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New Texts Out Now: Sherene Seikaly, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine

[Cover of Sherene Seikaly, [Cover of Sherene Seikaly, "Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine"]

Sherene Seikaly, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sherene Seikaly (SS): When I started my dissertation research I was interested in looking at Palestinian consumer practices in Israel as a form of truncated citizenship and contained social mobility after 1948. Such a project appeared to entail more focus on Israeli institutions and state structures than Palestinians.

To move away from such a focus, I began exploring periodicals from the 1940s, when Palestine was under British rule. The figure of the consumer was ubiquitous, as were the institutions that dotted early-twentieth-century Palestine: Arab Chambers of Commerce. The crisis of supply during World War II, and the multiple iterations of a broad-ranging rationing system that the British colonial government imposed, were also salient themes. The more I read about the 1940s, the more I understood that the calculation and regulation of wartime consumption was a deep concern across various national, settler, and colonial divides.

What was this focus on the consumer about? Who was this figure that periodicals like Filastin and Difa’, which during this period were selling about 10,000 copies a day, were so invested in policing? Moreover, who were these Chambers of Commerce and where did they fit in the political landscape and social history of Palestine? What could these businessmen tell us about the Palestinian confrontation and experience of settler colonialism?

The scattered shards of the Palestinian archive shaped the project as it matured. The dissertation began with a focus on the cultural practices of consumption as a way to understand social and political structures and shifts. It changed to telling the story of a Palestinian middle class that shaped nation and economy, the home and the body. It challenged the flattened topography that explained Palestinian social life as consisting only of venal notables, honorable but ignorant peasants, and a small group of workers.

As the dissertation shifted to the book, Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine, it sought to go beyond simply recovering the story of colonized elites’ understandings and projects of private property, self-responsibility, and profit accumulation. It sought above all else to critique these ideas and practices as part of a broader intellectual and economic project, called the nahda.

Men of Capital looks at gender and class exclusions as constitutive not simply of the Palestinian experience but of the broader Arab liberal project. The narration of Palestinian history has overwhelming relied on locating the Palestinian as the inferior shadow of the settler or the colonial official.

Men of Capital destabilizes this scene of self and other not simply by recovering a Palestinian history of profit accumulation, but most importantly by critiquing it. The book takes its cue from Edward Said’s Gramscian injunction for an inventory of traces. This inventory details the nahda as not only cultural and literary, but also as a deeply economic structure of thought and practice. This structure was contingent on the exclusion of “the nomad, the peasant, the maid, the worker, and the Bedouin.” These were the stock characters that Palestinian men, and to a lesser extent, women, of capital understood as threatening their nascent social power throughout the 1930s, and most potently through the Great Revolt of 1936-1939. When, in the 1940s, these elites sought to interpolate the people they had stridently characterized as their inferiors as authentic national subjects, it was too late to affect any kind of horizontal solidarity.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SS: Men of Capital is a study of British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s. Through a close reading of Palestinian business periodicals, records, and correspondence, it reveals how capital accumulation and private property were central to the conception of a pan-Arab utopia and an “ideal” man. It traces the economic thought of these people as they brought together the ideas of Ibn Khaldun, Gazali, Marx, and Smith to construct a future of pan-Arab capitalist utopia. By examining this ideal man and his help-mate, the “scientific” homemaker who was trained to economize, survey, and manage her home, the book uncovers how elites mobilized “middling” tastes and lifestyles to define the “civilized” and the “backward” Palestinian.

Men of Capital also details the influence of World War II on British institutions and policies. In tracing the impact of shortages of basic goods, such as the vegetable crisis of 1940, the book maps the broad disparities between and among Palestinians and European and Eastern Jews as they confronted the exigencies of war. Through the examination of the Arab Chambers of Commerce that dotted Palestine before 1948, Men of Capital reveals how Palestinian businessmen responded to the war and continued to redefine the ideal economic subject.

In British-ruled Palestine, Palestinian elites and British colonial officials attempted to define and regulate the category of “basic needs.” This process had varying consequences for both economic thought as well as everyday practices. In the 1930s, against the backdrop of armed rebellion and the Great Depression, Palestinian “men of capital,” as they called themselves, distinguished between needs and luxuries.

