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I. Les défis du quotidien : vivre, s'organiser, inventer

Affective, parochial or innovative? Aleppo traders on the margin of global capitalism

Affectif, paroissial ou innovateur ? Le commerçant d'Alep en marge du capitalisme mondial
Annika Rabo


Cet article analyse trois façons différentes mais toutes concevables de dépeindre le commerçant d’Alep aujourd’hui. On peut en effet le considérer comme faisant partie d'une culture distincte, ou bien comme un représentant de la petite bourgeoisie, ou encore comme un modèle d’esprit d’entreprise. Bien que toutes ces approches soient éloquentes elles sont aussi très limitées, surtout les deux dernières qui sont – chacune à sa manière – à orientation utilitaire. Je partirai donc du point de vue – le mien – qu’il est préférable d'analyser le commerçant d'Alep sous ses trois aspects - affectif, paroissial et innovateur – en même temps. Même si le commerçant d'Alep est en marge du capitalisme mondial, son étude peut mettre à jour les traits les plus saillants du monde contemporain. Il s’agit d’une nouvelle économie affective où des personnalités, des émotions et des susceptibilités sont mises sur le marché. L'article est basé sur le matériel recueilli lors de mes travaux d’anthropologie sociale sur le terrain à Alep entre 1997 et 2003, et principalement en 1998-1999.

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  • 1 See Arang Keshavarzian (2003) for a pertinent critique of this ‘culturalistic’ approach.

1Aleppo is the second largest city in Syria with a population of more than 1.5 million people. It is the country’s most important centre for trade and manufacture and its central market area – its souq - stretches for more than 10 km in the middle of the city. Here small shops, stalls, warehouses and workshops crowd the narrow streets and the alleys. The Aleppo souq is very important for the local, regional and national economy, but it has also become a tourist attraction, and it is described in glowing and romantic terms in local and foreign guidebooks. The unchanging and historical nature of the souq is stressed (Burns, 1994: 28; Ministry of Tourism, 1989:147) and the economy and ethos of the souq is portrayed as radically different from the rest of the city. Such descriptions fit into a ‘culturalistic’ view where the Middle Eastern souq, or bazaar, is regarded as a symbol of tradition, unaffected by social change, and where the people who work there are bound together by affective ties (Weiss, 1998; McLachlan, 2003; Abdullahzadeh, 2003)1.

2But there are other possible ways to depict the Middle Eastern or Aleppo souq. In the political economy tradition researchers characterize market people as petit bourgeois, dependent on, and allied to, the owners of the means of production. In such a role they are typically associated with narrow-mindedness and a fear of change. But thirdly, Middle Eastern market people could equally well be classified as agents of change; as entrepreneurs. These have been highly valorized by neo-liberal market advocates not only as harbingers of economic prosperity but also as contributing to civil society and liberal democracies. Researchers focusing on class or entrepreneurs use very different theoretical perspectives, but they are similar in that they are utility-oriented. Leyshon and Thrift (1997: 263) stress that the neo-classical and the Marxist economic approaches are similar by using metaphorical redescriptions from other disciplines to form their economic discourses. The metaphors of neo-classical economics with homo economicus are taken from physics, while the metaphors in the Marxist tradition, with its stress on production, come from biology. Proponents from both theoretical approaches look for, or assess, the contributions of a specific class - the petite bourgeoisie - or specific individuals - the entrepreneurs - to economic or political development. Also culturalistic approaches use metaphors. Clifford Geertz’s research on the souq of Sefrou, a small Moroccan town (1979), has been very influential. He stresses that the souq is a leading institution in the Arab world, and the market of Sefrou, he claimed, could illustrate « what is Morroccan about Moroccan commerce ». In this perspective the souq is a metaphor for the society as a whole.

  • 2 For more details about the arguments in the article see Annika Rabo (2005 a) A Shop of One’s Own. I (...)

3In this article my position is different. I will not evaluate Aleppo traders by assigning them a role as either ‘progressive’ or ‘reactionary’ or by evaluating their contribution to some larger goal. With Aleppo traders as a case, I will address and scrutinize these three different positions. I will contend that traders are simultaneously affective, parochial and innovative, but that they also are much more than that. I do not see the Aleppo market as a symbol of Syrian society. Instead, I will argue, a close scrutiny of the Aleppo traders will tell us something about contemporary aspirations world-wide2.

