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Alep et ses territoires

Jean-Claude David
Thierry Boissière

Troisième partie - Le commerce et les affaires, de l’économie de souk à la mondialisation

Chapitre 16 – The Social Life of Yarn in Aleppo

Trust and Speculation in a Time of Economic Transformation

Paul Anderson


Ce chapitre est une contribution à l’étude ethnographique de la vie urbaine et des pratiques économiques en Syrie. Il interroge sur la façon dont les transformations macroéconomiques et macropolitiques modifient les formes de confiance et les valeurs à un niveau micro. Nous décrivons le marché de gros du fil dans la ville ancienne d’Alep. Le fil est au centre de l’activité alépine du textile, mais il se manifeste sous différentes formes sociales et usages sociaux. Pour certains, c’est un produit commercial qui circule indéfiniment ; pour d’autres, c’est un bien industriel dont la vie sociale est complexe ; pour d’autres encore, c’est une fiction spéculative qui s’éteint dans les deux semaines, ou encore un moyen d’emprunter de l’argent. En situant le travail sur le terrain ethnographique en 2008-2009, nous décrivons le rôle du courtier comme un « point de confiance » personnel entre l’acheteur et le vendeur. Nous décrivons alors comment les récents changements de la politique économique syrienne ont conduit à l’existence de nouvelles formes de hiérarchie dans le marché, marginalisant les plus petits courtiers mais diversifiant les pratiques commerciales, y compris avec l’invention du « fil fantôme ».

Note de l’éditeur

Dr Paul Anderson is a social anthropologist interested in trust, ethics, religiosity and economic practice. He is a lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Note de l’auteur

I am grateful to the Centre for Advanced Study of the Arab World at the Universities of Edinburgh, Manchester and Durham for the scholarship which enabled me to undertake this research. I am also grateful to the Ifpo (Aleppo) and the Departments of Geography and Philosophy at the University of Aleppo, who assisted me in carrying out the fieldwork.

Texte intégral

Photo 1 : La petite foule des « boursicoteurs » à la bourse du fil au khan ‘Olabiyyé.

Photo 1 : La petite foule des « boursicoteurs » à la bourse du fil au khan ‘Olabiyyé.

Photo J.-C. David, années quatre-vingts

« The other day I heard that there is a batch of intermingled yarn (mta‘aj) that has been in the market since 2005! It is going from warehouse to warehouse. The boxes are completely wrecked! »
Muhyi, 26, son of the wealthiest yarn manufacturers in Aleppo.

It is around 5.30 p.m. in the courtyard of the Khan al-‘Olabiyyé caravanserai. The men are standing in small groups of twos, threes, and fours. Every so often someone breaks off from one group and wanders to another. I overhear some snippets of conversation : « What is the price ? » « It’s around 1.75 » (markaz-uh tnayn ilâ rub’) – that is, 81.75 lira per kilo. Someone else asks : « Have you bought ? sold ? » Suddenly someone shouts an offer : « I’ll buy fifty. Two and a half ». Fifty boxes of yarn, each containing thirty-three kilograms of Taiwanese polyester, at 82.5 lira per kilo. Immediately the small groups disperse and a group of around twenty people forms around the protagonist who has apparently made an offer. He stands in the middle of the group, a space like a stage in front of him, addressing and pointing at a man on the other side of the space. « Will you buy ? » he challenges him. Then he addresses another man next to this one. I do not catch what is said. The protagonist swiftly walks away out of the crowd, which disperses as quickly as it formed.

1Every day except Friday, after the afternoon prayer, yarn brokers and others gather in the open-air courtyard of Khan al-‘Olabiyyé in Aleppo’s old city markets to buy and sell from each other. It is a noisy affair, especially in the summer, with often around forty or fifty participants offering or pretending to offer prices to each other. Sometimes participants gather in small groups of two or three, sometimes these groups coalesce into larger crowds, with two protagonists offering different prices to each other in the space in the middle of a crowd of up to twenty participant-onlookers.

2While all types of yarns can be traded in these encounters, most of the trades concern only one variety : Taiwanese Intermingled 150, which is a staple ingredient in much woven fabric, from curtains and furniture coverings to clothing. Because of the high and changeable level of demand for this yarn, and because of the number of actors involved in trading it, its price changes quickly : I was often told that the price can change in seconds, and traders can buy and sell the same yarn up to ten times in a few minutes. This market is known as the bursa or « stock exchange ».

3Several of those taking part are brokers with actual yarn to buy and sell on behalf of their clients – textile factory owners and yarn importers in Aleppo. Some have spent the morning visiting factories, renewing relationships, taking orders, and receiving payment. Some have no yarn but simply want to speculate on the changing price : to buy then sell again, or sell and then buy back, before the delivery date is due. Below, I describe the place of the yarn broker in the material and social networks of the Khan al-‘Olabiyyé market.

The Role of the Yarn Broker

4Khan al-‘Olabiyyé is one of Aleppo’s historical caravanserais, situated close to the city’s central Umayyad Mosque, and towards the south-eastern end of the network of the Old City markets for which the city is famous among visiting tourists and traders alike. Since Ottoman times, Aleppo has been linked to the production and trade of different kinds of textiles ; its fame as a trading post on the silk route is inscribed in these old bazaar markets, and in particular in the caravanserais which served as premises and warehouses for visiting merchants, as well as residences for European consuls during the Ottoman period when the city’s importance as an international trading post was at its height.