As the decade wore on, and World War II came to Palestine, these men and women of capital, with their emphasis on growth and accumulation, confronted a landscape of commercial paralysis and a crisis of supply. The scarcity of basic goods such as wheat, rice, and flour and the specter of political disorder together inspired the British colonial government to introduce new modes of economic management. Through institutions such as the Middle East Supply Center, British colonial rule attempted to configure new regional territories. In Palestine, an ambitious rationing regime relied on new indices such as the “calorie” to determine each person’s “bare minimum” and assure “food for all.” By reconstructing these instances, Men of Capital explores Palestinian and British visions of territory, progress, and development, revealing divergent but overlapping attempts to shape and develop the economy as an object of knowledge, as well as a site of social management.

The history of wartime rationing regimes and the new index of the calorie in Palestine shows how the science of nutrition was an integral part of the 1930s and 1940s British and French turn to colonial development. British austerity and its attempts to build a “nutritional economy” in Palestine offer insights on this set of goals and policies we have come to call development.

The body and its needs were intense political objects of calculation and regulation. Colonial and governing officials approached the lack of food as an incubator for revolution and war; its provision was central to various development regimes. As scholars like James Vernon and Nick Cullather have shown, food in the early twentieth century became a politically legible object. But Palestine also functions to puncture the tempting coherence of a colonial obsession with making economies as well as bodies and their consumption visible. War compelled British rule, if momentarily, to calculate goods, people, and economies. In doing so, it exposed the depth of two decades of apathetic rule, and the extent to which European Jewish infrastructure, at least in the realm of nutrition, far outstripped that of the colonial government in both capital and expertise.

Was development a parable of colonialism? Frederick Cooper argues that nationalists in Africa used development to participate in global politics, and “lay claim to a globally defined standard of living.” But perhaps there are different questions to ask here. We have come to understand developmental indices such as growth, standard of living, and the calorie as “universal.” Such indices promise an objective means of erasing developmental differences. They promise sameness. However, what happens when we shift our focus away from inclusion and exclusion in the process of development, and instead look at how these categories themselves both constitute and enforce exclusion? At the Middle East Supply Centre’s Conference on Agricultural Development in 1944, the biochemist Ali Hassan argued that while the object of improving nutrition “appears to be the eradication of malnutrition,” it in fact had more far-reaching results. In the Middle East, he explained, “foreign propaganda” had created “a certain degree of discontent among the poorer classes.” In a motif that has persisted until the twenty-first century, it was not inequality or injustice that fueled discontent, but rather foreign propaganda that created it. Improving nutrition, Hasan suggested, would put a lid on this foreign inspired discontent. Nationalists may have used development to overthrow colonial rule, but they did not change its foundational equation: affect limited economic amelioration, so as to maintain political and social hierarchies.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SS: This work informs the three themes that structure my research. The first is political economy, class formation, and economic thought. Men of Capital shows how Palestinian capitalists in the early twentieth century shaped ideal territories and subjects by tying profit to progress and productivity to virtue. A second theme that I work on is poverty, development, and food. In detailing rationing regimes and the history of the science of nutrition in Palestine and the Middle East, Men of Capital explores the politics of basic needs. In tracing the genealogies of seemingly objective measurements, such as the calorie, I have found contentious histories that bring together the everyday struggles of people across temporal and geographic divides. Studying the body is a powerful way to access how surveillance works and how individuals and collectivities resist that surveillance. Through this focus on the body in Palestine, and more recently in Egypt, I have paid particular attention to how gender and sexuality take shape in political ways. I am presently completing an article that analyzes the last five years of political upheaval in the Arab world through the lens of the body. The third theme of my work addresses these commonalities, and differences, by exploring identity and resistance. I have studied practices, such as consumption in Israel/Palestine and the broader Middle East, to demonstrate how the lines between self and other are always in process and incomplete.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SS: My hope is that this work will speak to students and scholars of political economy, class, cultural and social history, colonialism, and gender in the Middle East and beyond. I hope most of all that the work is a convincing instance of how we can never assume, based on the often false assumption that there are no archival traces of a colonized people, that there is no story to tell.