Aleppo traders as representing a unique

4What is a trader? A trader could simply be defined as a person who buys and sells. In Aleppo, the Arabic tâjer (pl. tujjâr) is closely synonymous to the English concept of trader. Tijâra – trade – is the business of buying and selling. In the late 1990s there were over 70,000 registered trading companies in Aleppo and an incalculable number of unregistered traders, sellers and part-time ‘businessmen’. In Aleppo the hustle and bustle of buying and selling is carried out almost everywhere in the central parts of the city. There are shops and streetvendors, there are trading-offices, storage facilities as well as workshops all over the city, and especially in the city centre and in the covered souq. In Aleppo the term ‘trader’ is a very important local classification. Although people do not conceptually categorize tâjer/tujjâr by the use of specific criteria, they know who is a trader and who is not. It is, however, obvious that all who buy and sell in Aleppo are not considered, nor consider themselves, as traders. Scale of business, economic turn-over and the skill needed to operate a business is linked to this categorization, but certainly not in any simple way. Owners of small grocery-shops and itinerant vendors are usually talked about as ‘sellers’. Their profit-margins are usually low and no specialized skills are – according to Aleppians – needed to enter such branches. But there are many such sellers who make more money than people categorized as traders. Trading, as opposed to selling, is not simply a question of how much money you make. Nor is a trader necessarily a person who buys and sells only. A person can trade as well as be an owner, or part-owner of a workshop or a small (or even large) industry. The bulk of the income of a trader may be generated by industrial investments, but he will not consider himself, or be considered by others, as an industrialist.

5An Aleppo trader, with a tautological argument, buys and sells in such a way that he and others see him as a trader! He must have a shop, or an office, with a good location, and have a long-term presence in the market. He must belong to the market through longevity. Thus he will be in, and of, the market in such a way that he, and significant others, can agree that he is, in fact, a trader. Sons of fathers who are established traders are advantaged, and the majority of my informants have had trading fathers. They have grown up in a trade-conducive atmosphere. Often they expressed how they automatically, « without thinking », acquired the wish and skill to trade. But sons of traders still have to prove themselves as traders, and eventually have to establish their own reputation. Newcomers, those without fathers established in trade, may eventually become part of the market. To be of the market, again with a tautological argument, is to share and produce attitudes and values related to being a trader. They have to have shops, talk about their relationships to clients, about their market presence and about their ability. In short: their interests have to be tied to the market rather than elsewhere.

6Aleppo tujjâr come in all shapes and sizes, but the vast majority of companies are businesses registered in the name of one person, and most tujjâr are owners-managers of small businesses. Trade and production in Aleppo are extremely heterogeneous and fragmented, and ownership and management structure is usually quite complex. Businesses are often jointly ‘owned’ or managed with close relatives. Many are based on investments from sleeping or active partners, and many traders invest in industry and other traders’ businesses. Shops, offices and industrial establishments do not on sight reveal the amount of business, the turn-over of the owner-manager, or the prospects of that particular establishment. A dusty hole-in-the-wall in the souq, with a ragged looking owner-manager, may just be ‘the front’ of a large and economically successful business. A larger more elegant shop may have an owner on the verge of bankruptcy.

7In Aleppo tâjer/tujjâr is a male concept. Aleppo traders are men, although there are women who do trade. The wives and female relatives of all my traders-informants are not employed, nor do they work in the market. Many Aleppo women work to earn a living, and there is no stigma attached to this, but to have the ability to support a wife is one sign of a ‘real’ trader. Many women earn small sums of money by working on commission for traders. They mainly sell women’s clothes and fripperies that have been advanced to them from retailers, in their own homes, or in the homes of other women. Many also earn small sums of money by reselling clothes, fripperies, perfume and make-up that they, or others, have bought in Lebanon, or the oil-rich countries. In the 1990s women in Aleppo were very active in cross-border trade, and in Aleppo clothes smuggled from Turkey were, on the selling side, almost exclusively handled by women. Such women could be called tajra, the female form of tâjer. Tajra, however, has a totally different connotation than tâjer. A tajra is not seen to be in, and of, the market and does not represent a trading spirit, despite the fact that some women were, or had been, very successful economically (Rabo, 2006).

