Basma Fahoum

Basma Fahoum is a PhD student of the modern Middle East in the History Department at Stanford University. She holds an MA in culture research from Tel Aviv University. Basma is currently working on the history of tobacco cultivation in Palestine in the late Ottoman and British Mandatory periods, as well as in Israel. She is also interested in the history of capitalism and informal economic activities.

Tobacco Cultivation in Palestine: Peasant Households, Zionist Farmers, and the Global Market

Tobacco cultivation existed in Palestine for more than a hundred years, and under three regimes. Commercial Palestinian tobacco cultivation began before and persisted after the well-studied moments of 1917, 1936–1939, 1948, and 1967—under Ottoman, British, and Israeli rule. The lives and memories of Palestinian peasants who grew tobacco are the focus of my project, which explores the intersection of rural life and capital accumulation. Using written and oral sources, this paper challenges misconceptions about the engagement of Palestinian peasants, who constituted the majority of Palestinian population, with the global economy, Zionist settlers, and the state.

This project positions peasants at the center of global markets for cash crops, and argues that their activities created “free” informal markets, and constantly blurred conceptual, spatial, and temporal lines. Peasants fought monopolies, transgressed borders, and cooperated with each other to secure their livelihood and the integrity of their households. My research is the first to focus on the century of tobacco in Palestine, and draws on sources in Arabic, Hebrew, Ottoman Turkish, and English, thus forging a comprehensive narrative not restricted by traditional chronological periodizations. In addition, I interview actors who have taken part in growing tobacco over this century—most importantly, peasants and their families.

Focusing on peasant cultivators allows me to simultaneously insert them into the story of tobacco as a global cash crop and bring forward both the realities of their day-to-day lives and the material processes of tobacco cultivation and marketing. This project aims to turn scholars’ attention to the importance of peasants beyond romanticized notions, and give them the agency they demand.

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