J: What kinds of interventions are you hoping this book might make, both within Palestine studies and also in terms of approaches to political economy in the field more broadly?

SS: Men of Capital challenges a number of historiographic narratives. It analyzes scarcity rather than growth and consumption rather than production to understand capitalist development in the twentieth century. It contests the conventional treatment in the scholarly literature of pan-Arabism, which assumes its inherent alignment with socialism. It shows that this is a projection backward from the 1950s and 1960s. For pan-Arabists in the 1930s and 1940s, the imperative of profit was central to both early visions of progress and to the very definition of the Arab liberal subject, as well as his and her many “others.” Thus, the Arab liberal project was not only literary or cultural, but also economic. Finally, Men of Capital does not simply recover an overlooked history; it critiques it. The history of economic thought and practice too often begins in 1993, 1967, or 1948. By tracing this history, Men of Capital, provides a historical trajectory of contemporary “Fayyadism”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: Men of Capital concludes with the argument that among Palestinian elites in the 1930s and 1940s, the “poor and the hungry were then, as they are today, either invisible in utopian landscapes of progress, or otherwise the very personification of ugliness, to be reformed as supplements, not as actors in history.”

My current research examines the history of the poor and the hungry. My second major research project, provisionally titled A History of Poverty, studies how scientists, thinkers, and governments constructed and regulated the poor in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt. I have begun researching journals such al-Muqtataf, a scientific and cultural periodical that was based in Beirut in 1876 and moved to Egypt in 1884. This journal has revealed expansive entries and debates on poverty and food management from the late 1880s until the 1930s and 1940s. By placing political economy in conversation with the history of food, I will explore scientific and state discourses and practices and trace how projects of reform and containment were linked to structures of charity, public service, and the state. At the same time, I will detail how food and poverty were central to bids for popular sovereignty. Thus this project will detail the modern historical trajectory of poverty as a realm of governance as well as popular politics. In so doing, it will rethink our understanding of the “masses” and the threatening specter of the “bread riot.”

Excerpts from Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine

From the Introduction: The Politics of Basic Needs

On 5 April 1948, Fu’ad Saba, founder of the accounting firm Saba and Company, wrote the Arab Higher Committee (AHC). He was requesting an exit permit on behalf of Khalil Sa‘ada. Sa‘ada, the assistant director of Saba’s Jaffa office, was moving to the company’s Baghdad branch. Once in Baghdad, Sa‘ada could better serve other Palestinian businesses that were also relocating their headquarters. That year, 1948, marked the birth of Israel and the death of contiguous Palestine.

Urgency and desperation united the requests the AHC received in those momentous months. A letter from the National Committee of Bir al-Sabi‘ implored the AHC: “We are being attacked and the Jews are close to taking over all of the transportation roads between Palestine and Egypt, please lend us tanks and heavy machinery or direct us to where we can buy [them]….We have sent you many requests but have not received military attention or organization…we are without leadership or direction.” But Saba’s tone was more measured. Saba and the businessmen of his cohort were rapidly transferring their capital and interests to other parts of the Arab world. He was a self-made man whose entrepreneurship had already borne considerable fruit. In the 1930s, Saba and his colleagues had drawn on diverse philosophies to craft economic thought and envision an economic nahda, or renaissance. They defined themselves as men of capital, and they preached to their elite brethren about the proper spending and saving patterns that would ensure Palestinian progress in a pan-Arab utopia of free trade, private property, and self-responsibility.

In their earlier developmental projects, Saba and his colleagues had done their best to sever the economic from the political. They lobbied the British colonial government for institutions, statistical surveys, and calculations, which they believed were necessary for realizing what they called a healthy economic life. They knew that the British Mandate and its foundational commitment to the Zionist enterprise in Palestine subordinated them as political subjects. They collaborated with and resisted this subordination, engineering initiatives that wedded economic achievement to national independence.