8Although traders are found everywhere in Aleppo, they are more densely concentrated in the city center and in the old city, the medina. Most of my informants have their enterprises in the medina, and can be classified as part of the ahl as-souq, ‘people of the market’. Compared to ‘tujjâr’, it is an even more amorphous term. Like tujjâr the term cannot be defined by specific criteria, yet Aleppians know who to include or exclude in this categorization. For the most part my traders-informants did not classify themselves, or others, as part of the ahl as-souq. Just like the term tâjer, it was obvious to them who were and who were not, at any particular time, part of the people of the market. It is at once a term more and less specific than tujjâr. Ahl as-souq are traders whose names and destinies are tightly bound to the souq and to trade. In every major Syrian city there is a core of such people. The people of the market usually belong to large families whose names are readily known among others – in the souq and outside – as traders and as rooted in the market.

9My informants expressed the view that Syrian traders in general, and Aleppo traders in particular, are hardworking and clever. They believe that people of the market are fairly traditional (taqlîdî) and conservative (muhâfizîn). This conservatism is grounded in « a fear of God » (khauf allah). Aleppo used to be a polyglot, multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian city (Hreitani and David, 1986). Compared to the situation in the 1940s traders, and especially the ahl as-souq, have become steadily more linguistically, religiously and ethnically homogeneous. Today the traders in Aleppo, and especially the people of the market, are predominantly, or present themselves predominantly, as urban Arab Sunni Muslims.

10An overriding concern and strive of traders in the medina is to keep and maintain their own shop or office. To be somebody in the souq is to have a shop. A shop is both an expression of the fundamental values of the market and a means to gain them. In the Aleppo market ‘independence’ (istiqlâl) and ‘settlement/stability’ (istiqrâr) are such fundamental values. These values are shared by shop-owners, small industrialists, whole-sale traders, as well as all those selling their labor in the souq. Some of my traders-informants have moved from location to location in the souq, others have stayed in a shop inherited from a father. Many establish themselves in a souq-part where they have, so to speak, grown up, but others are relative newcomers to their particular souq-part.

11I heard frequent complaints among traders that « others » imitated the products or started a business in the same line as their neighbours. Instead of venturing into something new and different a competitor – often a novice in trade or small-scale industry – would imitate the successful ideas of others. But for most traders in the medina such complaints directed at their neighbours are nonsensical. The covered market gets its economic importance from the fact that traders in close proximity to each other sell quite the same products. A souq is a souq by virtue of its uniformity, its thematic repetition with slight variations. A gold-souq, for example, would not be a gold-souq with only one or two shops selling gold. But with four, or five or twenty (depending on the size of the market as a whole) or more shops selling gold, customers start to see this as a special market, and this attracts them. Customers are attracted to a souq because there are many shops selling pretty much the same thing. Traders clearly compete with each other but they are also interested in keeping their souq alive. If businesses start to fold around them and shops are closing, the souq will not bring customers. Thus traders want independence, but in order to achieve this, they depend on the survival of others in the souq.

12The vast majority of my informants expressed that a good name and reputation (ism) is the most important asset, or capital, for a trader. Any given trader, however, frequently pointed out that others lack a good name, and claimed that the importance of a good name is decreasing in the market. Yet, in order to be considered as a ‘real’ trader one should be concerned with one’s reputation. ‘Sellers’, thus, are less reputable. My informants also stressed that the Aleppo market still operates on the principle of trust (thiqa) between traders. Some traders claimed that ‘before’ trust used to be a more salient feature of Aleppo trade, while others said that trade ‘everywhere’ depends on some degree of trust. Traders also claimed that security (amân) in the Aleppo market (and in other Syrian markets) is very high. Traders or their employees can walk around with enormous sums of money, and women can leave parties wearing a lot of gold, without fear of theft or robbery. My informants insisted that security is fostered by social cohesion, the fear of God, mentioned above, but also, they reluctantly admitted, by the state, which cracked down heavily on thieves.

13If asked, many of my traders-informants in the medina would agree that they are united by a special ethos based on their close ties. Although they strive to run and maintain their own independent businesses, many of my informants underlined their dependence on market neighbours, on partners and on close male relatives to do so. To be an Aleppo trader, and in particular to be considered as part of the people of the market, is, as described above, to share essential values. A trader should be independent and settled and concerned about his reputation. These values underline that making money is not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve independence. From this point of view Aleppo traders can be said to share an affective market culture which is transmitted from generation to generation. Analysing traders, and in particular the ahl as-souq, in terms of a unique culture may thus contribute to our understanding of how the contemporary Aleppo market functions.

