The history of the Palestinian Arabs under the British mandate is by now the subject of a large literature. Yehoshua Porath, Subhi Yasin, and Ann Mosely Lesch produced pioneering works on national identity, popular mobilization, and rebellion in the period prior to 1939, and Issa Khalaf examined the politics of the 1940s. Alongside these works emphasizing political history, Jacob Norris, Amos Nadan, Roza I. M. El-Eini, and Jacob Metzer have written important explorations on the economy of mandate Palestine and on British development policies and their consequences. Ellen Fleischmann has produced a foundational study of the Palestinian women’s movement, and recently Andrea L. Stanton has pioneered the topic of broadcast media during the mandate. Sherene Seikaly takes scholarship on the Palestinian Arabs under the mandate in a new direction with her highly original and deeply researched Men of Capital. The book’s significance, however, extends well beyond its contributions to the study of mandate Palestine. Men of Capital joins the best of recent scholarship in the history of development, late imperialism, and the immediate antecedents to decolonization. Although the question of identity among Palestinian Arabs is central to her book, Seikaly prioritizes the question of class identity over that of national identity, and she interrogates and historicizes the concept of the middle class. To accomplish this analysis, she reconstructs the self-perception of a segment of the Palestinian elite—the “men of capital” of the book’s title. Students of the Palestinian national movement will recognize many of them, such as Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, and Fuʾad Saba, because of their prominence in nationalist activity. Seikaly establishes that, despite their political engagement, these elite Palestinian Arabs defined themselves at least as much by their successes as entrepreneurs and investors as by their nationalism. She draws on previously unexploited sources to recover the self-fashioning of this elite and to chart the shifts in its collective identity from the mid-1930s to the end of the mandate. Seikaly’s research in the Palestinian economic journal Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-ʿArabiyya, published from 1935 to 1937, reveals the strikingly optimistic outlook of these businessmen and their belief that they were the leaders and makers of an economic renaissance in Palestine. That renaissance would be fully realized by its extension to the larger Arab world despite the political and economic subordination of the Arabs to colonial powers. For the contributors to Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-ʿArabiyya, national liberation was only a means toward the end of economic progress. Seikaly also blazes a new path of research by her use of the documents of the Arab Chambers of Commerce preserved in the Nablus Municipality Archive. These documents include reports on the activities of Palestine’s municipal chambers of commerce as well as the proceedings and published declarations of the chambers’ congresses, which were convened regularly during the 1940s. Supplementing these sources with extensive research in the Israel State Archives, the National Archives of the United Kingdom (the Public Records Office), the Arabic-language newspaper Filastin, and the Hebrew press, Seikaly enables us to look into the Palestinian business elite’s formulation of its collective demands on the mandate administration and, by extension, to witness these leaders of commerce and finance constituting themselves as a self-aware class. Seikaly frames her analysis of the men of capital within the studies by Frederick Cooper, Timothy Mitchell, and Hugo Radice on the history of development, the constitution of “the national economy” as a subjective category, and the effect of World War II on colonial economies. She demonstrates that the Palestinian business elite’s understanding of the meaning of a national economy and their place in it was transformed by wartime scarcity and the British administration’s ad hoc and ill-planned efforts in economic management, subsequent to a pre-war laissez-faire policy. It was during the war and in the aftermath of the 1936–1939 Palestinian Arab revolt that British administrators discovered “colonial welfare” and, in the process of their efforts to forestall further political dissent, introduced such economic indicators as the standard of living and the cost of living. In this regard, Seikaly’s treatment of Palestine’s economy during World War II illustrates the effects of inflation and shortages of food and other goods, and consequently qualifies Issa Khalaf’s assertion that “the war … caused boom conditions that substantially increased the Arab buying potential” (Politics in Palestine: Arab Factionalism and Social Disintegration, 1939–1948 , 49). More central to Seikaly’s argument is the shift after 1939 in the way that Palestinian Arab capitalists constructed their identity in relation to the laboring classes, the British authorities, and to the Zionist project of nationalist settler colonialism. In the 1930s, the men of capital could conceive of economy and politics as separate fields of activity, and they could imagine Palestine’s rapid economic progress in an atmosphere of free enterprise under British political control. They believed their material progress marked them as civilized and also that their consumerism and even their philanthropy were disciplined by their commitment to capital accumulation (60–61). Textual sources produced by Palestinian capitalists depicted peasants and wage laborers, by contrast, as less civilized and as undeserving of developmental interventions. In the aftermath of the 1936–1939 revolt, the business elite’s representations of the laboring classes underwent a shift. They became identified as fellow victims of wartime shortages, British misgovernment, and Zionist encroachment who merited protection. The sensibilities of the commercial elite were realized not only in the national economy, but also in the household economy. In that domain the men of capital idealized middle class women as practitioners of thrift and rational management. Seikaly explores this subject by a close reading of a regular column in Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-ʿArabiyya and through the radio program The New Arab Home, which was broadcast from the mandate government’s station in late 1940 and early 1941 by Salwa Saʿid, a woman of Lebanese origin, and transcribed in Filastin. Beyond the virtues of the book’s depth of research and innovative line of inquiry, Men of Capital is both conceptually informed and engagingly written. In all, this is an important contribution to the history of the Palestinian Arabs and late British imperialism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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