Historians of the Middle East have long ignored the middle class in general and the activities of Arab capitalists in particular. For many, capitalism is synonymous with colonialism, and prevailing narratives have not been able to accommodate entrepreneurs who resist characterization as “comprador” allies of colonial projects. Sherene Seikaly’s new monograph Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine rectifies that “resounding silence on Arab capitalist practice” by bringing the politics of an emergent middle class to the forefront of our understanding of Palestinian society under the British Mandate.
In Episode #206 of Ottoman History Podcast, we had the opportunity to talk to Dr. Seikaly about this new work and explore how her analysis of class formation in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s helps diagnose the current moment of interrupted Arab revolutions. While many Zionists alleged that Palestinians had not done enough to build their own state, Seikaly’s protagonists—her “men of capital” and “women of thrift”—suggest otherwise. Without access to the state apparatuses, she argues that Palestine’s Arab population could never be proper political subjects under British colonial rule in the same way as the yishuv. Instead, Palestinian capitalists made politics in the realms left available to them: personal profit and, in the case of Fuad Saba, funding the armed struggle against the mandate.
Seikaly’s purpose in this work is not solely to address Zionist depictions of Palestinian failures at nation building. Nor does she opt to simply condemn the exclusionary element of the liberal middle class project. Rather, she argues that we must study Palestinian men of capital on their own terms in order to push beyond the limits of current extant scholarship. Class formation for bourgeois Palestinian women was an exercise in nation building and feminist praxis as much as it was a means of excluding poor women on the basis of their failed domesticity. She seeks to understand how Palestinian women and men viewed progress “not as a glimpse of what could have been but as an indication of what was to come.”
In our conversation, Seikaly suggested that we must consider the possibility that the Arab right has an intellectual project, despite the natural allure of studying the history of the left. “We need to take the forces of capital seriously. We need to understand…the intellectual genealogies that empower and enliven capitalists.…For far too long in both activist circles and in scholarship it’s been understandably understood as the right thing to do to study the subaltern, to study the left. But I`ve become very tired of an increased emphasis on ‘the left awoke,’ ‘the left died,’ ‘the left is asleep,’ ‘the left is awake again’…and at some point I start feeling like, well, what’s everybody else doing?”
Men of Capital is a highly original work that adds to a growing body of literature on the intersections of class, gender, and nation in the modern Middle East. It anticipates future directions for Middle East social history and will prove indispensable to anyone interested in twentieth-century Palestine. It will also be of interest for historians of capitalism more broadly, whereas in so many areas of the global historiography, the Middle East—despite its centrality in politics of the day—is often an afterthought.
Sherene Seikaly is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is the editor of the Arab Studies Journal, and co-founder and co-editor of Jadaliyya E-zine. Seikaly`s Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2015) explores how Palestinian capitalists and British colonial officials used economy to shape territory, nationalism, the home, and the body.
Graham Auman Pitts is a PhD Candidate in Georgetown University`s history department, where he studies the environmental history of the modern Middle East. He is currently finishing a dissertation entitled "Fallow Fields: Famine and the Making of Lebanon (1914-1952)," which probes the intersections of ecology, capital, and colonialism.
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