14But this culturalistic perspective obscures more than it illuminates. First of all it is important to stress that salient values of the traders – including the ahl as-souq – are not unique to the Aleppo market. Ideals of having a shop of one’s own, of being independent and achieving stability is shared also by many Aleppians outside the souq. The importance of reputation and the stress on trust is salient all over the city. Neither traders in general, nor the ahl as-souq in particular, are cut off from the rest of the city. Traders constitute an important social category, but they are not part of a self-contained group. Although certain families are closely associated with the market, traders and market people are very fluid categories. Furthermore, by stressing the unique culture of the Aleppo market and its traders, the dynamic changes of the market are not taken into account. The souq of 2005 differs from that of 1995, which differed from that of 1965. Even if the souq is still very important economically – perhaps more important now than a few decades ago – it is not the ‘same’ souq with exactly the same activities, nor the ‘same’ people in it. Finally this kind of perspective hides that traders’ ‘unique’ culture is in many ways shaped by the economic policies of the state. The value of independence is an expression of the wish to be independent of the state, the policies of which they, in fact, depend on to a high degree. The traders’ stress on their reputation and their talk of trust implies, furthermore, that specific others not of the souq – power-holders and certain public employees – have no reputation and are not to be trusted. Traders intermittently do imply that they are different from, and ‘better’, than non-traders. Such statements should not, of course, be taken at face value, but must be put into a context where traders see themselves as providing essential services to the country.

Aleppo traders as petit bourgeois

15The petit bourgeois, in the Marxist tradition, is a class or a stratum, placed between the bourgeoisie – the owners of the production – and the proletariat. They are usually self-employed and own their means of production. These aspects fit the self-ascription of most of my traders-informants, and especially the ahl as-souq. They often describe themselves as « neither rich nor poor », and their self-employment is crucial, as discussed above. To have a shop of one’s own and to be independent of others is essential to their identity as traders. In the classical tradition the petite bourgeoisie was thought to disappear, thrown on the rubbish-heap of history, in the inevitable march of class struggle and development. Yet the resilience of the petite bourgeoisie has been remarkable! In many countries of the world it has not only survived, but thrived. In Syria, for example, the petite bourgeoisie – living from trade, construction and services – has increased since the 1970s (Longuenesse, 1978; Perthes, 1995:101), in no small part due to the economic policies of the state. Thus, to grasp the development of the Syrian petite bourgeoisie, it is necessary to bring the state and the ruling party into the analysis.

16After the Ba‘th take-over in 1963 the Syrian state became the main agent for economic planning and economic control. It has been the most important actor in industry for decades, and Syria has, in principle, followed a fairly Soviet oriented development ideology. But the private sector in Syria continued to be comparatively large. The assets of small factory – and workshop-owners– and small and medium traders were never nationalized. Private ‘non-exploitative’ ownership was constitutionally sanctioned. In 1970, an internal Ba‘th coup brought Hafez al-Asad to power, instigating a period when the private ‘non-exploitative’ sector was given increased freedom. The new regime was also able to secure aid and investment from oil-rich Arab countries. But by the end of the 1970s shortages of basic consumer goods, controlled by the state, were legion. People queued for bread, and bartered for food-oils, sugar, tea, eggs and coffee. Syrian producers and traders were very ingenious and clever in providing goods and services to their fellow citizens. The high costs and the bureaucratic difficulties surrounding import, forced them to rely on semi-self-sufficiency. Cars produced and imported in the late 1940s or the 1950s were endlessly repaired with the help of ‘indigenous technology’ in small workshops in Aleppo. Most of the commodities sold in the Aleppo souq was produced locally or nationally and the market traders very much depended on the output of workshops and small factories.

17In 1970 president Hafez al-Asad initiated the so called Correction Movement, and in 1972 created the National Front, whereby more parties were included in the government and in Parliament, and new opportunities were extended to the private sector. Import and export restrictions were eased, but linked to powerful individuals in the public sector. Small private industries were also encouraged, once again. Until the mid-1980s the economic policies of the Ba’th party were in many ways welfare-oriented and also aimed to provide citizens with access to cheap basic consumer goods. In the middle of the 1980s cutbacks in the public sector became noticeable and the regime started a campaign to increase export, both from the public and the private sectors. Hard currency earned through exports could – to a certain extent – be used for imports. All through the 1980s ad hoc economic measures were taken to bolster the value of the Syrian currency while increasing exports. By the end of the decade it was clear that the state was no longer able to control domestic economic policies through the control of trade-policies (Perthes, 1995:57).