5Today, despite the many changes of trading routes, technologies, political regimes and international borders that have taken place since the end of the Ottoman Empire, the production and trade of textiles continues to be the single most important sector of Aleppo’s economy. While most of the consulates and hostelries have moved out of the Aleppo’s Old City, and while much textile production has moved to the more distant peripheries of this ever-expanding industrial city, the larger caravanserais have retained their position as an organising centre and focal point for the textile trade. They are places where traders and industrialists advertise and maintain their position in the market, receive guests, attract wholesale customers, organise imports, make deals, take cash payments and keep accounts.

6The caravanserai houses around fifty offices, arranged around and amidst an open-air courtyard – most on the ground floor but some also on the first floor. Most of these offices consist of one or two rooms, and are home to family-run yarn businesses, although some offices are devoted to other, mainly textile, businesses. Many of the yarn offices in the khan and its vicinity are devoted to one and sometimes more of the following four activities : import, manufacture, trading, and brokerage. Most of the offices open for business only in the afternoon, from around 3 p.m. till 7 p.m.

7Locally produced yarns are manufactured in factories in Aleppo’s industrial periphery and hinterland. The main raw materials are imported petrochemical chips (for polyester and other artificial fibres), or raw cotton (usually grown in Syria and sold to manufacturers by state-run companies). The bulk of imported yarns come from the Far East (mainly Malaysia, Taiwan and China and India). The import is often organised by fax, email and telephone from within the caravanserai offices. In contrast to the other caravanserais in the Old City, which stock the goods that they sell, in the case of Khan al-‘Olabiyyé, these yarns never physically enter the caravanserai or its vicinity. Offices in the khan stock a small number of yarn samples, but in general the yarn is stored in warehouses outside the Old City in Aleppo’s industrial quarters or in the city’s periphery and hinterland. Importers of yarn and/or petrochemical chips make most payments to foreign producers, or their agents, through the international banking system using letters of credit. However, within Syria, almost all yarn transactions are settled in cash rather than through the medium of banks. It is the broker who is entrusted (mu’amman) with ensuring the safe delivery of cash – literally mobilising the money.

8From the caravanserai, some yarns are sold to traders and industrialists in Damascus, Egypt and Turkey, but most yarns are sold to traders or textile manufacturers in Aleppo. Orders and cash payments tend to come into the caravanserai offices through the medium of the broker, who visits customers’ factories to maintain relationships, collect orders, exchange market information and take cash payments. Often, customers communicate with their broker via mobile telephone, placing orders and seeking information about prices of different yarns. However, this does not negate the need for the broker to be physically mobile – social visits and collections of cash are still staples of a broker’s working day, and an indication that trust within the yarn economy is still placed in material presences : the presence of the visiting broker, and the wads of Syrian bank notes which he carries, usually in crumpled black plastic bags.

9After their morning visits to textile factories across Aleppo’s wide industrial periphery during the morning, the brokers then telephone or visit traders in the caravanserai during the afternoon to negotiate prices for their customers. Within Aleppo, the smaller textile factories (with less than ten mechanised looms or knitting machines) are largely based in Aleppo’s old industrial quarters such as Kallassé or ‘Ar’oub. The larger textile production factories, with ten or more machines, tend to be based further afield in Aleppo’s industrial periphery, areas such as Belleramoun, Kafer Hamra, and Shaykh Najjâr.

10The broker is thus a vital physical link between the central caravanserai – where traders and manufacturers receive guests, record orders, organise deliveries, take cash and keep accounts – and the textile factories where customers place orders, receive the yarn and put it onto machines. He brings otherwise static material objects (the caravanserai, the factories) into contact with one another, and in this sense creates a material network. He also plays a key role in mobilising the materials – the yarn and the cash – whose circulation creates the yarn economy in and around Aleppo.

11All the yarn importers and manufacturers based in the khan whom I interviewed reported that the majority of their sales were made through brokers. Many customers use a single broker, with whom they have built up trust over several years. Some reported that they had tried out several before finding one who was worthy of their trust. Other customers, especially larger manufacturers using a wide variety of different yarns, reported using several different brokers, each one specialising in a certain spectrum of yarns. Brokers benefit the seller by finding and retaining customers, which requires considerable investments of time, and mobility. The broker benefits the buyer in several ways. His main role is to be « in the market », through visits and telephone calls, and to seek the lowest price from a range of suppliers. Popular brokers, and those who specialise in certain types of yarn, can also bulk different orders together in order to negotiate a lower price. Wealthy brokers in some cases also benefit the buyer by providing finance, or financial guarantees, for the yarn purchase, allowing the seller to delay the repayment date. In this case, the broker provides discretion, allowing the buyer to hide his identity. While a textile factory owner might be able to obtain credit directly from a seller by mortgaging his machines as collateral, if he does so without the cover of the broker, he risks rumours spreading in the market that he is close to bankruptcy.

12Brokers also benefit customers by advising them on prices and buying strategies. They gather information on what yarns are available, or about to become available, or running low, on their quality, and on prices. This requires some expertise as there are well over a hundred types of yarn in the market. A good broker can predict future supply and demand and advise a customer on likely price trends and whether to wait before making a large purchase. Price variations of even one or two dollar cents per kilogram can become significant on orders for several tons of yarn. Like traders, brokers therefore gather information on a range of issues, ranging from the casual to the commercially sensitive : who is holding which stocks of yarn ; the quality of particular batches ; recent yarn prices and transactions in the market ; which types of yarn are in demand and where ; which traders or customers are short of cash and need to sell cheap or be extended credit ; the dates and quantities of future shipments, and how long these shipments are likely to be held by customs officials ; and whether factories are planning to start or stop production of a particular line of yarn.

