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  • Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History by Beshara B. Doumani
  • Molly Greene
Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean: A Social History, by Beshara B. Doumani. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 370 pages. $29.99.

Beshara Doumani's Family Life in the Ottoman Mediterranean is an outstanding contribution to Ottoman and Middle Eastern social history. It is also a testimony to the intellectual gains that come from painstaking and labor intensive research which — as the author frankly discusses in the preface — inevitably slows down the pace of publication. Doumani's central question is how property devolution as a system of social, legal, and pious practices reproduced and transformed family life in the eastern Mediterranean in the 18th and 19th centuries. In order to answer that question, he chose to do a comparative study of Tripoli (in present-day Lebanon) and Nablus, for reasons he explains at length, and spent several years reading through thousands of court cases from the two cities' shari'a court records. [End Page 168]

The court records make it clear that the family waqf, or pious endowment, stands at the very center of property arrangements. Family awqaf (the plural of waqf) are a (seemingly) well-known institution in the Muslim world, but readers would be mistaken if they think that Doumani has produced a dry study of a legal institution. The book is a rich portrait of individuals, of families, and the choices that they made as they sought to protect and perpetuate both their families and the family name. Because of his deep immersion in the documents, time and time again Doumani is able to convincingly discern the motivations behind the founders' precise instructions.

For example, in 1802, the merchant, landlord, and entrepreneur Sayyid Husayn Çelebi al-Husayni of Tripoli set up a family waqf. He took the unusual step of including the children of his uncles, as well as his sister's son. Doumani was so intrigued by this that he went sifting through the 18th century registers to see if he could discover why. Eventually, he did. Sayyid Husayn was orphaned as a child; and his older sister Tahira, as the only remaining member of the conjugal family, no doubt became his caretaker. At the same time, one of his uncles became his guardian just a few days after Sayyid Husayn's father's death. The provisions in the waqf, then, were "a way of recognizing and repaying their kindness and support as surrogate parents" (p. 114). Doumani's dissection of the choices made by Fatima, the daughter of 'Abd al-Jalil al-Mallah, also in Tripoli at around the same time, is equally incisive (pp. 161–63) and shows that women too were able to make choices.

Doumani's main arguments are as follows: We have given undue weight to the Islamic rules of inheritance because most propertied individuals in Nablus and Trip-oli preferred to devolve some or all of what they owned during their lifetime. The most common way to do this was to endow family awqaf. In Doumani's words:

The period from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century was the golden age of the family waqf in the Eastern Mediterranean, if not beyond, and it is difficult to overestimate its centrality to social, economic, legal, and spiritual life in urban settings. My core argument is that the family waqf is the most flexible, expressive, and enduring legal instrument for governing long-term property relations between kin, and that it can be viewed as a charter or mini-constitution that also governs the moral-disciplinary order of kinship.

(p. 22)

Second, strategies of property devolution were very different in Tripoli and Nablus. These differences were many — mulberry trees were given pride of place in the Tripoli endowments, while in Nablus it was the family home — but probably the most striking, and the one to which Doumani gives the most attention, was the exclusion of female children and their progeny in Nablus and their inclusion in Tripoli. The reasons for this were several; Doumani convincingly foregrounds the importance of political economy. In his words, "how people made a daily living helped shape the ways of organizing...


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pp. 168-170
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