18In 1991 a new investment law was passed, liberalizing investment possibilities for the private sector. The new law led to the rapid growth of the private sector and a concomitant decrease of the economic role of the public sector. The market became flooded with consumer goods – produced by privately owned factories, or imported by private sector traders – for those that could afford them. The pro-private sector economic policies of earlier decades had mainly stimulated investments in real estate, services and trade in consumer goods. From the early 1990s industrial investment was made more attractive and Aleppo trade and industry expanded considerably. New industrial zones were set up and real estate boomed. Most private industry in Aleppo remained small-scale and employed less than ten workers (Cornand, 1994 :135). But a number of large factories, mainly in textile, covered by the investment law of 1991, were established.

19Syria has, thus, like many countries all over the world, joined the bandwagon of economic liberalization. But unlike most so called developing countries, these measures have not been forced on Syria from the outside by political allies or adversaries, nor by international institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Such policies of economic liberalization, often referred to as ‘openings’ (infitah) have increased the scope and scale of the private sector’s contribution to the Gross National Product, and can be seen as responses to fiscal problems of the Syrian state. In this perspective the state no longer had enough rent to afford neglecting the economic contribution of the private sector (Beblawi & Luciani, 1987). Policies of infitah can also be seen as responses to political demands from the trading and industrial community. It could also be analyzed as a way to tie this community to the regime, by giving it more room for manoeuvre. Since the mid-1990s private sector trade, industry and agriculture employ more people than the public, and its contribution to the Gross Domestic Product exceeds that of the public sector. Through infitah-policies the private sector has thus expanded, especially in the production of consumer goods and in the service sector, including trade (Kienle, 1994).

20The increase of the trading and manufacturing Aleppo petite bourgeoisie should, hence, be judged as a response to the more liberal views on private enterprise, on the part of political power-holders. There have simply been increasing opportunities to set up a shop of one’s own, i.e. to become petit bourgeois. At the same time, the public sector as a whole has been down-sized, whith fewer employment opportunities. The salaries of public sector employees have, furthermore, not followed the increasing cost of life. Many of the sellers and budding traders I met in various parts of Aleppo, who could be characterized as petit bourgeois, were, or had been, public employees. One man with two shops in the covered souq had worked as a teacher until retirement and worked his shops with the help of hired hands until he retired. He did not plan for his young son, however, to become a state employee. The son had a university education, but both agreed that employment « these days » was not as honorable or as economically rewarding as « before ». Another trader-informant had a high academic degree after studies abroad on a state-scholarship. He had worked as an employee for a number of years, but when the opportunity came along he bought a shop close to one of his brothers. His father and many uncles had been traders in the souq, and this informant considered himself as part of the old families of the market. Setting up a shop of one’s own, trying to become a seller or a trader – turning into a petit bourgeois – must thus also be seen as a response to the great economic difficulties of the public sector. Under the banner of Arab socialism, one can argue, the Syrian state has thus, paradoxically, contributed to the growth of the petite bourgeoisie.

21The very concept petit bourgeois connotes a person who is parochial, anxiously clinging to his limited property, fearing the unknown. Many of my traders-informants would strenuously object to such a characterization of themselves. They willingly admitted that they were economically much better off than employees in the public sector, and also acknowledged that the economic policies of the last decade had given them more room for manoeuvre. But they attributed their relative wealth and their current position to their own hard work and cleverness. Since the late 1980s, and especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, neo-liberal market advocates have cherished small entrepreneurs as agents of change. Unlike the backward looking petit bourgeois, the entrepreneur is cast in the role of a hero. Such a role is more to the liking of many in the Aleppo market. Trade, they said, « is the essence of everything », and without their efforts the country would come to a halt. Without their inventiveness the Syrian economy would be in a very bad shape. Perhaps, then, classifying traders as entrepreneurs will throw light on what they actually do, rather than on who they ‘are’.

