Remembering Subterfuge among Arab Palestinian Tobacco Cultivators under the British Rule 1920-1948

By Basma Fahoum
Submitted to Session P4473 (Networks of Capital: Land, Markets, and Community in the Levant and North Africa, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper explores the narratives of the Palestinian peasants who grew tobacco in Mandatory Palestine. The market expanded rapidly, after many local growers started growing tobacco when the British administration abolished the previous Ottoman monopoly on tobacco and introduced new regulations aimed at reaping revenue through taxes. Subsequently, all tobacco had to be sold to local manufacturers; any independent sale of untaxed tobacco was criminalized and punishable by fines and incarceration.
The paper is based on oral history interviews I conducted with peasants in the Galilee. They narrated the ways in which they were exploited and undercompensated by the manufacturers, mostly subsidiaries of the British American Tobacco (BAT) Company, which in effect operated as a monopoly. Peasants also claimed that the British government abandoned them and left them to deal with BAT on their own, a claim that appears to be grounded when examining archival sources. I argue that peasants resisted this exploitation, both as individuals and through collective action. They employed public forms of resistance, such as establishing cooperatives and calling for boycott, as well as in clandestine forms, such as taking part in the unofficial trading in tobacco, which had existed since Ottoman times.
James Scott distinguishes "hidden transcripts" from the "public transcripts" of subordinate groups. This discourse is shielded from outsiders, but shared among subalterns. I argue that the peasants narrated their exploitation consistently because it was a part of the shared public transcript. I further argue that the independent and illegal sale of tobacco resulted in the creation of a "hidden transcript,” which was shared with me because of my Palestinian identity. Additionally, I found that a further level of "hidden transcript" existed, consisting of the individual illicit actions of my interviewees. This was perpetuated due to the continuing colonial situation and therefore narrated using different strategies and themes.