Palestinian Studies

2014 Workshop

Susynne McElrone

PhD Candidate in the Joint History/Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program, New York University

Qaḍā Hebron – Commerce, Business, and Livelihoods in the late-Ottoman Rural Sphere

This paper is a close examination of the rural population around Hebron and its patterns of socioeconomic activity at the end of the Ottoman period. It uses heretofore unexplored primary sources to shed new light on a poorly understood but significant sector of historical Palestinian society, and also to illuminate the need to incorporate into the Ottoman-era history of Palestine the neglected, large southern region.

Although the fallahin are iconic in both Palestinian and Zionist nationalist narratives (for opposite reasons), ‘peasants’ and villages in Palestine have not yet emerged as subjects of systematic historical inquiry in histories of the modern era before the Mandate period. A prevalent conceptualization of the rural sphere is as the urban hinterland, related to the (outmoded) center-periphery model of dependence. Recent urban and urban-centered histories have shed  informative light on various aspects of urban-rural relations  in Ottoman Jerusalem and Nablus districts (Singer (1994), Doumani (1995), Ze’evi (1996)), but such an approach cannot give adequate consideration to the numerous trajectories of rural life that did not rely on the mediation or involvement of the nearest urban polity. While this may be an appropriate framework for rural study in the earlier Ottoman centuries my research suggests that by the latter half of the nineteenth century this model is no longer sufficient to encompass the full scope of rural economic activity. This paper examines this idea. To do so it approaches the rural sphere from the opposite perspective, foregrounding villagers and villages instead of the city. It focuses on a region that has eluded focused historical attention, the Ottoman district (qaḍā’) of Hebron in southern Palestine.

This paper forms part of my current dissertation project, which is a social history of Ottoman Hebron and the Hebron region in the long nineteenth century. On the micro-level its aim is to write more fully into Palestinian and Ottoman histories a region whose modern-era history is not well known and which, consequently, has been (mis)understood to be peripheral and insignificant. On the macro-level it  aims to rethink common approaches to and understandings of peripheries—regions, and populations such as villagers and bedouin, commonly understood to be marginal, whether in the immediate sphere of Palestinian society or in the larger context of the Empire.  My project is not a regional history in the traditional sense. Applying insights from transnational approaches to history and migration studies, its boundaries of investigation are not administrative but, rather, conceptual. They are defined by the outer reaches of the social and economic networks and circuits established by the region’s inhabitants—urban, rural, and bedouin.   I use this fluid framework to  understand how  the Hebron district and its residents fit simultaneously into multiple, broader historical contexts, as well as the roles they played in them.

In line with my larger project, in this paper I employ social history methods to analyze contemporary rural estate inventories (tarikas), detailed (esas) Ottoman population registers, village land-registration (tapu) books, Hebron shari’a-court cases brought by villagers, and Ottoman administrative reports and correspondence, in order to uncover  and analyze sources and patterns of rural wealth and investment; villagers’ local, regional, and extra-regional business initiatives; socioeconomic stratification within villages; and inter-village relations within and beyond the boundaries of the administrative district in the latter half of the nineteenth century. I argue that the broad range of social and economic relations villagers fostered without urban mediation, coupled with the comparative extensiveness of rural economic interaction, compel us to expand traditional urban-based, hinterland approaches to studying the rural sphere. I build this argument through close analysis of individual and small-group commercial activities and ventures. For example, I examine the competition Bani Na’im village flock owners presented bedouin as suppliers to the large waterskin manufacturing industry in Hebron; trace the rise and demise of the business relationship fostered by Muslih al-‘Azze of the village of Bayt Jibrin with the company established in Jerusalem by Swiss Christian Missionary promoter Friedrich Spittler; and investigate villagers’ patterns of strategic use of various markets across Palestine and trans-Jordan to buy and sell common products. I then discuss regional socioeconomic relations and networks in  terms of settlement geography and recent imperial administrative reforms. Finally, in view of the complex web of rural relations that appear to have existed in the latter nineteenth century, I propose a network model of examination as appropriate.

In conclusion, it may be noted that throughout the Ottoman era the majority of Palestinians lived in villages, most of them concentrated in the interior highlands. Paradoxically, it is this population and this geographical region that have received the least academic attention by Ottomanists who study Palestine. The subject of this study is, historiographically, a periphery within a periphery. This paper draws attention to the Hebron region’s historiographical underestimation and suggests new ways to fruitfully expand the lines of inquiry into the local and regional roles and influence of the rural sphere in late-Ottoman Palestine.

Susynne McElrone is a Ph.D. candidate in the History, and Middle East and Islamic Studies departments at New York University. She has published articles on diverse topics ranging from the history of women’s public activism in Iran, and recent ethnography of Palestinian citizens of Israel, to historical questions of regionalism and the mobility of villagers in late-Ottoman Palestine. She is currently writing her dissertation on the social history of Hebron and the Hebron region, entitled “From Out of the Periphery: an integrative social history of Ottoman Hebron and the Hebron Hills region in the long nineteenth century."