Aleppo Traders as entrepreneurs

22In many ways Syria can be placed on the margins of global capitalism. It is not a country of free trade and never joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Only in 2002 did Syria begin negotiations to join the World Trade Organization. Negotiations with the European Union to join the Euro-Mediterranean Free Trade Area are slow. In the 16th century Aleppo was an important link in an extensive network of trade covering large parts of Asia and Europe and the city was well-known to people seeking fame and fortune through trade in costly goods. Today the city is no longer part of important trade-routes and its name no longer connotes luxurious commodities. As described above, traders and small producers, however, provided indigenous consumer goods in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Syria was quite closed to international trade. But despite the - in many ways - economically marginal position of the city, my traders-informants were certainly never totally cut off from contacts with the rest of the world. Even in the days when international trade was severely limited, it never ceased altogether. Since the middle of the 1980s and especially since the 1990s, as mentioned, exports have been encouraged. In many ways my traders/producing-informants have enjoyed a kind of protection by the state. Syrian producers ignore trademarks and copyrights, for example, and for a long time they have been shielded from foreign competition by custom-duties. These are now being lowered between Syria and neighbouring countries. But interestingly my informants never acknowledged that state policies had any role in their increasing economic opportunities. Instead there were almost incessant complaints about the state and the public sector, and the expanding economy was explained almost only in terms of their own heroic efforts. Syria was still « too closed », they said, and most were convinced that a more open economy could only benefit the country.

  • 3 Although Russian was the language commonly used in the contact with these female traders, many actu (...)

23The Aleppo covered market may seem as unchanging to the outsider, and the traders may seem as if they are rooted in their shops and offices. But their stories often tell a different tale. In the early 1990s the Syrian export to countries of the former socialist world in Eastern Europe and Central Asia increased dramatically. Many traders and producers in Aleppo profited from this. Due to official links between Syrian and the, at the time, socialist countries, traders often developed trade-relations in locations where they, or their relatives or friends, had studied. Many middle-aged traders in the souq described how in the 1970s or the 1980s they travelled to Poland, Rumania or the Soviet Union for holiday purposes, and how they brought along Syrian products to finance their trips. Such trips became more frequent after the fall of Communism, and also more business-oriented. One of my informants had invested in a factory in Rumania which was run by an old friend from Aleppo. Another man exported all kinds of commodities from Aleppo to Rumania and imported walnuts. Another trader had lived in Rumania for a year in the late 1980s and then moved his business, and his family, to Moscow, using the trade-links of his extensive Aleppo family. But although such ventures were important to the Aleppo market, the arrival of so called rosiât, female ‘Russian’ suitcase-traders3 from the end of the 1980s, was economically more significant. Until the mid-1990s such female traders came and bought very large quantities of Aleppo produced textiles and cheap clothes, and resold them on local markets in the former Soviet Union. By the turn of the century the former stream of such traders had been reduced to a trickle. A number of my informants said that the behaviour of the Aleppo traders and the Aleppo public employees had deterred the rosiât. The female traders were quite often cheated because the quality of the Aleppo products got worse, they said. At the same time corrupt employees put their finger in every transaction. During most of my fieldwork this trade was not as important as only a few years earlier, but it had been the start of many entrepreneurial careers in Aleppo, I was told.

24While the boom-years were the start of some careers, it also became the end of others’. Not all ‘entrepreneurs’ can be successful, of course. The brother of one of my informants became a contractor in the late 1980s. He did extremely well for a number of years, but then he started to depend on less than honest partners (according to his brother) and went bankrupt. In 1998, I met and interviewed a man because he was well-known as a successful and innovative trader in the grocery-business, but in 2000 it had folded. The business had originally been started by a group of brothers. The now bankrupt trader had bought his brothers’ shares in the middle of the 1990s and now they bought it back. The man had overextended himself, but thanks to the charity of his brothers, he was allowed a second chance. In 1999 a former employee impressed me with his various business-ideas. He had started in the textile business by putting out an order for rather cheap synthetic clothes which he sold to the ‘Arab’ market in Marseille. This was quite successful and became his main source of income. But a few years later, when he also tried to diversify by making better quality cotton underwear, he failed. He had borrowed heavily from his old colleagues and they were unable to retrieve their debts. They had trusted their friend and not bothered to sign any papers.

  • 4 Syrian banks had actually been nationalized already in July 1961 during the union with Egypt. They (...)

