Palestinian Studies

2019 Workshop

Jacob Norris

Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History, University of Sussex

Mobile Homes: Bethlehem Merchants and the Refashioning of Palestinian Homes in the Late Ottoman Period

Descriptions of merchant quarters have long been a staple of Orientalist depictions of “the Arab city,” with the suq usually described as a timeless, ahistorical urban feature. This paper adds to a handful of recent studies (Abusaada, Khasawneh, LeVine) that have begun to investigate the more complex ways in which merchant living and trading patterns impacted the urban geography of Middle Eastern cities in the late Ottoman and mandate periods. It does this by focusing on the rise of a new type of Palestinian merchant family in the nineteenth century which was able to profit from the region’s more intensive incorporation into regional and global trade network. In towns such as Jaffa, Hebron, Bethlehem, and al-Salt (where Nabulsi merchants came to predominate), grandiose new residences were built by transnationally-oriented merchant families who now formed a kind of nouveau elite on the Palestinian socio-economic landscape. Some studies have discussed how these merchant residences were important in the shift to more linear living architectural designs that projected new models of bourgeois family living. What is less documented is the way these buildings also doubled as commercial spaces—namely stores and warehouses. The interweaving of family and economic life was in fact central to the design of the buildings and served as a catalyst for the birth of the first modern shops in these towns. Coinciding with the explosion of print culture and the birth of telegraphic systems, the new merchant buildings provided the physical headquarters for the first branded franchises in Palestine—family firms with their own logos, telegraphic addresses and insignia, that could be duplicated in other locations, both in Palestine and around the world.

The paper argues it is essential to set these local developments in Palestine against the merchant families’ activities in various other parts of the world. Bethlehem is examined as a case study, not least because merchants from that town were in the vanguard of new forms of long-distance trade. The new shops/houses they established on Rays Iftays, the main road leading into Bethlehem, acted as central depots for global family firms with outlets in cities such as Paris, Port-au-Prince, Manila, and Santiago de Chile. The paper will zoom in to examine one particular building, the Hosh Dabdoub, thought to be the first residential property (and shop) built outside Bethlehem’s old town in the 1850s. Using a mixture of architectural plans, family photos, business correspondence, and memoirs, the paper will trace the story of this one building that typified a new linear architectural design and incorporated living quarters hidden beneath (or sometimes above) a shop located at ground level.

The paper will locate the story of this one building within a broader regional trend that saw ever more opulent mansions appearing by the turn of the twentieth century in bourgeois neighborhoods set further apart from the old towns. Again, this had important socio-economic ramifications, eventually emptying the old town centers of their wealthier residents and concentrating retail in the hands of an ever smaller circle of merchants. In Bethlehem, this was particularly pronounced as extravagant villas, the likes of which had never been seen before in Palestine, were built much further out of town, with accompanying megastores increasingly monopolizing the all-important souvenir trade. An examination of the Hosh Dabdoub, built in the 1850s, provides a window onto the shifting and overlapping meanings attached to home and commerce among Palestinian merchant families at a critical juncture of Palestinian urban history.

Jacob Norris is Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of Sussex, UK. His interests lie mainly in the social and cultural history of Palestine in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His book, Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905–1948, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. He is currently writing a monograph on the history of Bethlehem and the series of global migrations embarked upon by its residents in the nineteenth century. He is also co-director of the digital archiving project, Planet Bethlehem.