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Reviewed by:
  • Everyday Life & Consumer Culture in 18th-Century Damascus
  • Najwa al-Qattan
Everyday Life & Consumer Culture in 18th-Century Damascus. By James Grehan (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2007. xvi plus 320 pp.).

In this interesting and careful study of consumption patterns in eighteenth century Ottoman Damascus, James Grehan puts to imaginative use probate inventories, local chronicles, and religious literature in order to bring detail and life to everyday practices involving food and drink as well as clothing and domestic space. Arguing that “the purchases that people made as part of their daily routines constituted the deep waters in which the more salient islands of economic activity were ultimately set” (6), Grehan pays as much attention to the delicious tidbits of quotidian existence as to the larger forces operating at the regional and imperial levels. His examination of the way in which local politics played itself out on the ground is theoretically informed and eloquently written.

The book is comprised of six chapters plus an Introduction and a Conclusion. In addition, there are three appendices (listing the most commonly owned objects of furniture, kitchenware, and clothing), notes, a bibliography, an index, maps, charts, and plates.

Chapter I: “City and Environment” looks at the “physical, human, natural and political” forces at work in this urban setting. This is an analysis of place that animates the city and highlights the “primacy of the local.” Grehan brings into play the Barada River and the Ghuta gardens, the density of urban space, the ravages of famine, disease, and pests, “the natural and technological speed limits” on movement (37), and, of course, the city’s regional and imperial networks.

In the second chapter, “Bread and Survival,” Grehan argues for the centrality of cereals (and bread) in the popular diet as well as the political economy. He uses data on orphan food allowances allotted by the Muslim court in combination with available figures on bread and grain prices to gauge food consumption among poorer Damascenes. Although he rules out chronic hunger and starvation, he nonetheless insists that uncertainty and price fluctuations were part of everyday life. Drawing on E.P. Thompson, he looks at bread riots in order to underscore what he calls “the social costs of decentralization” (92).

In Chapter III, “Luxury and Variety: Everyday Food,” Grehan discusses the consumption of meat, dairy, and other foods. Whereas meat (mutton) and dairy products were tied to the bedouin exchange, Damascenes enjoyed a bounty of locally grown fruits, vegetable, nuts, and oils that were, unlike mutton, quite affordable. [End Page 504]

In Chapter IV, “Luxury & Variety: Everyday Drink,” Grehan focuses on the consumption of water, coffee and tobacco. In the eighteenth century, an elaborate underground system made available the waters of the Barada River to many residents; the Barada also watered the gardens. Those with no access (or courtyard fountains) dug their own wells. Here too, Grehan describes the “craze” for coffee that gripped Damascus at the time. Coffee—from Yemen—was not only affordable; it had long become a lucrative business. It was not only consumed at home and in the neighborhood bath, it was also served in the coffee house—that “public place of leisure,” and “hub of social life” (144). Tobacco smoking was almost as popular (even among women) and more affordable than coffee, although its consumption was intensely debated by scholars and officials. And like coffee, it was a lucrative business. Grehan uses this material to argue that “one of the achievements of the eighteenth century was to entrench these more relaxed attitudes about fun and leisure” (155).

Chapter V, “Domestic Space,” delves into residential arrangements. Grehan discusses home ownership (widespread), the architecture, materials and density of residential arrangements, and the crowding that they engendered. His description of the designs and practices associated with heating, lighting, hygiene, cooking, eating, and furnishings is informative and creative. All in all he finds that pragmatism and austerity were the hallmarks of home living.

In the sixth and last chapter, “Fashion and Deportment,” Grehan looks at the materials and fashions associated with clothing and the adornment of bodies, heads, and faces among Damascene men and women.

Grehan’s examination of water, coffee, tobacco and...


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