25Ahl as-souq often stressed that those who did not honour their debts, and those that borrowed money from outside the souq, were not ‘real’ traders. This behaviour, they said, was rather typical of ‘sellers’ and others with no true understanding of the market. A trader can be unlucky, of course, like the contractor described above. But had he been more frugal, his brother insisted, he would not have lost his business. The problem today, according to many of my informants, was that trust, the essence of good trade, together with prudence and long-term thinking, has disappeared in the souq. Instead the « big fish were out to eat the small » and traders and industrialists behaved as if there was no tomorrow. The increased economic opportunities from the late 1980s had drawn a lot of crooks into trade and industry, they said. There were also complaints that well-known public figures dabbled in trade and ate the profits – and the good names – of others. In this particular period investors in the private sector started to act as bankers on a large scale. In the market credit through trade-networks has been very important since Syrian banks were nationalized in 19634. My informants gave and took credit through relatives, trade-partners and trusted friends. Many non-market Aleppians also invested with traders as an alternative to putting money in the bank. With the expansion of the private sector profits from such investments were growing, and in the beginning of the 1990s a few Aleppo ‘bankers’ attracted enormous sums of money, because they gave incredible interest-rates. When this investment-bubble burst in 1995 many small savers lost everything. People who had invested their pension-funds or mortgaged their houses were ruined. Only one of my traders-informants admitted to having invested with these bankers, and he said he had quit in time. Most traders claimed that this bubble underlined the difference between ‘real’ traders and people just trying to make money.

26Many of my informants balanced between the wish to safely stick to a business they knew, and the need to take risks, to change and seek new opportunities. A number of informants – all related to each other – had shops and offices in the souq-part specializing in household utensils. Their great-grandfather had moved into the city, and the souq, from the outskirts of Aleppo. In the early decades of the 20th century their grandfather had established quite a large business by becoming the agent of a kerosene-stove. He also sold china and glassware and operated in wholesale for the Aleppo region and even further away. He helped his sons and other relatives to set up their own businesses in the same line. One of these descendents stressed the importance of his shop, and his attachment to this part of the market. He used to work mainly in wholesale and described the ups and downs of the markets over the decades. To him the shop was an important social and economic anchor, symbolizing his independence as a trader. But he also stressed that his three sons could not possibly earn a decent living from the shop. At least two of them would eventually have to diversify and find other, new means of livelihood. He said that the competition in household utensils was increasing because their items were sold everywhere in the city, and not just in the covered souq. Part of the family income actually came from his share of a factory producing furniture. One of his cousins had also started out selling household utensils, but later, with another cousin, diversified and became the agent of a detergent. When I did my fieldwork, this man was successful in importing foodstuff on a large scale and he also acted as an agent for Syrian food producers. By the turn of the century he and a number of partners started to invest in a large textile factory. Yarns and textiles, he told me, would continue to be the base of the Aleppo economy for a long time, and this kind of enormous investment would pay off in the long run.

27One man (and his brothers) had inherited a rather large spare-parts business in another part of the souq. This informant worked both in retail and in wholesale and imported both more and less exclusive commodities to cater to a large variety of customers. But he told me that he always cast around for new investment ideas. He had invested in a foreign-based franchise selling clothes, and he had numerous other ideas. He told me that when he travelled outside Syria for business or pleasure he was always on the look out for new ideas. Many of my informants who could leave their shops, or offices, in the hands of sons, trusted employees or partners, left the country quite frequently. In sharp contrast to most Syrians, they had no difficulty in obtaining passports or visas. Many traders liked to visit trade-fairs, especially in textiles, the backbone of industry and trade in Aleppo, as expressed by the trader above. In 1998 many of my informants were preparing to visit Paris for this purpose. One of my informants joked and said that if any of the many airplanes filled with Aleppo traders would have an accident, the economy of the country would come to a halt ! This informant had invested in a factory belonging to a relative living in Morocco. He had lived for some time in Egypt in the 1970s to run the investments of his father. Many other traders were involved in trade with the Arab peninsula. Some exported ‘modern’ textiles and clothes, often with an eye to the market of the migrant labourers in the oil-rich countries. Others worked in ‘traditional’ clothes and cloth, often sold in Mecca during hajj, and bought by pilgrims from various parts of the world.

