), and the salt concession in 1923 to the Athlit Salt Company (Smith 1993, 131). In addition, a long list of companies received specific customs concessions from the Palestine government. The emerging diamond industry, which flourished during World War II, received a concession from High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in 1923 to allow uncut diamonds duty-free entry, encouraging unprocessed exports (164). Other companies that received customs concessions on duty-free raw-material imports included Nesher Cement Company, Palestine Oil Industry (Shemen), Delfiner’s Silk Factory, Yehuda Steam Factory, Raanan Company (confectionaries), and Lodzia Textile Company. Economic historian Jacob Metzer (1998, 183) has argued that the claim that the prime beneficiaries of the tariffs were Jewish industrialists and that these benefits were in any way consequential remains “empirically unverified.” For Metzer, British colonial support was simply in response to the demands of what he calls a growing and modernizing Jewish-led economy (Smith 1993, 189). Beyond the value-based assessment of Jewish economic superiority deserving of colonial support, Metzer undermines his own argument. A brief glimpse at the historical record supports Barbara Smith’s point that the colonial government protected Jewish industry (131, 167).
The Zionist approach to the economy in Palestine posited a backward, primitive, semi-feudal Palestinian Arab society based on subsistence agriculture with an Islamic reluctance toward moneylending. In these accounts, Zionism civilized the Palestinian primitive-native in the late Ottoman and mandate period. Jewish capital introduced a set of progressive changes that benefited the peasant, or fellah (Ohana 1978). Never mind that Jewish land settlement and expropriation displaced the fellah, who became unemployed, a condition impossible on the land, as Nahla Zu‘bi (1984, 88-109) points out. But in these renditions, obdurately wedded to how settler-colonial economic growth could ostensibly benefit the colonized, Palestine is marked by two distinct economic systems with limited market relations (Eisenstadt 1967). There were two separate national economies: the traditional and backward Palestinian economy and the Jewish capitalist economy, and each developed independently. One sector did not exploit the other. What emerged was a competition between the two, accompanied by a crisis of modernization in the Arab sector (Flapan 1979).
Scholars such as Roger Owen, Alexander Scholch, and Beshara Doumani have overturned the conviction that Palestine came into the world capitalist system with the onset of British colonialism. Before 1882, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre were important export points for external trade. Nablus was the most important center for local and regional trade, manufacturing soap, oil, and cotton. Jaffa exported the produce of southern Palestine—wheat, barley, maize, olive oil, soap, oranges, and other produce—to France, Egypt, England, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Malta, and northern Syria (Owen 1982, 1-9).
Yet the dual economy model continues to be conventional wisdom. It is perhaps most potently articulated in Metzer’s study, The Divided Economy of Mandatory Palestine. The stark binary between the modern Jewish economy and the premodern Arab economy takes visual form on the cover of the paperback edition. There, a 1946 photograph depicts a camel caravan passing the electric power station in Tel Aviv. The image resonates with Metzer’s (1998, 208) reasoning that Zionist industry and economic growth were beneficial to Palestinians. Recent work has overturned these claims. Amos Nadan (2006) has effectively shown that Metzer’s claims of progressive growth in the Arab agrarian economy are unfounded.
Most of these accounts contain a resounding silence about Arab capitalist practice. The scanty and speculative character of figures on Palestinian wages, commerce, trade, and industry justifies this silence. Metzer (1998, 154; emphasis added) claims that “the dynamics of manufacturing in Mandatory Palestine was primarily, although definitely not exclusively, a Jewish story.” Thus, the Palestinian story becomes an acceptable gap in historical inquiry. This lack enables the divided-economy narrative of modern European industry versus traditional rural Palestinian agriculture to proceed unchecked. Certainly, the Yishuv’s forces in 1948 attempted to erase the Palestinian presence in the land as well as the records of that presence. Moreover, Metzer’s (2003, 14) claim that the Palestinians did not create statistical mechanisms for the systematic collection and analysis of economic data is correct. Ronen Shamir, building on the idea that the economy does not exist independently of the sciences that define and measure it, takes Metzer’s conclusion one step further. Since Arab economists did not assemble a separate economy, Shamir (2013, 137) explains, “The ‘Arab economy’ … perhaps may be better understood as a ‘negative assembly.’” This negative assembly “mainly existed as a kind of ephemeral shadow, appearing as the ambiguously inferior ‘other’ of its Jewish counterpart” (138). Shamir is of course correct in pointing to the Yishuv’s successful “politics of calculation” (134). But, here, archival absences can play a pernicious role. While there may be a Palestinian economic story, the documents that could reveal it do not exist. The assumption that there are no traces to unearth does not simply result in the story remaining untold. It leads to the conclusion that there is no story to tell.
