Men of Capital is one of those rare books that attempts to write about how Palestine was before the creation of the State of Israel from a unique and original perspective.
Author Sherene Seikaly draws upon archival sources as well as little known Palestinian business periodicals such as the Iqtisadiyat Al-Arabiya, translated as the Arabic Economic Journal by its publishers at the time. Through such primary sources, Seikaly argues that the accumulation of wealth and capital was of central importance to new concepts such as “the ideal social man”.
Ordinarily, and as Seikaly acknowledges throughout, the narrative of most studies examining historical Palestine are often focused on idealising the Palestinian people through examinations of pivotal events. For example, on the effect of the now infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, Seikaly writes that the British colonial authorities “rendered the majority of Palestinians who lived on the land nameless; it defined them by what they were not.”
However, Seikaly moves beyond these tried and true criticisms and discussions of Mandatory Palestine. Her book examines the Palestine of the time through an economic lens which is not often considered, and is as often the subject of generalisations and stereotypes, particularly when it comes to social class. These stereotypes are often reductionist, preferring to create “caricatures of the effendi and the peasant” that are more the stuff of orientalist oversimplification than of reality.
The book is unique in its approach to shedding light on the development and construction of class, including the businessmen and industrialists who described themselves as the minted middle class. These commercial actors sought to create their own idealised class constructions and definitions that they wanted to be a new standard in not only Palestine, but across the Arab world. To achieve these ends, Palestinian men – and women – of capital actively engaged in various enterprises with a focus on profit, private property and the truest capitalist concept of free trade.
Seikaly traces the development, and subsequent stifling, of these new social and economic aspirations by providing snapshots of the middle classes who lived somewhere in-between the previously discussed stereotypes of the Palestinian farmer and rich land owning families such as the Nashashibis and Husaynis, whom Seikaly argues fall within the trope of being “aristocrats” in order to fit the story that Palestine was somehow “feudal”.
These middle classes were composed of traders and professionals, such as accountants and lawyers who wielded significant power and influence in their communities. In their attempts to formulate a new social ideal in a modernising world, these middle classes who – perhaps like their modern day counterparts – were the driving force behind change, adopted elitist attitudes that were influenced not only by Western economists such as Adam Smith, but also giants of Arab and Islamic scholarship and philosophy such as Al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun.
Seikaly demonstrates how this eclectic mix of thought that was adopted by Palestinian capitalists showed that they were not only interested in modernising along Western lines, but that they gave equal weight and consideration to their own cultural heritage. This would, in their view, allow them to create an ideal society backed by a modern economy that would be a blueprint for the wider Arab world, and not just Palestine.
Importantly, however, Seikaly stresses that these middle classes were not homogenous and therefore did not necessarily operate as a unit with shared interests, ventures and ideas. The 1936-1939 Palestinian revolt is highlighted as an example of this, whereby some of these wealthy individuals financed the revolutionaries whilst others did not.
Seikaly even shows how this divide regarding the Palestinian national struggle had little to do with religion, as she highlights “the sectarian representation of men of capital is a drastic misreading”. To prove her argument, she points to the case of Christian businessman Emile Boutagy and Jad Suidan who opposed the revolt in Haifa, while other notable and wealthy Christians like Fu’ad Saba bank rolled the rebels. Similarly, “Muslim businessmen like Ahmad Hilmi Pasha” felt that the revolt would lead to their financial ruin, and so opposed it.
The broad spectrum of people and attitudes that Seikaly presents to us is thus quite rich and does not seek to oversimplify the Palestinian middle class and emerging elites in a reductionist, stereotypical manner, nor does it seek to present them as a united, singularly focused class of people who broadly agree with each other.
Finally, the author also details how British wartime fears in the 1940s created bizarre policies that sought to create “institutions and techniques that rendered economy legible and calculable”. Policies intended to increase efficiency in Palestine, such as the “calorie” measurement for determining how much food needed to be rationed, were a disaster and caused significant harm. Ultimately, these policies would fail and would bring much austerity and scarcity such as the vegetable crisis of 1940.
In all, Seikaly succeeds where others have rarely ventured. She manages to break down ludicrous notions about class and economic activity and thought in not only Palestine, but also shows how these actors were thinking beyond the borders imposed upon them by the Mandate. She delves into not only the men and women behind these stories, but also places them within the overall context of British imperial mismanagement.
As a work on the economic history of Palestine and the Middle East, Seikaly’s work provides a worthy contribution to the field.