  • 5 See Hann & Dunn (1996) for critical analysis of civil society, and article by Rabo for a scrutiny o (...)

28From the above it is possible to argue that many Aleppo traders are ‘heroic’ entrepreneurs, struggling to grab new opportunities and put their – and others’ – money to work. But they have certainly not fostered an increase in ‘civil society’5 (Salamé, 1994:11). Traders complained about the corrupt public sector, but they insisted that they were obliged to use bribes and find mediators to safeguard their businesses (Rabo, 2005b). The political influence of traders has increased in Syria since so called independent candidates have been able to run for Parliament since the early 1990s (Haddad, 1999). There are, however, no independent associations in the souq. Although a freer political climate was ushered in when Bashar al-Asad took over the presidency in the summer of 2000, the door to political reforms was rather quickly shut, not to be opened since. The traders are not united enough, nor willing or able, to open this door on their own. Many of my informants were, however, strong supporters of various charitable organizations, and also took part in informal networks for charity. Especially my Muslim informants claimed that religious duty called upon them to help all those who were less fortunate than themselves. Such religious commitment and concern can, clearly, be funnelled into political action of various ‘colours’, if and when it is possible.

Seeing Souq-Traders in a global light

29As seen from the previous discussion it is, thus, possible to analyze Aleppo traders as sharing a unique culture, as representatives of the petite bourgeoisie, or as entrepreneurs. Any one of these categorizations will not be totally wrong. The traders are affective, parochial and innovative at one and the same time. But more than that, they can be seen to ‘represent’ aspirations – or a culture – found globally.

30Since the early 1990s governments all over the world spend less on public welfare, yet educated (and uneducated) jobseekers expecting to find work and a decent life, are increasing. The solution, according to governments, as well as national and international financial and development institutions, is that people start their own businesses. All must open ‘a shop of their own’ and become entrepreneurs. We have witnessed an enormous increase of self-employed, especially in the production and distribution of goods and services. In this kind of economy, the production and distribution of selves is very important. Carrier (1997: 135), critically scrutinizing the self-presentation of an American entrepreneur, notes that for this man, « a firm is an expression of its owner ». People are now fostered to regard their ‘unique selves’ as a trade asset to be cultivated, packaged, marketed and sold. Citizens all over the world have become their own ‘projects’. This is the new global affective economy where reputation, personality, emotions and hunches are treated as capital assets. This is the contemporary petit bourgeois mode of production! In this perspective Aleppo traders can be analyzed as forerunners because their aspiration – a shop of one’s own – has become a global aspiration. Their talk of independence and reputation makes us understand how this affective economy is ideologically underpinned. This market of selves is presented as equal, where all have the chance to succeed. In reality, of course, it is highly competitive and hierarchical. When you have to compete with so many others, doing the same ‘unique’ thing in very much the same ‘unique’ way, finding one’s own niche, or developing one’s own style, does not lead to automatic success. Most small scale ‘independent’ shop and workshop-owners are far from able to make ‘free choices’. To establish and maintain a shop of one’s own have a cost. Many - like traders in Aleppo - are very tied to their businesses, tending and caring for them like they were children. The example of the Aleppo traders clearly shows that, although they strive for independence, they admit that they are tied to others on the market. Their admission, and the way they cultivate this kind of sociability, can be a lesson in survival for other actors in other places.

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1 See Arang Keshavarzian (2003) for a pertinent critique of this ‘culturalistic’ approach.

2 For more details about the arguments in the article see Annika Rabo (2005 a) A Shop of One’s Own. Independence and Reputation among Traders in Aleppo. I.B. Tauris, London.

3 Although Russian was the language commonly used in the contact with these female traders, many actually came from other parts of the former Soviet Union, or did not see themselves as Russian.

4 Syrian banks had actually been nationalized already in July 1961 during the union with Egypt. They were denationalized at the break-up of the union in December that year and renationalized again in May 1963 (Petran 1972: 139-158)

5 See Hann & Dunn (1996) for critical analysis of civil society, and article by Rabo for a scrutiny of Syria and Jordan..

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Annika Rabo, « Affective, parochial or innovative? Aleppo traders on the margin of global capitalism »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 115-116 | 2006, mis en ligne le 09 février 2012, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Annika Rabo

Anthropologue, Centre for Research in International Migration and Ethnic Relations, Stockholm University

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