restricted access 4 The Jalfis: Oil Pressers and Emirs
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104 The Jalfis Oil Pressers and Emirs Why a Life Trajectory? Examining the life of the oil presser Ahmad al-Jalfi (c. 1650–1707) illustrates the social mobility of this period. It shows both Jalfi’s horizontal mobility as he moved in different economic spheres and his vertical mobility to a position of wealth and status. It also shows that in spite of this mobility, he remained deeply engrained in his original craft, oil pressing, and tries to explain this phenomenon . His life trajectory is also an example of the interpenetration of economic , social, and cultural factors, allowing us to see the impact of these changes on his family relations and family structure. It is a recognized fact among historians of the region that sources that allow us to reconstruct the biography of artisans are a rarity. Donald Quataert, whose work on labor touches mostly on the nineteenth century, for which sources are somewhat more plentiful, recently pointed out this problem.1 The artisans are almost totally absent from contemporaneous chronicles and biographical dictionaries . Family papers, if they exist for this period, have not been located. The only source that has the potential to provide details for this biographical kind of writing is the court records. And yet neither the records of every period nor the records of every city are sufficiently rich to allow for the full reconstruction of working-class lives or to provide full information about the ordinary facets of their everyday lives. In Cairo, for instance, most sixteenth-century registers tend to be thin in content and consequently unlikely to provide the material for biography. Seventeenth-century records, however, provide very rich and detailed material. When the same names crop up again and again over the years, one can reconstruct some aspects of these persons’ lives and sometimes The Jalfis | 105 follow the same families over several generations. Thus, when attempting to reconstruct lives in the seventeenth century, the historian not so much chooses the persons that he would like to write about as much as the material imposes itself on him or her. The reconstruction of artisan lives can be useful in several ways. It can provide a counterbalance to the numerous state-centered studies of the Ottoman Empire.2 It specifically can be a counterbalance to the numerous elite-centered studies of Ottoman Egypt focusing on the mamluks and the high ulama whom chroniclers such as Jabarti abundantly wrote about. I hope to integrate artisans in history by presenting the historical transformations of the period from their angle and by showing how they were part of these transformations or were at least affected by them. An Individual and Family Trajectory: The Jalfis The study of the life, work, and family of the oil presser Ahmad al-Jalfi, son of an oil presser also named Ahmad al-Jalfi (d. 1080/1669) is a concrete illustration of a number of themes this book revolves around. Through the detailed analysis of his activities, we can see how one single person combined in himself the various economic modes presented here. Jalfi’s life story, which can be followed for some forty years in court records, shows how his father started as an artisan; how his own activities overlapped three economic spheres—oil production, trade, and tax collection; and how he himself reached wealth and prominence. We see how he maneuvered between a traditional economy, a tributary economy, and a precapitalist economy. Through his life, we can see how these three spheres of activity related to each other and can discover how the conditions of one individual life allowed such a great mobility . The study of Jalfi’s life and activities also brings to light certain contradictions in the system. As a child of his time, he practiced new economic patterns probably not commonly available to earlier oil pressers. In other words, his capitalist practices were the consequence of the time he lived in and the changing conditions that his generation was experiencing. Sources The court records contain abundant information on Ahmad al-Jalfi and his family. They shed light on various aspects of his life, work, family, colleagues, 106 | Artisan Entrepreneurs in Cairo and Early-Modern Capitalism and slaves. In particular, two courts, Bab al-Sharia and al-Zahid—situated in an important industrial area north of Cairo and close to the city entrance from the port of Bulaq, where raw materials arrived in Cairo and where many mills, presses, and looms were located—provided useful information about...


Subject Headings

  • Artisans -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Entrepreneurship -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Capitalism -- Egypt -- Cairo -- History.
  • Egypt -- Economic conditions.
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