13Brokers gather this information in the course of their daily visits to factory offices and by sitting with traders in the latter’s caravanserai offices in the afternoon and early evening. While brokers are independent and free to work with and sit with whichever traders they please, relationships of mutual dependence can develop around the exchange of information and buying strategies.

Reputation and Trust

14The broker is responsible to the buyer for seeking and passing on the best price to them, and for delivering the buyer’s payment in cash to the seller according to the agreed term. There are three terms of payment : the cheapest is the naqdi or « cash » payment, where the bill should be settled by the end of the week ; then the jama‘iyyé or « weekly » payments, where the bill is settled in weekly instalments over four to six weeks ; finally the most expensive payment, which costs some 18 % more than the naqdi price, is the wi‘di or « promise » payment, where the bill is typically settled at the end of a six month credit period. Often the buyer and seller do not know each other, but both know the broker personally. Where the seller offers yarn on credit (as in jama‘iyyé and wi‘di payments), the broker is not financially liable to the seller if his buyer does not pay ; however, many brokers and traders report that he is in some sense morally responsible for introducing only « good customers » to sellers. Some brokers therefore take great care in selecting customers, in order to preserve their own reputation in the market.

15Brokers and traders often report that the broker’s only capital is his reputation. The broker is said to be distinct from the trader (tajer) in that he does not invest his own capital or make money on price changes. The broker (dallal) is also said to be distinct from a mu‘arriq (« filcher » – literally someone who strips out the seeds from a chilli), who secretly agrees a lower price with the seller which he does not pass onto the buyer. The only income of the broker should be the standard commission which is established by market custom or ‘urf. Because the broker does not put any capital at risk, there is no requirement for him to be wealthy, and this provides a route for social mobility in the caravanserai. Indeed, during the boom years of the 1990s, many of the more successful brokers accumulated enough capital to make the transition to being a trader, buying and selling yarn in their own right. However, while the distinction between broker and trader can be drawn clearly in theory, in reality the roles are often combined. One broker estimated that only around one third of the total number of brokers in the yarn market live only from the standard commission ; one half also make trades where they buy the yarn themselves before selling it on to customers, investing on average between 400,000 and 1,000,000 lira ($ 8,000 and $ 20,000) of their own capital ; and the remainder – the richest brokers – also act as financiers, buying yarn wholesale in cash from importers and selling onto smaller traders on credit, taking payment in instalments and putting a mark-up on the sale price.

16Although the broker does not require any capital to enter the market, he needs to establish himself as a known quantity (ma‘rûf) among traders, manufacturers and customers. According to brokers, they need to win the « love and affection » (mahabba wa-mawadda) of textile manufacturers, through frequent visits to their factories – often simply to share a coffee and greetings rather than to win an order. They also say that they need to have a manner and demeanour in their social interactions which is murîh (literally, « comforting ») and which puts customers and traders at ease (irtiyâh). They must, according to successful brokers, be flexible and patient : not people who become angry (muta‘assib) and shout (y‘ayyit), but people who know how to win customers whatever the customer’s particular temper or personality « defect ». Most importantly, they say, the broker must have a reputation for trustworthiness (amâna) and honesty (sidq). He must be trusted by the seller to deliver the cash entrusted to him promptly, and by the buyer to find the best price diligently and to communicate it honestly – compare Gilsenan (1982, p. 177) on the personalised nature of trust in bazaar markets.

17In order to enter the market in their own right, brokers need to be guaranteed by another figure who is already well-known (ma‘rûf) among traders : this can be either a trader or an established broker. The sponsor – who is typically an older male relative of the new broker – acts as a financial guarantor until the latter’s own reputation is established. The words huwwa minnî (« he is from me ») are used by the sponsor to indicate this bond of responsibility. Often the new broker will have accompanied the sponsor on his visits to customers and traders for a number of years, acting as his assistant and learning the business. Thereafter the two might either continue to work together as a unit, or they might work independently of each other. Even if they decide to work independently, if the sponsor is an older male relative, he is often seen to remain responsible for the other’s behaviour in the market. In this case, since the two do not act together as a professional unit, the responsibility is said to be moral (ma‘nawî) rather than material-financial (mâdî). Some of the better established brokers claimed that they had inherited a good reputation in the market from a father who had worked with yarn and fabric merchants in the Old City for years. Through a period of apprenticeship and joint visits to yarn merchants, the father’s reputation had been passed onto the son, they said, and they had « done nothing to cut off the reputation » which their father had sown.

18The yarn broker is clearly central in organising and conducting many trades in the market. Physically and temporally, however, he is marginal within the Khan : there are no brokers’ offices in the caravanserai’s ground floor offices ; some of the richer brokers have offices in adjacent markets, but many have no premises at all in the immediate vicinity. In a sense, therefore, they are only ever visitors, received usually in the public front room of the traders’ offices. Those without offices sometimes also inhabit the less prestigious outdoor spaces in the Khan, gathering in the evening to make deals with each other, and exchange information. Some but not all of the brokers also use this outdoor space to make speculative trades in the « stock market ». Temporally the broker is marginal too : as a visitor his presence in the Khan is only ever temporary, and those brokers who congregate in the Khan to take part in the stock market tend to do so towards the end of the working day when most traders are starting to shut their offices and leave.

