Aleppo Souk

Lies can be true. Of course they can. Surprising? May be, and it is the subject of research by a young academic. He has endlessly wondered through the cotton souks of Syria’s Aleppo, in order to permeate the mystery of truth and lies. He has brought to light the strange characteristics of humankind after mingling with businesspeople and those around him.

By Prof. Abu N M Wahid.

Published on November 13, 2020 in Prothom Alo, a Bangla daily newspaper in Bangladesh.

Translated by Riaz Osmani on December 6, 2020, on request from Paul Anderson.

Link of the original article: মিথ্যা কখন মিথ্যা হয়!


I usually write about myself most of the time. But every now and then, someone else’s business or passion proudly finds its way into my writings. Of whom I have sat down to write about today, he is undoubtedly a very promising researcher, social scientist and teacher. He is Paul Anderson, a world-famous young Professor at Cambridge University.

I got loosely connected with Dr. Anderson or his research work a long time ago. I don’t remember how or through what reference, but what I haven’t forgotten is that when he was a PhD student in around 2008-2009 in Scotland’s Edinburgh University, he went to the historical city of Aleppo in Syria to collect materials for his thesis.

He had to live in Syria for fifteen months to complete his research. I became specially intrigued and interested in his work because of Dr. Anderson’s brave and adventurous journey from Scotland to Syria at that particular time and situation, in order to collect data for his thesis. I felt a tad weakness towards the fearless inquisitiveness of this man and sent out an email requesting a copy of his thesis paper.

Prior to that, it took me quite a while to overcome my hesitation, because my past experience with Cambridge was not that pleasant. I wrote on numerous occasions to many people in such esteemed institutions only to hope for and await a response. Today, I instantly and miraculously forgot about the hopelessness of those days. My hesitation lost to my heart’s thirst for knowledge and I unexpectedly won this tussle.

Paul Anderson responded immediately to my email, attached a copy of his thesis, and implored me to comment on even any insignificant aspect of his work, and that that would make him happy and that he would remain obliged. So, having overcome my earlier hesitation, I now found myself in a situation that I wasn’t prepared for. I am going to write about an insignificant aspect of my new friend’s thesis that came to me out of the blue. But I am going to write this in Bangla of all languages.

Now tell me, how am I supposed to express to him my raw and unformatted thoughts? As a native English speaker, I presume he has mastered the Arabic language while writing about Muslim and Arabic culture. Now if he has to learn Bangla as well, just to understand my insignificant comments, then that would be embarrassing – for him and for me no less. No matter how easy and simple I thought this would be, I can now see that no matter what I needed to say, it will be difficult for me to say them in way that is well structured.

The title of Paul Anderson’s thesis is: “Threads Of Virtue: the Ethical Lives Of Syrian Textile Traders”. Paul defended this thesis at Edinburgh University in the year 2011. It was a long 281 pages worth of work. I have traversed endlessly through the images of the pages back and forth on the computer screen. While I skimmed the material, I often came across quite amusing subjects which I stopped and read thoroughly. But I regret to say that my friend Paul could not retain the attention of my hyper mind for long. Eventually, I came to look at page number 230 where I stopped to see that the writer-researcher was demonstrating with an example when a lie is indeed a lie.

Here, I found something to think about, to take a breath, and ponder with my eyes closed. I realised that from over the other side of the Atlantic, an unfamiliar teacher just like me, suddenly poked my blunt senses with a sharp needle. This poke instigated a delivery like pain in my head and this article is nothing but the new born child out of that experience.

Producing, buying and selling, conducting business, profit and loss etc. are important ancillary parts of our day to day living. These aspects and their considerations are deeply intertwined with people’s lives in all era. Particularly for those who conduct business, they are more relevant, more true. From the start of the day to the end, they recourse to the latter to conduct their daily transactions. In this well-trodden path, traders consciously or subconsciously and frequently cross the limits of ethics. Sometimes they realise this and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are repentant and sometimes they are not.

On many occasions, they don’t care much about ethics and run after money like madmen. They spend a greater part of their limited lifespan running and running. After reaching near the end of that journey, they find that a heavy liability of failures and deprivation awaits them. The more subtle that liability may appear to be, the heavier it actually turns out to be. Keeping that reality in mind, Paul Anderson, for months end, visited Aleppo’s busy business centre’s every turn. He mingled with fibre dealers and textile merchants, dined and drank with them, formed friendships with them, chatted with them for hours, stayed engaged in various debates with them and learned a lot from them.

He tried to intimately understand his Arab friends’ ethics, business culture, tactics, various levels of cheating, deception etc. Not only that, the young researcher analysed his minute observations through the prism of theoretical social science and from there, at the end, came about his thesis based on which he obtained the highest degree from Edinburgh University.

In Aleppo, a similarly aged person with whom Anderson developed a friendship through this process was called ‘Muhee’. He was the son of a wealthy fibre and textile merchant of this ancient and heritage city. It is possible that the PhD aspiring Anderson got know some more young Syrian fibre dealers through Muhee. They included A’la Al-Din, Ibrahim and others.