Shut out of institutional spaces, these men of capital proselytized economy not as a science of markets but as a science of the self. They differentiated between needs and luxuries and emphasized the imperative of management, while creating and guarding new notions of class and status. In their periodical Al-Iqtisadiyyat al-‘arabiyya (The Arab Economic Journal in its editors’ translation), these men of capital had been careful not to address the Great Revolt (1936–1939); at the same time, some of them had funded the rebels. Saba himself had taken part in the AHC’s effort to wrestle the Revolt from the hands of the rebels and contain one of their most radical demands: social change. And as a result, the British colonial government exiled Saba and his colleagues to the Seychelles.

The end of the 1930s was a period of devastation for a majority of Palestinians—the farmers and villagers. Landlessness and indebtedness had plagued most Palestinians throughout the Mandate period (1923–1948). The British colonial government’s brutal counterinsurgency during the Revolt further heightened these conditions. Bankruptcy, unemployment, house demolitions, mass detentions, torture, and the wounding, imprisonment, exile, or killing of over ten percent of Palestinian males were the consequences of this brutality. In 1939, Saba and the banker and dissident Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, alongside the better-known Palestinian national leader al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, waited in exile for news from the ground. When the news came, total war was on the horizon, and it would irreversibly change the course of the years to come.

The onset of World War II meant an influx of capital, war-induced industrialization, and the implementation of ambitious rationing, distribution, and marketing schemes. The British colonial government transformed Palestine into the empire’s second largest military base in the Middle East after Egypt. A crisis of supply and an abiding fear of further upheaval forced the British colonial government to begin calculating bodies and their consumption in Palestine. New indices such as the calorie and the cost of living, wrapped in the ambiguous folds of the science of nutrition and the aim of colonial development, became tools of governing, or rather, as was the case most of the time, misgoverning.

Perhaps for a moment, one could imagine that men like Saba and Ibrahim would welcome what appeared to be a colonial turn to developing Palestinian economy. That economy, especially the “Arab” part of it, had never been fully legible, divided in its numerical representations into “Jewish” and “Arab” sections, with the former enjoying the parastatal institutions and its calculations of which the Palestinians could only dream. In the settler colonial context of both British rule and Zionist settlement, the Palestinians could never become developmental subjects.

World War II brought this reality into stark focus. It was a time of deep crisis, which exposed long-festering realities. Men like Saba and Ibrahim could no longer separate their economic visions from their political obligations. The self-proclaimed vanguards of the future turned away from their imaginings of a broad Arab horizon of commercial plenty. Through the nascent institutions of the Chambers of Commerce, they focused instead on the realities of scarcity and the urgency of managing basic needs. It was during the 1940s that they sought to address the many others, who in the previous decade they had naturalized as their inferiors—those “Bedouin” and “peasants”—as objects of representation. Economy was no longer an index of individual and national uplift; it became linked to a continued presence on the land.

But very few would maintain that presence. With the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948, the large majority of Palestinians, 700,000 to 800,000 people, became stateless refugees. The 150,000 Palestinians who did remain on the land became second-class “citizen strangers” under military rule in that eighty percent of Palestine that was now called Israel. As for Sa‘ada, the young man traveling from Jaffa to Baghdad, in 1948 he became part of a broad diasporic network of firms and contacts.

Saba, Ibrahim, and the businessmen and bankers who made money and shaped economy in Palestine do not appear in the historical record. Their invisibility is not the result of one condition, but a confluence of several. First among them is the history and historiography of settler colonialism in its British and Zionist articulations. Second are three characters that continue to dominate the historiographic scene: the aristocrat, the comprador, and the middle-class hero. Finally, there are the linked impulses of nostalgia, mourning, and idealization of pre-Nakba Palestine that flatten the topography of Palestinian social life.

Saba, along with Abd al-Muhsin al-Qattan and Hasib Sabagh among others, became leading figures in accounting, banking, contracting, and insurance throughout the Arab world. They accumulated wealth and expertise and took part in leading the commercial horizon they had imagined in the 1930s. Yet despite these successes, Saba was never quite the same after 1948. There was, his grandson explains, a lot of silence in the house. Saba remained in Beirut until his death. Not far from where he lived stood Sabra and Shatilla, the refugee camps where the majority of Palestinian refugees remain confined until today.