19The broker is marginal too because he is often much less wealthy than the actors with whom he deals. Regardless of his personal wealth, he does not put any capital into the transaction, and does not have the status of someone who risks his own capital and handles his own goods. The broker who lives only off the standard commission never puts himself financially at risk, and is never exposed to the market. Even if a broker becomes very rich, many traders and manufacturers say that he does not have the moral status of a tajer (trader) who puts himself at risk. Indeed, brokers are often referred to in the market with the dismissive term komisyonji (someone who makes a living out of commissions – with connotations of « parasite »).

20But if the broker’s status is often marginal – spatially, temporally, financially and morally, he is, as discussed above, central to the market structurally. The market depends on him : he connects personal networks which he spends a good deal of time working to maintain, and which would not otherwise be known to each other. He is the point in the market at which prices are set : even if the largest yarn manufacturers in Aleppo dominate the market and exercise most control over prices, it is the more humble broker who in the majority of sales actually negotiates the final price. However rich and influential the yarn trader or manufacturer, he relies on brokers to bring customers, and brokers say that even the richer traders and manufacturers must treat them respectfully and cajole (dallala) them, or risk being shut out of the market by networks of co-operating brokers.

21Most importantly, the broker is a central figure because of the structural role he plays as a « point of trust » (mawqi‘ al-thiqa) between buyer and seller. In a market which is not regulated by public state or private body and where there is no recourse to a reliable and effective judicial system to enforce promissory notes or contracts, transactions rely on interpersonal trust and knowledge of other persons. In the case of the Aleppan yarn market, this knowledge is often indirect : the buyer and seller often do not know each other personally ; rather, this knowledge passes through the broker : it is he who knows both sides, and if the two sides trust each other, they do so through him. So he is a point of trust in the market because he enables a buyer and a seller who are unknown to each other to conclude a transaction by putting their trust in him. Each party puts their trust in him not only in respect of his own behaviour, but also to some extent as regards the trustworthiness and reliability of the other party : the broker is not normally a financial guarantor, but his own character and the tenor of his social associates can give an idea to the likely qualities of the parties on behalf of whom he acts.

22This is not a foolproof guarantee, and traders who sell on credit often require sanadât or promissory notes (for jama‘iyyé payments) and hajz or mortgage documentation (for wi‘di payments). However, many traders report that even these forms of documentation rely on trust, because the legal processes required to enforce them are unreliable, ineffective and extremely lengthy. So even when documented guarantees are taken, the seller relies on trust : the knowledge of other people and their likely character.

23The flip side of this trust is vulnerability, of course : traders and manufacturers are vulnerable to the broker in a variety of ways, even if they are also richer and more powerful than he is. A broker who introduces unreliable customers (who pay late or not at all) to a yarn trader, for the sake of gaining a small commission on the sale, is said in a contemptuous market expression to have « punctured the honey bag just so he could lick his finger » : to have ruined everything by putting his own negligible interests ahead of the greater good in the market. This saying neatly expresses the ambiguous status of the broker : he is in one sense a negligible figure, external to the market (or honey bag) in material terms, but he also exists at the very locus of trust/vulnerability on which the market depends. In material terms – ownership rights over the yarn and over caravanserai premises – he is excluded from or outside the market, but in transactional terms he is the point around which the market revolves.

Speculative Trading

24Some yarn brokers in Khan al-‘Olabiyyé, particularly those with less capital, participate in the « stock market » (bursa) in the late afternoon as most trading offices are closing. They deal in a form of yarn that is weightless, invisible, and – for many wealthy office-based yarn traders such as Abu Samt – problematic.

Abu Samt is praying when I enter. Kneeling on a prayer mat on the floor, he senses my arrival and invites me in with a single word – strîh, have a seat – before returning to his prayer. He intones the fâtiha, the first chapter in the Quran, in a barely audible whisper, as I take a seat on one of the comfortable leather armchairs in front of his desk. Directly in front of me, in a framed photograph prominently displayed on the wall, he is shaking hands with the President of the Syrian Arab Republic. On his desk are two calculators, a telephone, and a large ornate Quran housed in its own box. Calligraphic inscriptions of Quranic verses hang from the wall behind his large desk. Opposite them, a large television screen which is switched off during the prayer but which, I remember from a previous visit, had been showing stock market and currency news on al-Arabîya channel. Discreetly placed on the windowsill is another clue to his profession : two rolls, one white and one black, of polyester yarn.

Abu Samt returns from his prayer and settles himself in the executive chair behind his desk. From inside the quiet wood-panelled and air-conditioned space, we can both hear the combative shouting and joking of the crowd outside. Abu Samt, like most of the office traders I have spoken to, is dismissive of them. They are « children » who have at most fifty boxes to trade ; the market is just « talk » (hakî). The noisy bluffing and apparent frivolity of the courtyard traders is not the reason he disapproves of them. More to the point, the yarn which they are so noisily discussing is both weightless and invisible.

25The raucous behaviour in the courtyard and the fact that the transactions involve imaginary goods often draw disapproving comments from the wholesale yarn traders based in their offices around the open-air stock exchange. The bursa also draws disapproval from many of the brokers who refuse to participate, and who frequently asserted that the bursa « distorts the image of the khan », and « does not represent the true business of what goes on here ». Indeed, the existence of the stock exchange, right at the centre of the Khan and at the heart of one of the most commercially important parts of the Old City, elicits some moral angst.