I found stories of many amusing experiences between Muhee and his foreign friend, in this research book. But since they are not relevant to this article, I am avoiding them here. A’la Al-Din was one day explaining to Paul how the fibre and textile merchants of Aleppo, in their daily transactions, engaged in various forms of verbal jugglery and techniques with buyers, storekeepers and competitors. He went one step further and told Paul which technique tantamounted to a lie and which one was not a lie even if it tantamounted to one. The conversation included what was halal, what was haram etc.

Here, you get to learn how Al-Din figures out through his brief words if one of his competitors had cash in hand or not. In order to determine the personal financial situation of the competitor, he proposes to sell to him a particular merchandise at a much lower price than the market rate. If the competitor refuses to buy it, one can learn that he did not have much money. Al-Din actually had no intention of selling the merchandise at the cheap price. The purpose of this deceptive proposal was to learn if his competitor had any capital at hand at the moment.

Al-Din was giving Anderson fatwas while explaining the techniques to him. In his words, the above technique or lie was not really a lie, hence not haram – it was actually halal, because it was used to simply get a clear picture of a competitor’s financial situation. He caused harm to no one, he cheated no one.

Al-Din continued to give his British friend instructions to the contrary. He said: “Look, there is another kind of deception which is haram. For instance, consider a situation when a fake buyer is brought in to conduct a fake exercise in buying and selling. Imagine a unit of cotton is priced at 500 dollars and yet in the open market, the fake buyer buys from a seller that unit of cotton at 600 dollars. After that, when a real buyer wishes to buy that unit at 500 dollars, the seller can point to the previous (fake) buyer and say that he sold the unit to him at 600 dollars (just ask!). This is how the price of cotton can be increased by 20% – inexperienced buyers can easily be cheated”. This lie, according to Al-Din is not only a lie but pure deception and thus haram.

On another day, Paul Anderson was sitting down at the office of Aleppo’s old souk’s famous fibre importer and dealer Ibrahim’s dad. He was spending the time lazily and by chatting with Ibrahim. At this time, a young trader entered Ibrahim’s room. The stranger started talking while standing at the doorway. Ibrahim in turn asked him: “Do you have any cotton? I wish to buy some”. The stranger replied in the negative. After a small break of silence, the two started simpering and looked into each other’s eyes. The two then broke out into laughter.

After the stranger left present company, the Edinburgh PhD student wanted to know from Ibrahim: “What on earth happened here that the two of you mysteriously burst into laughter”? Ibrahim replied that that was not much other than some traders’ form of communication that the student would not understand! Ibrahim called it “twisted tactics”.

Ibrahim then broke it down further by explaining that while he wanted to buy fibre from the stranger, he actually wanted to find out how much fibre was in stock with the stranger and in the market. The person had fibre in his stock, but he still replied in the negative. Or in other words, both realised each other’s tactic, and none could defeat the other in this game – hence both burst into laughter. This lie was not a lie, nor was it a deception. This was halal and a bit of downright comedy.

At this stage, I feel that I must give my friend Paul Anderson a big thank you. No matter how small, he has sharply observed certain characteristics of human nature, deeply felt them, thoroughly analysed them, and gave them an important place in his meaty research that turned out to be universal! It’s not the just fibre dealers and textile merchants of Aleppo, the whole world’s traders have the same DNA. Call it “verbal jugglery” or “twisted tactics” – when businesspeople engage in them repeatedly, they run the risk of crossing the fine line between halal and haram and often without realising it. Moreover, the books ‘Moral Sentiment’ and ‘Wealth of Nations’ by capitalism’s father Adam Smith do not condone “twisted tactics”.

Lastly, I will end this article by presenting another example. This is not from Aleppo, Syria etc., but is gathered from the business culture of Dhaka. No matter how intelligent and clean, this is also a form of deception! I am talking about the second half of the decade of 1970. There was a shoe shop belonging to my mama (maternal uncle) at the ‘Baitul Mukarram’ market. On the night before Eid al-Fitr, a friend of my mama came to the shop to buy a pair of shoes for Eid. He tried on a few pairs, walked a few steps, and then decided on a pair. At the time of payment, he reached for his pocket and told my mama: “buddy, because I left my wallet at home, I will pay you when you open your shop again after Eid”.

The sales boy at the shop knew his boss’s friend and noticed that the friend was going to pay for his Eid shopping after the event. He put the pair of shoes in a box, wrapped the box with thread and handed it over to the respected client with care. After the friend left the shop, mama expressed his regrets to the sales boy that his friend will not come near his shop again in another 3 months. The boy replied that he is hopeful that the friend will come again in an hour – this time with money.

Mama wanted to know how he could be so sure. After hearing out the clever sales boy, mama felt relieved. “Sir, while packing the shoes, I made sure both were of the left foot!”.


Author: Professor, Tennessee State University and Editor, Journal of Developing Areas.

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