Merchants and Miracles

The book

In early 1909 a miracle is said to have occurred in Bethlehem. A man named Gubrail Dabdoub was in the final death throes of typhoid fever and the local priest had been called to administer his last rites. Enter Mariam Ghattas, a local nun and founder of the Sisters of the Holy Rosary...

Through Mariam's miraculous intervention Gubrail was brought back to life (artist's impression above), living in good health for another 22 years and never forgetting his debt of gratitude to the nun. He was one of Bethlehem's pioneering merchants who in the 1870s and 80s had made their fortune selling Holy Land devotional objects in all corners of the earth. How did this man of the world become the subject of the type of supernatural event that seemed to belong to Bethlehem's more mystical past? How did he experience his salvation and what does it tell us about the relationship between trade, piety and migration in late Ottoman Palestine?

By reconstructing this miracle and five other pivotal events in the life of Gubrail Dabdoub, the project book will explore the interplay between the global circulations of Bethlehem's merchant migrants and a more localised picture of social change within Palestine. Gubrail lived for extended periods in the Philippines, France, the U.S and Honduras but he remained firmly grounded in the parochial concerns of his hometown. He was in many respects a modern cosmopolitan man who was able to exploit the religious sanctity of Bethlehem for personal profit. Yet he was also deeply committed to his Christian faith and appeared to see no conflict between his religion and his business activities.

The book's methodology draws on the emerging field of global microhistory, tracing the fluid movements of a single individual across continents and oceans. At the same time it will frame his experiences within the socio-cultural specificities of a small town like Bethlehem. This type of research presents a number of challenges. Gubrail was not a major historical figure and today remains unheard of outside his immediate line of descendants. There are many things about his life we can and never will be able to know. The book will interrogate these silences, building on recent historiographies of selfhood and biography to probe the limits of historical knowledge about a group of people marked by a lack of literary output and a capacity for adaptation and reinvention.