26Many of the more established merchants claim that the bursa or « stock exchange » is a misnomer since a large proportion of these trades never involve the actual exchange of goods – but are rather speculative bets between two parties on the future price of Taiwanese Intermingled, a particular kind of yarn that used to be widely used in weaving before replaced by a local variety. Within the « stock exchange », trades take the form of futures contracts, where parties promise to sell each other goods in the future that they often do not yet own. It is a zero-sum game where buyers and sellers play against each other as opponents. For example, a seller makes a promise with a buyer to sell him 100 boxes of Taiwanese intermingled yarn after two weeks at 80 lira per kilogram. If after two weeks the market price rises above 80 lira, the seller loses and the buyer benefits : theoretically the seller has to buy boxes at the higher market price in order to sell them at the pre-arranged price. Conversely, if the market price falls below 80 lira after two weeks, the seller benefits : he theoretically buys 100 boxes at the cheaper market price and immediately sells them to the buyer at the pre-arranged price of 80 lira.

27In practice, when the contract falls due after two weeks, the parties – rather than acquiring and then exchanging the goods for payment – often simply settle the difference in cash with their opponent between the agreed price and the current market rate. It is possible to « trade » large quantities of yarn in this way, without ever owning any yarn, or indeed without the yarn ever existing. This is why traders say that a large proportion of the deals done in the stock exchange are in fact « imaginary » (wahmî). They have effectively created phantom yarn. The proportion of stock exchange trades that are purely imaginary deals varies from week to week, but brokers report that it is much higher now than in the 1990s, when Taiwanese intermingled did not face any competition from local intermingled yarns, and when the stock exchange was more closely connected the real economy. Prior to 2000, the traders and brokers report, more money passed through the stock exchange, and more of the deals led to the actual exchange of yarn.

28Many of the larger traders and better established brokers, who make deals in their offices rather than in the open air of the Khan, view the stock exchange as ethically dubious precisely because of these imaginary deals. They claim that Taiwanese Intermingled yarn is « trouble » because it is the cause of frequent bankruptcies, and term the practice as « irregular/improper » (ghayr nizâmî) and « haphazard » (‘ashwâ’î). In this way they assert their own centrality to the market – compare Dorman (2009) on the Egyptian government’s use of a discourse of « haphazardness » to marginalise certain political claims to space.

29Office-based yarn merchants often refer to the « stock exchange » as mere « talk » (hakî), in contrast to the « word » (kalima) of an established trader, who has money to back up his verbal promises. They refer to its noisiness and many claim that it is simply a form of betting (qimar), which is prohibited in Islam. The office-based traders also refer dismissively to the fact that the stock exchange takes place in the open air of the Khan : a less prestigious space than their own air-conditioned offices where there is no space to welcome and seat guests. Some say that the bursa is just for « children » who have no money : « They pretend to buy 10,000 boxes of yarn, but don’t even have enough money to buy 50 ». Another trader, sitting in his air-conditioned office, joked disparagingly that the participants in the stock exchange always stand in the shade, implying that they are not strong enough to stand in the heat.

30However, the bursa provides a means for men who are not wealthy to make (and lose) money in the yarn market, and is therefore a route to social mobility, although less so now than a decade ago. Some participants in the bursa defended it on these grounds against accusations of economic impropriety : inventing the fiction of imaginary yarn provides a way of making money for those who could not afford to buy real stock. Rev noted that one strategy of peasant farmers struggling against a socialist state was to deal in « non-objects » : food that cannot be found, grain that has never been harvested, land that is non-existent, people who are phantomized. The technique of the resistance is the nonevent, the means is the nonobject, the actors are anonymous » (Rev 1987, p. 349). In Aleppo, speculators who lack capital do not fail to report what they do own, but invent what they do not, justifying the phantom trades of the bursa on the ground that they level the playing field with the richest yarn merchants.

31Some of the richer traders make an argument that is almost diametrically opposed to this : they claim that it is acceptable in the stock exchange to sell yarn which one does not own, so long as one has the capital to buy it if necessary. But many of the richer office-based traders took an even stricter view : the most common criticism of the stock exchange was that Islamic law prohibits the sale of objects that one does not own. They often asserted that the stock exchange is not real « trade », since it often does not involve the ownership or transfer of actual yarn, and therefore does not serve the needs of the wider economy. Real trade, in their mind, involves physical property, movement and ownership, because these things spread value and profit around a society. « Real trade » benefits the rest of society : workers are employed to move the yarn around, to build and guard warehouses, to produce the fuel needed to manufacture the yarn, and so on. Many stock exchange trades, by contrast, are done quickly and involve no physical movement – and therefore no society.

Standardisation of the Market

32The courtyard deals were not always dominated by phantom boxes. At one time, Taiwanese intermingled was a staple ingredient in Aleppan textile manufacturing. Subhi was around sixty years old and owned a small factory with two weaving looms. He was also one of the oldest participants in courtyard trading, with thirty years’ experience of the bursa. He remembered back to the 1980s :

« Before the bursa started, the most common yarns were mabrûm and mahlûl. They were used on mechanical looms. There weren’t many brokers here in those days, perhaps four or five. Then Taiwanese Intermingled came. People tried it out slowly [on their machines], and after a few years, it became very popular. Then the bursa started, using it as the basis. »

33Courtyard speculation had its origin in the material needs of manufacturers. The predominance of phantom trades came later and seems to be connected to the rise of local yarn manufacturing. When I asked Abu Tonja, a wealthy yarn trader in his 50s, about the history of courtyard trading, he remembered a time before local production :

« Before, lots of people did it - hundreds. Anyone who wanted intermingled yarn had to buy it in the courtyard. There was a great deal of money going around. The trading was a combination of phantom (wahmî) and real boxes. But there were lots of real boxes, and when you bought, you didn’t know if you were buying real boxes or phantom ones ! Now, since 1999 we have local intermingled yarns. They are better, and they are guaranteed (makfûl) – any problem on the machines and you go back to the factory direct. »