Men of Capital, Women of Thrift

Elites in Palestine were not homogenous. A growing group of men working in commercial, and to a much lesser extent, industrial ventures were accumulating capital and expertise in the early twentieth century. These businessmen were a primarily urban, relatively wealthy group of men who attempted to author a new sort of hegemonic power. Their strategies and visions were as invested in shaping and maintaining new forms of social hierarchy as radicals and rebels were in dislodging them. Elites shaped philosophies and visions of the ideal social body [hay’a ijtima‘iyya], the ideal “social man,” and his ideal partner, the domestic manager. Attending to these figures and their projects opens up new ways to think about Palestine’s past, its present, and its relationship to the intellectual and social world in which it existed.

The British commitment to maintaining the status quo among Palestinians strengthened a handful of the landowning nobility. The Husayni family and its main rival the Nashashibis used municipal elections, competition for mayoral posts, and control of institutions like the Supreme Muslim Council to jockey for power and create alliances. The foregone conclusion has been that the property, money, income, and power of these urban notables dominated the entire country.

However, there is a history outside of this seemingly impenetrable narrative of Palestinian factionalism and family rivalries. As Issa Khalaf has shown, by World War I, local industries including flour milling, soap making, weaving, pipe making, and metal shops saw a diversification. Between 1918 and 1927, Arabs and Jews established 2,269 commercial and manufacturing enterprises. Sixty percent of these enterprises were Arab, representing an investment of 613,000 Palestinian pounds. By 1927, there were 3,505 industrial establishments in Palestine. By 1935, Arab capital investment was mostly in tobacco, cardboard, soap and milling factories, and a growing textile industry, but Arabs also made industrial advances in metals, chemicals, leather, beverages, and quarrying.

The largest shift occurred in the wartime period. In 1939, there were 339 Arab industrial establishments employing 4,117 people. The number of Arab industrial establishments jumped in 1943 to 1,558, employing 8,804 people. Arab capital investments went from 703,565 Palestinian pounds in 1939 to 2,131,307 pounds in 1942. These numbers are small in comparison to the rapid growth of Jewish manufacturing during the Mandate, which went from generating fifty percent of Palestine’s output in the 1920s to sixty percent in the early 1930s and reached eighty percent during wartime-induced industrialization. Palestinian stagnancy and paralysis, however, was not the corollary of the growing hegemony of European Jewish industry.

A “middling” class existed that was not synonymous with the land-owning class who continued their hold over inland cities like Tiberias and Nablus. Despite this hold, important shifts in political economy took place along the coast. Khalaf draws on a study of one hundred political figures to show that thirty-five percent of these elites were engaged in private enterprise and that many fell in the “middling” as opposed to wealthy categories. The Jaffa and Jerusalem Chambers of Commerce records are evidence of a growing commercial and manufacturing class distinct from the landed nobility. In Jerusalem, for example, between 1938 and 1947 there was a rise from 84 to 118 businesses and companies. The Jerusalem Chamber included 260 general commission agencies, importers of luxury goods and appliances, retailers and wholesalers, and automobile parts, tires, and car dealers. The Jaffa Chamber in the late 1940s shows a similar growth in trade, commercial sectors, and light industry. Of the 670 businesses in Jaffa, only 23 belonged to individuals from large landowning families. Similarly in Jerusalem, 56 of 528 businessmen were from these families.

Economic diversification was not dependent on businesses associated with the investments of the urban nobility in imports and exports of cereal, the sale of construction materials, and milling factories. Nevertheless, Tamari’s insistence on cross-fertilizations between a “middling” sort and a landowning class is crucial. Rashid al-Hajj Ibrahim, an influential man of capital in 1930s and 1940s Palestine, was “a landowner,” “a prominent merchant, a leader of the Haifa Islamic Society, and…a member of the Istiqlal Party,” “a Haifa businessmen…[and a] banker,” and a “Chamber activist.” None of these descriptions are inaccurate. They point to the many positions that Ibrahim and men like him could occupy. Indeed, it is this “unevenness” and multiplicity of affiliation that renders Palestinian history a rich and complex arena of study.

[Excerpted from Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine, by Sherene Seikaly. © 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permitted without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]  

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