Interview with MAAS Alum Sherene Seikaly

MAAS Alum Sherene Seikaly (2000) recently published Men of Capital: Scarcity and Economy in Mandate Palestine with Stanford University Press (2015). Her book, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Palestine Book Awards, debunks common assumptions about class in British-ruled Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s by exploring the complexities of the emergent middle classes. In this interview, she chats with CCAS about her research.

Dr. Seikaly is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves as Editor for the Arab Studies Journal and Co-editor of Jadaliyya. 

 

What sparked your interest in British-ruled Palestine of the 1930s and 1940s?

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.

 

Why did you choose to use an economic framework for telling this story?

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, so invested in policing? Moreover, who were these Chamber 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 begun 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 not simply recover 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.

What were some of the challenges you faced during your research or surprising things you learned?

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 subject, it was too late to affect any kind of horizontal solidarity.