Beshara Doumani, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995)
Since the 1980s, the debate in Ottoman and Middle Eastern history has evolved from one of native stagnation versus European modernity to one elucidating how the discourse of European modernity overlooked the dynamic changes that characterized the interdependency of European power and native agency. Beshara Doumani’s Rediscovering Palestine contributes to this new scholarship by offering a well-documented interpretation of Palestine’s history during increased European economic penetration and renewed Ottoman centralization. By writing “[Palestine’s] inhabitants into the historical narrative,” Doumani seeks to shift the debate over the history of Palestine away from both Zionist historiography (which has consistently portrayed Palestine as stagnant and barren) and Arab national historiography (which has insisted on a homogenous and transhistorical Arab nation).
Drawing mainly on private family papers and the records of the Nablus Islamic court, Doumani charts the “labyrinthine journey” of Jabal Nablus from a “politically fragmented and semiautonomous region” of the Ottoman Empire into a more integrated and centralized area coming under direct Ottoman rule. At the same time, Nablus and its hinterland became increasingly dependent on the world economy. He challenges pervasive myths in the dominant historiography of Palestine by narrating the “social lives” of three commodities produced in the Jabal Nablus area: cotton, olive oil and soap. Doumani’s discussion of cotton textiles demonstrates the vibrancy of informal Nabulsi trade networks stretching from Cairo to Damascus, thus debunking the myth that the Ottoman Empire was stagnant until the European “arrival” in the nineteenth century. Through his exhaustive study of the Nablus court records, the workings of the Advisory Council and the many lawsuits brought forward by merchants and peasants, Doumani shows that local merchants and peasants played a leading role in the transformation of the Palestinian economy, thus deflating the myth of the natives’ passive reception of modernization. Doumani shows, for example, that native merchants’ focus on soap production rather than cotton textiles was dictated less by foreign competition than by merchants’ desire to consolidate their power and access to political office by investing in a commodity that brought more honor to its owner while also filling a more secure niche in the regional economy.
The book’s strength is its reliance on a variety of local sources, although the alternating use of late twentieth-century oral testimonies, World War I-era sources and nineteenth-century records from Nablus makes one wonder whether chronologically disparate sources can support an argument that depends so strongly on periodization between 1831 and 1860. These criticisms notwithstanding, this study is crucial to the ongoing reappraisal of Middle Eastern history. As the title suggests, this book reclaims some autonomy and agency for Palestinians long neglected or denied in various imperialist narratives.