As it turns out, there are stories to tell about Arabs, calculation, and economy in Palestine. The best response to these accounts of stories untold comes from a return to scholars like Baruch Kimmerling (1983a, 1983b) and Gershon Shafir (1989), who historicized Zionism in Palestine as a settler-colonial movement. Zachary Lockman has begun a relational approach that insists on understanding Zionism not as an isolated European phenomenon (or as a colonial subject and his shadow) but in its interaction with the land and the people of Palestine. This work in turn has inspired scholarship that seeks to study both Arab and Jewish life in Ottoman and Mandate Palestine. Yet in this scholarship, perceived or actual archival absences also lead to a particular formula: the Jews act, the Palestinians react. However, despite archival absences, scholars have provided intriguing portrayals of early twentieth-century Palestine as a dynamic time of cultural and literary production, as well as a period of significant social transformation that included an active women’s movement, labor organizing, mass mobilization, and popular politics. Still, the picture of Palestinian social life peopled by poor, illiterate masses of peasants and workers, alongside a small group of venal notables fraught with internecine competition, remains predominant.
The Aristocrat, the Comprador, the Hero, and the Catastrophe
In earlier periods in Palestine, social life does not appear quite so static and unchanging. Beshara Doumani revealed the rise and fall of old and new urban elites in relation to shifting village politics from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Yet as the historical trajectory edges closer to the British Mandate era, there is an intense scholarly investment in the predictability of elites, who appear doggedly out of step with the times. Weldon Matthews’s (2006) work on the Istiqlal Party in Palestine is an important corrective to this general trend of homogenizing elites. He addresses the growing influence of pan-Arab populism and destabilizes stock characters and stale strategies. But a scholarly insistence on the Palestinian elite as unchanging remains. Take, for example, the penchant to refer to families such as the Husseinis and Nashashibis as an “aristocracy.” Such a term is profoundly ahistorical, not simply in Palestine but for much of Europe as well. Parallel to the long life of the aristocracy as a social category of historical narrative is the continued insistence on describing early modern economic organization in Palestine as “feudal.” While less fashionable in academic circles, the moniker of the feudal, or iqta‘i, is still salient in everyday vernacular Arabic.
When they do take shape, they appear as compradors, indistinct or overwhelmingly Christian. For example, Walid Kazziha (1981) has argued that it was the notables in the Middle East who were the nascent bourgeoisie. They were compradors aligned with colonial rule while benefitting from economic growth and industrialization. In Palestine, Salim Tamari (2005) has argued that a “middling” new class of merchants and manufacturers was growing in the mandate period, particularly in the coastal cities of Gaza, Jaffa, Haifa, and Acre. However, this class was not distinguishable because of their organic links to landowners (Owen 1982, 199). Another characterization of this period is that many of these actors were Christian and thus exceptional. “Christian merchants” thus became an easily understood collective, who appear in some accounts as unified in their stance against the boycott and the revolt (Porath 1974, 1977). During Ottoman rule, affiliation with European consulates and institutions privileged Christians in the realms of education and capital accumulation. However, the sectarian representation of men of capital is a drastic misreading. Christians played important roles in the propagation of an economic nahda in Palestine, but they were not dominant among the men who forged their philosophies in periodicals like Iqtisadiyyat or in spaces like the chambers of commerce. Eliding sect with politics is also inaccurate. Christian businessmen such as Emile Butaji and Jad Suidan did oppose the boycott and the revolt in Haifa. But others, like Fuad Saba, funded the rebels. Moreover, Muslim businessmen like Ahmad Hilmi Pasha and Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim shared the concern that the revolt would lead to their economic ruin.