34Local manufacturers soon established a reputation for quality. The largest, Khalid Ulabi, is reputed for the quality of his yarns and his offices currently dominate the centre of the caravanserai. As the leading manufacturer, he has installed a large flat television screen in his office window looking out onto the centre of the caravanserai, where the courtyard traders meet. Visible to all who enter the courtyard, it shows the prices of all his yarns, and is updated daily. When I asked his son about this screen, he told me that « we are the bursa – we set the prices ». The rise of local yarn manufacturers like Ulabi changed the configuration of the yarn market by making availability and prices more predictable and information more freely available. Before, when the market had been dominated by imported yarns, it was not always clear – except to those brokers in the know – which traders had which stock, or what the going price was. Without a centralised point of information about stock and prices, the market or bursa consisted in brokers who would meet in the caravanserai to fix prices.

35Since 2000, the state’s economic policies have sought to encourage local production of artificial yarns over import. The rise of large local manufacturers made quality more standardised (makshûf). As their presence in and influence over the market increased, the government banned second quality yarns from the caravanserai. Alaa al-Din, a yarn broker in his twenties, described the difference between trading first and second quality yarns :

« It is well known that Ulabi’s intermingled yarn is around 80 lira per kilo. It is first quality yarn ; it is makshûf – you know what you are getting. And the broker’s commission is fixed. Second quality yarn is not makshûf – it might be imported or produced locally, but the quality is obscure. They are often cheap offcuts from Europe or America that are bundled together and sold. »

36So the recent history of Aleppo’s yarn market is marked by a shift from imported to local yarns. Over a period of some twenty-five years, from the 1980s to 2009, the social, technical and material configurations that constitute the market have changed. The general story over this period is the transformation of Aleppo’s yarn market to an arena that was more makshûf – standardised and open. In the 1980s, under Syria’s socialist regime, large-scale private enterprise was semi-legal. Entrepreneurs covertly imported yarn but there was little opportunity to establish private yarn factories. Information and materials circulated between known and trusted agents : brokers and delivery-men. This was the basis of the bursa.

37Politically and economically isolated from the West, Syria relied on the Soviet Union for most of his military hardware in the 1970s and 1980s, but lacking the hard currency to pay for them, came to an agreement into settle the debt largely through the export of Syrian textiles (see Perthes 1992, p. 220). This « payments agreement » was vital for the Aleppan economy : entrepreneurs found themselves enjoying a guaranteed market for textiles, and importers started to amass fortunes by importing the yarn to supply the textile manufacturers. This boom created the context for a speculative market in shipments of imported yarn: brokers and speculators flourished.

38This flourishing also depended on the state’s renewed policies of infitah or economic liberalisation : an opening up of space for private entrepreneurs. The government, facing a rising national deficit, issued import and manufacture licenses more freely and passed laws to encourage private investment, such as the 1991 Investment Law. Large yarn importers traded more openly. The intermingled polyester yarn imported from Taiwan was traded widely as the staple ingredient in industrial weaving. The bursa or system of price-setting remained centred on the caravanserai courtyard and the growing circle of brokers who linked yarn importers and textile manufacturers.

39A decisive change came when local yarn factories were established and opened offices in the caravanserai. From around 2000, national policies designed to protect the industrial renaissance, and thus to give private entrepreneurs more space to enlarge and create employment, encouraged entrepreneurs to manufacture yarn locally. Many importers moved into production, and were continuing to do so during my fieldwork ; those who lacked the capital to do so complain of reduced profits margins on their imports. The yarn market was being reconfigured. Supply became more regular ; quality became standardised as substandard yarns were formally prohibited ; prices came to depend in large part on a computerised measurement of supply and demand for the market leader’s yarns, and were openly announced on an electronic screen updated daily. By installing the screen, the market leader Khalid Ulabi « became open or transparent (makshûf), announcing to the world, this is my price », one broker told me. His dominant market position enabled his son to claim : « We are the bursa. »

40What happened to the old speculative bursa that had been based on imported commodities and networks of brokers? The most important deals were now in locally manufactured yarn, where there was less opportunity for speculation since prices were in the hands of one large local manufacturer. The old speculative bursa was marginalised - volumes fell dramatically as capital moved elsewhere. The decline in the volume and profitability of imported yarns meant that courtyard trading became less important in price-setting and less central to the manufacturing process. Faced with local competition, boxes of imported yarn became increasingly detached from the looms and found different routes of circulation. The nature of the courtyard bursa changed, according to one wealthy broker : « [the courtyard bursa] was now just used to pass boxes around - the boxes moved from warehouse to warehouse and [became] battered and old ».

