- Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine by Sherene Seikaly
Sherene Seikaly has written an eye-opening book on the history of an elite Palestinian Arab group during the 1930s and 1940s in the British Mandate, who defined themselves as “men of capital.” They were associated with the Arab cultural awakening in the Middle East and more specifically in Palestine, and they were engaged in developing applied knowledge about the economy, society, and nationalism. Some of them were also active in expressing their thoughts in Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-‘Arabiyya (The Arab Economic Journal, in its editors’ translation, published since the mid-1930s). Among these “men of capital” were individuals such as the well-known businessman and politician Ahmad Hilmi Pasha, as well as Fu’ad Saba, Imil Butaji, and others.
The book is divided into five major chapters and draws heavily on qualitative sources. After a scene-setting introduction, the first chapter, “Men of Capital: Making Money, Making Nation,” discusses the characteristics of this group, and presents a selection of their intellectual opinions that appeared in Al-Iqtisadiyyat. Here and elsewhere in the book, a stratum of dynamic Palestinian Arab businessmen is described — active entrepreneurs, flexible doers and thinkers, involved in both local and regional economic undertakings; businessmen who were familiar with capitalist economic thought and were ready to make adjustments that they considered relevant. [End Page 162]
The second chapter focuses on an article in Al-Iqtisadiyyat about family budgeting, and a nine-part radio program by Salwa Sa‘id entitled The New Arab Home. Sa‘id, who studied at the American University of Beirut and moved to Palestine after her marriage, was the daughter of the mayor of Beirut and part of that elite group. She discussed aspects of modern household operation; home economics; scientific/medical issues such as hygiene, infertility, and illness; marital strife; dining and food, and even what to leave for the maid to do and what not; and social frontiers such as the need to increase primary schools in villages, to add cinemas, radio transmitters, and so on. In these two chapters, Seikaly convincingly supports her arguments that previous studies describing the elite as belonging to a backward and stagnant society were totally inappropriate, as well as studies describing their political affiliations as local and uncomplicated — as supporters either of the Husaynis or the Nashashibis. Seikaly therefore provides readers with an illuminating account on a topic that has not been studied deeply and was to some extent misunderstood in the academic literature.
Chapters three, four, and five examine aspects of the scarcity of different products in Mandate Palestine during World War II, particularly of foodstuffs and textiles, and the responses of the British, Jewish organizations, and Arab businessmen to these new conditions. Chapter three discusses the growing awareness of the British about issues of nutrition and food supply, and especially their handling of the wartime supply crisis, when more local products were needed because of the requirements of the British and Allied forces stationed in the Middle East, and the restrictions on overseas imports caused by the War. The author argues that the Government of Palestine as well as the Middle East Supply Centre, that attempted to increase local and regional production to meet local and regional needs, could have carried this out more effectively.
Chapter four, “A Public Good: Palestinian Businessmen and World War II,” returns to the Palestinian men of capital and other Arab businessmen, and their conduct in the changing economic arena during World War II. Here, Seikaly makes intensive use of reports, minutes, and correspondence from Arab chambers of commerce. She suggests that the trade barriers between Middle Eastern territories hampered the activities of Arab businessmen, and especially damaged their regional competitive advantage over Jewish trade institutions. In addition, the author describes the development of Jewish trade organizations during the Arab Revolt of 1936–39, and that Jews often had better access to the British in that post-revolt era. In practical terms, according...