Historians have used the divides between the comprador and authentic economic nationalist to explain late capitalism and the failure of the national bourgeoisie to uproot older forms of economic power. Robert Vitalis has thoroughly upended the comprador and nationalist divide in his work on capitalists in Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars depicted that period as one of a confrontation between parasitic compradors that shunned productive investment and consorted with colonial power and a patriotic, nationalist faction. Vitalis (1995) argued that local investors created private enterprises and national industries because of their access to both state and foreign capital. He has shown how businessmen, irrespective of label, undermined British attempts to construct a neocolonial regime in the decades after World War I.
Palestinian businessmen, like their Egyptian counterparts, used nationalism in a flexible way to protect their interests (Vitalis 1990). They shaped an ideal “social man” and categorized people into ranks and classes based on education and vocation. Central to these categorizations was the “middle class” (al-tabqa al-wusta), which these men used to define themselves and their social world. In the optimistic 1930s, men of capital in Palestine confined the middle class to the so-called civilized people who were to embody a new kind of economic conduct. By the 1940s and in the face of both wartime constraints and the rapid erosion of political possibilities, men of capital expanded their understanding of the middle class to include what they called the authentic Bedouin and fellah who they sought to represent.
This shifting and exclusionary middle-class project has, like its protagonists, been subject to both neglect and celebration. Keith Watenpaugh (2006, 18) has suggested that this neglect is a wider phenomenon in Middle East historiography. Because of the impression of a slavish imitation of its European cognate, the middle class has embarrassed scholars and led to “a paucity of work on this group.” Watenpaugh (2012) has argued that the middle class in early twentieth-century Syria formed civil-society institutions that articulated participation, accountability, and equality as legitimate social expectations. This middle class failed to realize these expectations because its members were vulnerable to the bonds of religion, ethnicity, and family. But the time has come to question this rendition of civil society as a space distinct from and purified of other social loyalties. Perhaps, too, we should more carefully attend to a broader global conviction that the middle class has the potential to eradicate inequality and political instability (Weinstein and Lopez 2012, 3). As Barbara Weinstein and Ricardo Lopez point out, such a conviction positions the Anglo-American model as both universal and exceptional. In comparison, all other historical classes, within Europe and outside of it, will always be “found wanting” (8). But beyond the inevitability of frustrated emulation, the deeper problem is the middle class’s self-description as a force of positive social change. After all, the goals of eradicating inequality and instability are not necessarily compatible. The imperative of stability works, historically and in the present, not to challenge social and economic inequality but to govern it. As men of capital in Palestine put it in the 1940s, rebellion and uprising were “not in anyone’s interest.” Should we indict then, men of capital as the villains of the early twentieth century? This is a tempting conclusion, especially in light of the urge to explain the devastation of the Nakba.
When the story of a people pivots on a moment of tragic loss, the quiet before the storm is a source of nostalgia. As Rema Hammami (2003) points out, oral history and Nakba commemoration have taken on a life of their own in the West Bank, Gaza, and the various sites of Palestinian exile. There have been countless attempts to recreate the times of pre-Nakba Palestine (35-60). Some scholars continue to explain the outcome of 1948 as a result of a Palestinian “lack” and the absence of an “authentic nationalism” (Cohen 2008, 18). Idealization and nostalgia are linked to historical renditions of a period that epitomizes the failure to realize a nation-state. Given the widely scattered realities of Palestinians, the continued siege and occupation of Gaza, the occupation of the West Bank, and the persistence of statelessness, it is compelling to search the Palestinian historical record for what went wrong.
But in such a search, it is almost inevitable that nationalism—its “lack,” its “strength,” or its “weakness”—will stand as a metonym for politics. In some renditions, the weakness of normative nationalism—a “political deficiency” and a lack of a national “spirit”—resulted in, as the leading historian of collaboration continues to argue, the catastrophe of 1948 (Cohen 2008, 261, 263). In response, scholars have documented a national project among the Palestinians. This work is invaluable and has shifted the terms of debate as well as our understanding of the social and cultural geography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Palestine. However, to continue reveling in the marriage between national consciousness and politics reifies colonial epistemologies. Moving beyond nationalism as both the means and ends of politics is long overdue. Certainly, nationalism was one aspect of subjectivity formation, but it was not the only way to make politics.
What I seek to destabilize here is not whether or not Palestinians were sufficiently national, but to ask why that sufficiency and its lack remain the measuring stick for whether people can remain on the land they resided on for centuries. Must people’s investment in the shifting borders that imperial officials drew determine their status? Are there other ways to think about politics outside, beside, underneath, and alongside the nation?