41As courtyard trading became increasingly marginal to the manufacturing process, phantom boxes started to multiply. Subhi, a veteran courtyard trader, said : « Since 2000 or 2001, a lot of the deals have started to be imaginary : there is no actual yarn behind them. Beforehand it tended to be mostly actual goods ». Another of the courtyard traders placed the date of the change differently, but told a similar story :

« Around 2004, local production started to dominate. Demand for imported intermingled went down. This took away from the role of the bursa. Before, people were buying 4000 boxes a day of imported intermingled. It was the bread and cheese [of manufacture]. People who produce the warp beam (msaddi) [which goes on the looms] bought it. Then they preferred the local intermingled – it was cheaper, and good. Now, [people buy] 300 boxes a day [of Taiwanese intermingled] – you might laugh if I tell you [how small the deals are] ! »

42However, the speculative courtyard bursa did not die out entirely. The political, financial and spatial changes involved in creating this regularized future opened up marginalized spaces where there were other futures: small-time brokers became short-term players, trading in abstract financial futures for Aleppo’s key commodity. Some theorists of socialism (Poulantzas 1980) and capitalism (Harvey 1989) have argued that they construct particular spatio-temporal domains. For example, capitalism collapses distances, reducing the importance of space, and speeds up temporal processes (Harvey 1989). However, in Aleppo’s yarn market, the process of regularization, far from creating a single spatio-temporal domain of trade, produced several. The courtyard became an alternative kind of trading space to the offices, with its own kinds of commodities – closed-box yarn and notional yarn – onto which traders projected a particular concept of the future. Boxed yarn traded in the courtyard would usually not enter the manufacturing process immediately, but would rather be passed on and on for months or even years in increasingly dilapidated but never opened boxes. The future of notional yarn was even more specialized: after two weeks it would cease to exist, even notionally, being cancelled out by an opposing trade somewhere else in the courtyard. The several domains produced by standardization were ranked by wealthy office-based traders in a hierarchy of value (compare Dunn 2005) in which their own activities were « regular » and « trustworthy », and those of the courtyard bursa as « irregular » and « chaotic ».

The Social Lives of Yarn

43When I conducted my fieldwork in 2008-2009, there was one batch of Taiwanese Intermingled that had been moving from one warehouse to another for five years, and whose boxes were becoming worn out and tattered. While most yarns ultimately derive their value from their use on weaving and knitting machines, Taiwanese Intermingled came to have an exchange value quite separate from its use in manufacturing. Traders’ perception of this value (and all the traders in the Old City Mdiné are men) is reflected in the market analogy that it is like a virgin girl (bint bikr). Commonly used yarns retain their trading value so long as they remain a raw material ; once they are put onto a machine and given a fixed and final form as part of a manufactured textile, they are said to « get married ». Like marriage, the transformation from yarn to textile is natural and inevitable, but the pure yarn loses a certain type of potentiality or value in the process. Once it has taken a final form as part of a textile, the yarn can no longer be traded so easily, it is no longer readily exchangeable for cash, and is therefore not available for use as a financial instrument or a quasi-currency.

44Of all the yarns in the market, Taiwanese Intermingled in particular has this virgin quality. It is a readily exchangeable standard that is always in demand and therefore has a pure exchange value. The association between easy and predictable exchangeability of an item and its purity was common in the market. While some talked of the yarn’s virginity, others used a different analogy also emphasising purity. In the words of one industrialist : « It is like water, yarns are like water…You don’t need to make any effort to sell them. » The transformation of yarn from a financial/commercial entity (in the Khan) to a productive one (in the factory) therefore has implications for the yarn’s « social life ». For traders, yarns and textiles require very different social skills and networks : textiles are much more difficult to sell than pure yarns, and require different kinds of salesmanship. Indeed, at each stage of the yarn’s existence before it reaches the final consumer – its use as a financial instrument, a tradable raw material, a productive entity on the factory machines, a wholesale fabric, and a retail fabric – the yarn is surrounded by different social and geographic forms.

45The table below briefly outlines these forms as they appear in the Old City markets, in order to put Khan al-‘Olabiyyé in the context of the operational chain of yarn.

Figure 1: Yarn and its associated social forms in Aleppo’s Old City markets.

Stage of Operational Chain

« Stock Exchange » (phantom yarn)

Wholesale Yarn (pure yarn)

Wholesale fabrics (yarn manufactured into fabric)

Retail fabrics

(yarn ready for wearing / tailoring)

Status of Yarn

Financial Instrument

Commercial Raw Material

Manufactured material for trade

Manufactured material for consumption

Geographical location (see map 5)

Khan al-‘Olabiyyé: outdoor spaces

Khan al-‘Olabiyyé: indoor offices

Khan Jumruk (in the Old City): indoor offices / shops

Suq Istanbul (in the Old City): indoor shops.

Commercial Activities at this location

Trading rights to notional yarn with well-known brokers and other well-known participants

Selling yarn to male traders, brokers, industrialists

Selling furniture fabrics to male and female customers

Selling dress fabrics to mainly female customers

Presence or absence of yarn / fabric

Absent – no samples present. Yarn is often imaginary – does not exist anywhere.

Absent – except for some samples. Yarn exists and is stored in warehouses off-site.

Present – fabric rolls stored on site but not used to decorate shop.

Present – fabric rolls present in shop and used to decorate shop.

Social Activities at this location

Loud combative joking with well-known male acquaintances;

Eating and drinking with acquaintances

Receiving male friends and customers;

Drinking with male friends and customers

Receiving male friends;

Drinking with male friends

Selling to female customers

Relationship with customer

Long-term. Constant gamesmanship (offering false prices and information to test and manipulate one’s opponent).

Long-term. No salesmanship.

Both long-term and short-term customers. No salesmanship.

Short-term: fewer repeat customers. Great emphasis on salesmanship.

Relationship to unknown newcomer

Unknown newcomer cannot integrate easily into the circle.

New visitor accepted but requires introduction or explanation.

New visitors not actively sought but welcomed when they show curiosity.

New visitors actively sought and welcomed as potential customers.

46This table shows some general trends in the social logic of yarn in Aleppo’s Old City markets. The further that the operational chain moves away from the wholesale trading of yarn towards the retail sale of fabric, the material goods move from absent to present, and become a more important physical focus point during the transaction ; the transaction involves more sales patter and the environment of the shop becomes more decorative ; more customers are women, and the relationship between seller and buyer becomes more transitory ; and the social arena becomes easier for unknown newcomers to enter.

