Saturday, June 11, 2011


We see the "castle" as a paradigm, not just because we are at war with our neighbors - Hobbes' war of all against all being the reason for government. For us, the home is primary protection against the elements. In the words of William Pitt:"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter." After all, the way to take a castle is to "storm" it. In the 20th century military assault was by "stormtroopers." In our time, Iraq was conquered by "Desert Storm."  In a society of open courtyards, verandas (a Hindi word, likely borrowed from Portuguese), decks, roofs with hanging gardens, patios, arcades and colonades, concepts of safety, security, and ultimately, property rights, must have other paradigms.

In Nelly Hanna's biography of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Making Big Money in 1600 (American University of Cairo Press, 1998) she tells of how he expanded his home to meet the needs of his large and successful family. Established as perhaps the leading merchant of Cairo c. 1000 AH (c.1600 AD), certainly as one of its prominent men of commerce, he already had built a warehouse - wikala - that in fact included living quarters for travelers as well as shops and storage. To do that, they could not use "eminent domain": they had to buy each parcel, maybe 100 feet on a side for a small plot. It took years, but it respected property rights. He still needed to accommodate his wives, concubines, servants, slaves, and visiting clients. To expand his home, he bought the house next door and knocked out a wall. This enlarged his courtyard, baths, and stables, as well as yielding more living space.

The climate of Egypt - in contrast to that of northern Europe - allowed and demanded open spaces, open windows, doors, and arches. Entrance to the inner rooms was guarded, certainly, but the margin between public and private spaces was gradual and contextual. Homes had gates, certainly. But a merchant needs to meet people. And they need access to him.

Contrary to the custom elsewhere - and contradicting our own easy assumptions - there was no harem, separate quarters for women. Women and their children were arrayed in their own spaces based on social status. A concubine who had borne a child rated more honor than a wife who had not. Women also brought their wealth and status with them into a marriage. His third wife, having no children, assured her own income by taking control of the "trust" (waqf) established by her brothers. They relied on her to be a better manager and apparently she did not disappoint them. Meanwhile, she was the wife of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya until his death.

After his death, his family split up, children inheriting their shares. Boys got twice the girls' share, but each child got something. (Compare primogeniture in Europe.) Wives did not inherit directly. His one wife with children - themselves now married - brought her family together in one of the inherited smaller homes, acquired the place next door, and knocked out a wall.
By the time Ismail Abu Taqiyya was at his height of wealth (and health), his social space included the entire street of his home. He and a longtime friend had built their homes (and their wikalas) on the same street.
They acquired the neighboring properties piecemeal over time - respecting property rights, not only of the owners, but also satisfying the needs of those other waqf "trusts" which held property independent of the nominal owners.

This was not unique to them. With the government of the Mamluks fallen to the Ottoman Pashas who had not been able to exert control and who were themselves appointed for limited terms of office, the merchants of Cairo built and rebuilt large parts of it.

The piazza is a public space, but among urban Americans in the 19th century, it came to be a somewhat pretentious word for the front porch. For Americans, the front porch became the margin between the public street and the privacy of the interior home. Adults could sit and rock while children played games. Friends and neighbors could stroll pass and bid hello and good day. An industry arose to create special furniture for this special space. (As a measure of fire safety, the City of Ann Arbor forbids couches and other interior furniture from the porch. But in any case, it is unseemly: outdoor furniture is appropriate.) Europeans assigned to work in Detroit like Ann Arbor because our restaurants extend to the street, using the sidewalks for table spaces. (This fact was brought to my attention by engineers from an Israeli firm doing business here.) The margins between public and private spaces are blurred. It would be difficult to discuss anything illegal or immoral in such a context. Business and social life become transparent when conducted on the street. In such a context, you grant privacy by minding your own business.

Therefore, rather than the castle which holds against the storm, a commercial society of productive traders, offering values in voluntary exchange, is better served by a theoretical model or exemplar or pattern of open intercourse. That brings up promiscuity, the easy mixing of people, too easy for the Puritans for whom safety from the elements and their neighbors comes from being shut and shuttered.

In an open society, police without a warrant would be unwelcome in a home because they have no business there.

That openness is also reflected in the legal institutions of the time and place. There, four different schools of law - Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi'i, Hanbali - operated their own courts. In each, four different judges (qadi) heard cases. You could pick your judge. In addition, disputes among co-ethnics or co-religionists were expected to be handled within that community. Finally, of course, the Sultan and his Pasha could dispense state justice. Usually by proxy, as elsewhere and elsewhen, the ruler was nominally available to his people by direct appeal.

So, for a merchant such as Abu Taqiyya, different kinds of contracts were better (for him) registered with certain courts.

From our point of view today, it seems odd to learn that under shari'a law as practiced by the competing courts of Cairo circa 1000 AH is women sued - and were sued - on their own account. There is even a case of a Bosnian slave woman being sued. Women inherited their own money, managed their own estates. As now - as always - a woman with a forceful and compelling personality (usually from a wealthy family) could get some interesting clauses in her marriage contracts. By custom, a man is supposed to treat all of his wives equally. There is no way to enforce that -- usually. One woman had it written in and specified how many nights he was allowed to spend with the other wives, etc. As a clause in a marriage contract, it was enforceable. And if she left, she took her property with her. Contrast that with England or France of 1600 AD.

Also on Necessary Facts
The Family Business
Capitalist Culture
Thank-You Notes

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