I propose that we think of the political as the stuff of the everyday: the new anxieties about money, how to manage it, how to shape and reform the social body that both money and its lack threatens. I propose that the very ideas of need and basic needs are deeply political. What is a need? How does a need change? Who has which needs? These are all questions that occupied Palestinian men of capital and the British colonial officers who ruled them.
Men of Capital, Women of Thrift
Elites in Palestine were not homogenous. A growing group of men working in commercial, and to a lesser extent, industrial ventures were accumulating capital and expertise in the early twentieth century. These businessmen were a primarily urban, relatively wealthy group of men who attempted to build a new sort of hegemonic power. Their strategies and visions were invested in shaping and maintaining new forms of social hierarchy (just as radicals and rebels were invested in dislodging them). Elites shaped philosophies and visions of the ideal social body (hay’a ijtima’iya), the ideal “social man,” and his ideal partner, the domestic manager. The home thus became a crucial site that was parallel to a national economy, in which saving, spending, needs, and desires had to be counted, surveilled, and controlled. An ideal woman was fashionable but frugal. She was scientific in her management of time, space, and money. By maintaining both aesthetic and culinary standards, this elite woman could forge the home as a space of moral containment for men tempted by what the domestic manager Salwa Sa’id called “houses of entertainment.” Like the national economy, Sa’id and other reformers forged the domestic space that was also a place of shaping gendered norms and containing those others that haunted elite arrival: the servant, the worker, and the peasant (Seikaly 2016, 53-76). Attending to and critiquing these elites and their projects opens up new ways to think about Palestine’s past, its present, and its relationship to the intellectual and social world in which it existed.
The British commitment to maintaining the status quo among Palestinians strengthened a handful of the landowning nobility. The Husayni family and its main rival, the Nashashibis, used municipal elections, competition for mayoral posts, and control of institutions like the Supreme Muslim Council to jockey for power and create alliances. The foregone conclusion has been that the property, money, income, and power of these urban notables dominated the entire country (Carmi and Rosenfeld 1974, 470-85).
However, there is a history outside of this narrative of Palestinian factionalism and family rivalries. As Issa Khalaf (1991, 46) has shown, by World War I, local industries including flour milling, soap making, weaving, pipe making, and metal shops saw a diversification. Between 1918 and 1927, Arabs and Jews established 2,269 commercial and manufacturing enterprises. Some 60 percent of these enterprises were Arab, representing an investment of 613,000 Palestinian pounds. By 1927, there were 3,505 industrial establishments in Palestine. By 1935, Arab capital investment was mostly in tobacco, cardboard, soap and milling factories, and a growing textile industry, but Arabs also made industrial advances in metals, chemicals, leather, beverages, and quarrying. The largest shift occurred in the wartime period. In 1939, there were 339 Arab industrial establishments employing 4,117 people. The number of Arab industrial establishments jumped in 1943 to 1,558, employing 8,804 people. Arab capital investments went from 703,565 Palestinian pounds in 1939 to 2,131,307 pounds in 1942 (49). These numbers are small in comparison to the rapid growth of Jewish manufacturing during the Mandate, which went from generating 50 percent of Palestine’s output in the 1920s to 60 percent in the early 1930s and reached 80 percent during wartime-induced industrialization (Metzer 1998, 154). Palestinian stagnancy and paralysis, however, was not the corollary of the growing hegemony of European Jewish industry.
A “middling” class existed which was not synonymous with the landowning class that continued its hold over inland cities like Tiberias and Nablus. Important shifts in political economy took place along the coast. Khalaf (1991) draws on Bayan al-Hut’s study of one hundred political figures to show that 35 percent of these elites were engaged in private enterprise and that many fell in the “middling” as opposed to wealthy categories. The Jaffa and Jerusalem Chambers of Commerce record evidence of a growing commercial and manufacturing class distinct from the landed nobility. In Jerusalem, for example, there was a rise from 84 to 118 businesses and companies from 1938 to 1947 (52). The Jerusalem Chamber included 260 general commission agencies, importers of luxury goods and appliances, retailers and wholesalers, and automobile, spare-part, and tire dealers. The Jaffa Chamber in the late 1940s shows a similar growth in trade, commercial sectors, and light industry. Of the 670 businesses in Jaffa, only 23 belonged to individuals from large landowning families. Similarly, in Jerusalem, 56 of 528 businessmen were from these families (52-8).