47Offices in Khan al-‘Olabiyyé are the first point of sale of yarn in Aleppo, and as such represent one end of this spectrum : customers tend to be known individuals and their relationships with the seller are long-term ; the environment is almost exclusively male, apart from occasional female beggars ; and the exchanged commodity, the yarn itself, is absent : customers put their trust not in an inspection of the goods, but in the reputation of the trader, or of the broker who has inspected the goods on their behalf, or in the brand name of the yarn.

48But if the wholesale of yarn in the Khan al-‘Olabiyyé offices represents one end of the spectrum, the « stock exchange » of yarn in Khan al-‘Olabiyyé courtyard represents an even more extreme example of the same logic. The bursa or stock exchange extends the social logic of yarn backwards to a pre-wholesale stage of immateriality, where transactions involve no yarn or cash, only bets and promises. The exchanged goods are not only absent but often imaginary. The circle of participants is firmly closed to outsiders, who must employ a broker to act on their behalf if they wish to participate. While, in the traders’ offices, newcomers can enter and buy yarn with cash without using a broker, and in this way start to build up a reputation for trustworthiness, this option is not available in the open-air stock exchange, where trades are made on the basis of participants’ verbal promises and sales are never made in cash. There is no need to inspect the materiality or quality of the goods, only the reliability of your opponent’s promise. And the participants’ behaviour in the stock exchange, which can be loud and raucous, with opponents scoffing and throwing food, is very far from being hashîm (demure) or suitable for the presence of women.

49Another subsidiary activity of the Khan – less obvious to external observers – is the provision of cash to borrowers. To avoid the Islamic prohibition on lending money at interest, these transactions are mediated through the purchase and resale of yarn. Party A buys a quantity of yarn from B with a promise to pay after six months (known as a bay‘ wi‘dî or a « promise » contract). The sale price is usually around 15 %-18 % higher than the current market rate, and party A usually signs a draft putting up collateral for the purchase. The yarn is then sold for cash in the market to C, often by a broker working for B, at a price around 2 % lower than the market rate. Party A leaves the Khan with cash, and an obligation to pay B back for the original yarn after 6 months. This operation is known among traders as qallâba, or « flipping » – since A has bought yarn on credit and « flipped » it into cash. The yarn in question is almost always the Taiwanese Intermingled that is traded in the bursa. There is therefore a direct link between these two domains of economic practice : « flipping » deals increase supply of Taiwanese Intermingled in the market and therefore lower the price of the yarn that is traded in the « stock market ».

50It may be tempting to see yarn that is sold in the stock market or on a « promise » contract simply as a local form of money. However, while yarn appears in many ways to function as cash, the two are kept distinct, and conversion or « flipping » between the two is « policed » by moral discourses. This suggests that what counts as money is an important moral issue not just in intellectual debates between Muslim scholars (Diwany (el-) 2010, p. 413) but also in the informal economy as practised in Aleppo. Opinions among Aleppan traders and brokers on the propriety of the « flipping » operation depend on the circumstances of the sale. In some cases, the yarn in question does not actually exist but is simply a fiction to avoid the appearance of lending money. In such cases, most traders argue that the operation is a way of « laughing at God » [dahhik ‘al-Allâh], and is unacceptable – even though most report that this practice continues to exist. Similarly, if party C works for, or is even the same person as, party B, or if party B stipulates that the yarn should be sold back to him, the operation is prohibited. Again, if party A never takes possession of the actual yarn – by having it sent to his warehouse or by going to inspect it for himself – the operation is generally considered to be prohibited. If however party A purchases and takes physical possession of actual yarn, and sells it freely in the market to whichever buyer he chooses, then few traders claim that the operation is unacceptable. However, many consider that it is unwise : that they might lend yarn on credit in this way to a fabric manufacturer who would use it as a productive asset ; but for reasons of self-interest they would not lend it to someone simply in need of cash. After recent high profile bankruptcies connected to « promise » contracts, many claim that « flipping » is less common than it was.


51This article has described a variety of ways in which yarn – a commodity with an international trajectory – enters into local meanings and practices in Aleppo and how these have changed during the recent period of partial economic liberalisation. While private capital formation on a new scale in Syria has led to the dominance of large-scale local yarn manufacturers, trust at the point of sale in Aleppo’s wholesale yarn economy remains personal, with trusted brokers still playing a key role in assuring the transfer of goods, cash and information between buyers and sellers, just as they did under the previous, officially socialist, regime that had required a covert approach. Renewed official encouragement of economic liberalisation in the 1990s led to the open accumulation of capital by textile entrepreneurs and the emergence of local textile manufacturers able to dominate the market and enforce standard notions of quality and price. This standardisation marginalised the import economy and the less wealthy petty brokers and speculators who lived off it. Deprived of a means of livelihood, they turned increasingly to speculative trading in « fictional » yarn. Like the associated practice of « flipping » yarn into cash, this is a morally contested area that, in the eyes of many of the wealthier merchants, consigns participants to the bottom of a social and moral hierarchy. As transformations continue in Syria – including the development of a private banking sector and a formal stock market – future research can investigate the particular configurations of trust and value that economic « liberalisation » produces at the micro-level.

Table des illustrations

Titre Photo 1 : La petite foule des « boursicoteurs » à la bourse du fil au khan ‘Olabiyyé.
Crédits Photo J.-C. David, années quatre-vingts
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k

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