Economic diversification was not dependent on businesses associated with the investments of the urban nobility in imports and exports of cereal, the sale of construction materials, and milling factories (Khalaf 1991, 52). Nevertheless, Tamari’s insistence on cross-fertilizations between a “middling” sort and a landowning class is crucial. Rashid al-Haj Ibrahim, an influential man of capital in 1930s and 1940s Palestine, was “a landowner” (Owen 1982, 102), “a prominent merchant, a leader of the Haifa Islamic Society, and … a member of the Istiqlal Party” (Matthews 2006, 52), “a Haifa businessmen … [and a] banker” and a “Chamber activist” (Khalaf 1991, 74, 86). None of these descriptions are inaccurate. They point to the many positions that Ibrahim and men like him could occupy.
A Material Nahda
Men of capital, such as Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, and “women of thrift,” such as the domestic reformer Salwa Sa’id, did not understand themselves primarily through their confrontation with Zionism. In their projects of economic cultivation and domestic reform, they positioned themselves as part of a broader Arab nahda. Positioning Palestine and Palestinians in this world of Arab thought and social life provincializes the Zionist-Palestinian conflict as the only way to tell the story of the early twentieth century. The nahda was that heterogeneous movement wherein the nation was to rise up, discard corrupt and outdated traditions, and realize the triumphant arrival of the modern. For economic thinkers in 1930s Palestine, the nahda was very much alive, formulating the contours of a utopian capitalist future in terms of conduct, ethics, and territories. The rights of the individual were crucial to their prescriptions for a healthy and organic social body. They drew on various universes of thought that spanned al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun to Locke, Rousseau, Smith, and Marx. Men of capital shaped social life in ways parallel to and divergent from European liberal thinkers, whose relationship to imperialism has been the subject of rich and ongoing debate.
The nahda, then, was an intensive time of intellectual exchange and plurality. Ilham Khuri-Makdisi has gone far in making unexceptional the intellectual history of the Middle East by narrating the significance of socialism among thinkers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her groundbreaking contributions challenge the emphasis on nationalism in Arab and Middle Eastern intellectual life. However, the importance of economic thought and the capitalist threads of the nahda have not been overstudied, as Khuri-Makdisi suggests. In fact, we lack a historical narrative of economic thought in the Arab world. Moreover, one of the intriguing nuances of Khuri-Makdisi’s account is her finding that figures like Amin al-Rihani, who was a leading socialist voice, would regularly share drafts with the Islamic modernist, Muhammad Abduh. Khuri-Makdisi positions these exchanges in older practices of collective writing. But they help us further complicate the nahda as a type of intellectual environment in which the categories of Islamist, capitalist, and socialist were neither stable nor categories that could preclude a shared intellectual project. Indeed, Rihani contributed to the Palestinian economic periodical Iqtisadiyyat. Through a carefully crafted nahda narrative, he portrayed a transhistorical commercial essence of Arab culture that could unite the quest for awakening, dignity, and modern arrival.
Thus, the twentieth century in Palestine was not simply a period of “unfulfilled promise” that entailed “a pervasive cultural tone of anguish and disgust, of resentment, resistance, rebellion, and death” (Khalidi 1981, 59-60). Elite Palestinians envisioned and imagined the future through notions of progress, class distinction, and civilizational superiority. A pervasive tone of conspiracy and crisis only became prevalent after the 1940s. But even that decade was not (as scholars have long described it) a period of political or social paralysis (Yasin 1967, 230). Furthermore, while we are accustomed to understanding visions of pan-Arabism as wedded to socialist economic planning, here we see another type of marriage that is worthy of further exploration: an Arab utopia built on the foundations of private property, investment, self-responsibility, and the accumulation of capital.
Making Economy Visible
Palestinian men of capital and British colonial officers mobilized economy as a site of social management in the early twentieth century. They took part in broader efforts to forge economy as objective, bounded, and external (Goswami 2004, 335).
Mapping territory, growth, time, and the future became central preoccupations for bureaucrats and theorists alike in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Calculations made the future and progress statistically representable and rationally attainable (Kalpagam 1999, 151). They also required the separation of various entities as constitutive outsides, such as the state and the household. Such distinctions could work to render the informal economy residual, though it might be at the very heart of economic production (Roitman 2005, 19). The push to calculate and make visible also led to new possibilities in surveillance. Managing economy through statistics was a new art of government in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Foucault 1991, 92). Adam Tooze (2001) has argued that new data technologies led bureaucrats to fantasize about controlling the economy not only by manipulating national aggregates but also by innovating systems of individualized surveillance. Catherine Gallagher (2006) has shown that the health and vitality of the laboring body demanded constant attention from economic theorists. Economic representations and forms of knowledge dominated subjects. However, Janet Roitman (2005, 8) has pointed out that new “techniques of the self” were also components of that domination. Through this calculability, and the many areas it rendered invisible or residual, men and women constructed the object of the economy (Dummont 1977). The economy from this perspective is not a preexisting reality but an achievement (Çalişkan and Callon 2009, 369).
How did that entity, the economy, take shape outside the “the homes of Quesnay, Petty, Smith, Playfair, Ricardo or Marx” (Kalpagam 1997, PE2)? Certainly, in Palestine just as for much of the world outside the West, colonial domination facilitated the forging of the economy as an autonomous sphere (Estava 1992, 17). The particular form of colonial domination in Palestine was the mandate system. This system, Antony Anghie (2004) has argued, was an experiment in international management that attempted to govern the gap between the civilized and the uncivilized in economic terms; the discipline of economics promoted the development of the colonized through new, ostensibly neutral indicators. But as we have seen, the Mandate in Palestine was exceptional in its endorsement of settler colonialism. How then did the achievement of an economy take shape in a settler-colonial context? What happened when the large majority of bodies to be counted were not only colonized but also stripped of a political name to inhabit a foreclosed national future?
In Palestine, the division between politics and economics, the politics of growth and abundance, and the shaping of the household and the body as sites of management and surveillance were all in process. The colonial regime conducted its own attempts to subject bodies and commodities to greater surveillance (Kalpagam 1997, PE8). But it was not growth that inspired these colonial efforts. It was the threat of war and the management of scarcity that necessitated them. Incoherence and inefficiency marked the metrological regimes that the British colonial regime introduced, through new indices such as the cost of living and the calorie. Time and again, British colonial officers failed in standardizing and homogenizing everything from weights to rations. This failure was intimately linked to the settler-colonial condition of the Palestinian present and future (Seikaly 2016, 77-102, 103-26, 155-78). It would be much longer before the overall project of constructing the economy ushered in a “new sociality for things and persons” (Kalpagam 1997, PE7). It was elite Palestinian conceptions of social hierarchy that consolidated and marked those techniques of the self.
To map these Palestinian techniques, it would be wise to avoid what Tooze (2001) has called the “tree model” of cultural development, in which branches, stems, and shoots of conceptions of economy all sprout from Keynes (1936, 14) and his cohort. Following Franco Moretti (2000), Tooze (2001, 13) advises a “wave” approach to understand how innovations in conceiving and measuring economy swept the globe in the first half of the twentieth century. The aim is not to map “a repository of pure difference” (Goswami 2004, 24) that will cleanse the “derivative” (Chatterjee 1986) character of Palestinian economic thought. One of the reasons men of capital in Palestine are difficult to understand today is because they occupied multiple universes of thought that are not immediately accessible to us. It would be more productive to approach these universes not through a closed tautology of origin and copy but through an attention to how the idea of economy, the imperative of management, and the crisis of bare needs worked across national, regional, and colonial divides.
To What End?
What does the visibility of men of capital accomplish? Does it prove once and for all that there was a Palestinian economy that was more than a “negative assembly”? Or alternatively, is it a way to evidence a heroic character, invested in some pure and distinct space called civil society, as the historical alternative to the twentieth- and twenty-first-century suicide bomber, as Keith Watenpaugh (2006, 301) has suggested?
To relegate the Palestinian businessman to the shadows of inferiority or to recover him as an artifact of the modern are two sides of the same conceptual bind. The first takes colonial epistemology for granted: the colonial figure and his shadow become an acceptable way to tell the history of Palestine. The second impulse, recovering the shadow into the light, appears at first glance to respond to this colonial logic. But is it trapped within it? The recovery works as a salve against everything that is wrong with the Palestinian and Arab present (Elyachar 2012). To access and critique the debates that have shaped the present requires rejecting the logic of the colonial body and its shadow, to decenter the colonial body, and to ask new questions.
Jacob Metzer (2003) points out that the Palestinians did not create mechanisms to collect and analyze Arab economy. He is right. The Palestinians were unable to calculate their commercial, financial, and industrial ventures. Avi Shlaim (1995, 299) has argued that the Palestinians did “next to nothing” to build an independent state. He is right too. Missing from these assessments is the condition that Palestinians continue to grapple with until today: settler colonialism. Palestinian men of capital understood the need for calculation, statistics, and economic visibility, they understood the need for national institutions, and they forged attempts and intellectual projects around both. What was the content of these projects and how did settler colonialism foreclose them?
In a different vein, scholars like Issa Khalaf (1991) and Salim Tamari (2005) have argued that the Palestinian “bourgeoisie,” to the extent that it existed, did not succeed in realizing a national economy. They too are right. Men of capital failed in realizing the economic accumulation that would realize national independence. What were the conditions of this failure? How did men of capital link their economic interests to national sovereignty? More importantly still, in what ways did these men of capital succeed?
As opposed to the easily understood and reiterated narratives of Palestine in the early twentieth century, this British-ruled Palestine features a diverse set of characters: the man of capital, the false intellectual, the true intellectual, the unemployed youth, the spendthrift urbanite, the fashionable but frugal domestic manager, the maid, the worker, the native, the foreigner, the abundant farmer, and the law-abiding and authentic Bedouin and fellah. A set of spaces also come into view: the “black market”; new “houses of entertainment,” cafes, cinema houses, and restaurants; the idyllic and healthy Arab home; and a broader territory of capitalist pan-Arab utopia.
The focus on economy highlights the significance of the nahda in Palestine and Palestine’s significance to the nahda. In turn, the centrality of economy in Palestinian economic thought, as a mode of conduct and as an indicator of well-being, challenges how we have understood the nahda in the broader Arab world. It was not only a cultural or literary project. It did not only contain national or radical ideologies. In the 1930s, in Palestine and beyond, the nahda was an economic project that shaped subjectivity and territory.
It was during this period that the British colonial government embarked on a series of its own attempts to count and regulate subjects and territories. In the 1940s, it used the calorie and cost of living as technologies of rule in Palestine. It was not an obsession with numbers or a fascination with omniscience that drove their efforts. It was the crisis of supply, the fear of upheaval, and the exigencies of war that propelled them to action. This disarray qualifies the tempting coherence of economic calculation as a disciplinary project in Palestine and beyond.
Yet regardless of its limitations, economic calculation would have lasting legacies for the relationship between basic needs and political containment. Indices like the calorie and the cost of living across colonial and postcolonial divides functioned to contain dissident politics. These indices’ claim to being universal was contingent on exclusion. In Palestine, a diversity of people and practices defied categorization and resisted homogenization. For example, a disastrous colonial scheme to control vegetable production, distribution, and marketing in Palestine nourished the informal markets that it ostensibly sought to “rationalize.” In another example, the category of the “Oriental Jew” confounded colonial scientists as they sought to forge a nutritional economy and identify “racial expenditure groups” (A Nutritional Economic Survey of Wartime Palestine 1943). At every turn, the attempts to make economy visible revealed how deeply the colonial government had neglected Palestinians as subjects to be counted and categorized. That neglect, regardless of ongoing speculation about British colonial intent, was not coincidental or contingent. The invisibility of the Palestinian in the colonial archive was one component of the broader condition of settler colonialism.
Palestinian economic thinkers and businessmen may tempt us at first as indicators of a lost world, glimpses of an alternative future. But we must reject the impulse to mourn. The social ordering these men and women prioritized worked to contain social mobility, silence dissent, and stunt the potential for revolutionary change. The emphasis on private property, individual freedom, and self-responsibility in which Palestinian capitalists were so invested in the 1930s receded in the face of austerity in the 1940s and national dispossession in 1948. That recession, however, was temporary. Indeed, in business narrations of the time, it was abnormal. The imperative of profit as a vehicle for and an indication of progress and its inextricability from the closely linked goals of maintaining social hierarchy and containing politics would not simply flourish; they would become the scaffolding of the future.