Interview with editor of The Bazaar in the Islamic City

Mohammad Gharipour is the editor of The Bazaar in the Islamic City: Design, Culture, and History (AUC Press, 2012). In this recent interview, he speaks about the concept, the life, and the history of the bazaar in the Middle Eastern and Arab bazaar. To order the book, click here.

 

Blacksmiths at work in the Kabul bazaar in 1915/16 (photograph by Niedermayer).

AUC Press: How would you define a “bazaar”?

Gharipour: The word “bazaar” has acquired three different meanings: the market as a whole, a market day, and the marketplace.  The bazaar as a place is a marketplace or assemblage of shops where miscellaneous good are sold and bought and services are provided.


AUC Press: You point out in the book that the bazaar was once considered the core of most cities in the Islamic world. How has that changed today?

Gharipour: The historic bazaar may not necessarily function as the core of new cities but the bazaar as an institution still plays a central role.  The role of bazaars has dramatically changed. New means of transportation and infrastructure have increased the mobility of people. Nevertheless the decentralization of many large cities has resulted in fewer people visiting the historic bazaars. There may not be a central traditional/historic marketplace in new urban developments however malls and shopping centers in urban or suburban neighborhoods still function as the core of many cultural, social, and economic activities. 

 

A very old bookshop in the old city in Nablus, West Bank (photograph by Naseer Arafat).
 
 
Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai (photograph by Marika Snider).

AUC Press: Can you elaborate briefly when you say that the “seemingly chaotic” expansion of the bazaars "really follows a logic”?

Gharipour: For an outsider, the site-plan of bazaars may seem unorganized or even chaotic.  But if you look closely, you can discover a hidden order in the distribution of crafts and businesses and the structure of different areas within the bazaar. The development of the bazaar in a city or town is strongly tied to the cultural, social, and political contexts.  In many cases, the growth of the bazaar follows the same rules that are behind the development of adjacent neighborhoods. In that sense, even if the bazaar was designed based on a master-plan, its development had to do with cultural and social relations as well as urban connections and linkages within the city.     


AUC Press: The book argues that the suq in Damascus is not entirely an ideal-type construct of the Islamic City— arranged around the central congregational mosque—but rather subject to physical, social, and legal criteria. How is this important?

Gharipour: The case of the bazaar in Damascus is a great example that challenges the orientalist view of the Islamic city as an ideal city.  As Dr. Rabbat explains, the development of the suq in Damascus shows how the bazaar has been dynamically changed over centuries in response to historical, social, economic, and political conditions.


AUC Press: Cairo’s historic Khan al-Khalili bazaar, with its centuries-old architecture but also cheap merchandise no longer produced by local traditional workshops, is described in the book as being “neither entirely traditional nor entirely modern.” Is this the natural or inevitable trend for the bazaars in the region today?

Gharipour: Unfortunately, it has happened to many bazaars, which have become tourist destinations where cheap foreign products are being sold. This problem is not unique to the Middle East and North Africa.  This new global economy has threatened local businesses in the West as well.  In different regions of the US, there are oppositions against chain stores as they gradually diminish local industries. You may have heard how the opening of Walmart in India has recently raised concerns and oppositions there. But I would like to be more optimistic!  The lives of thousands of local artists, craftsmen, salesmen, and their families, still depend on the bazaar.  Many historic bazaars may have turned into tourist destinations, losing their influence on the economy of the society.  But new forms of the marketplace, malls and shopping centers, have now taken on this role. So it really depends on how we define the bazaar. I personally see modern and contemporary shopping centers as the extensions of historic bazaars.  

 

AUC Press: What impact is tourism having on the authenticity and preservation of bazaars in the Middle East?

Gharipour: There is no doubt that it has had a negative impact but we shouldn’t forget that tourism has also contributed to the survival of many bazaars. The increasing number of tourists visiting bazaars as historic destinations has also encouraged officials to make more effort to preserve bazaars as heritage sites.  However, the main side-effect of this trend is that it turns the bazaar into to a museum rather than preserving it as a living entity that has developed and changed over hundreds of years.  


AUC Press: In a world of online shopping and malls, who goes to the bazaar today and for what?
 
Gharipour: It is an interesting question. In fact, you will be surprised to see how many people still go to the bazaar to purchase things.  Obviously, this phenomenon is more visible in markets in smaller cities and towns but even in a metropolis like Teheran, the bazaar still functions as the core of commerce in the Iranian economy.  In fact, anything that you buy in any part of Iran is probably the result of a long chain of trade that usually starts in the main bazaar in Teheran.  This shows that the bazaar as an establishment, not necessarily as a place, has remained a powerful entity.  


AUC Press: A few months ago, parts of the historic Suq al-Madina in Aleppo's Old City caught fire after heavy clashes between rebels and government forces in Syria’s uprising. How extensive and permanent was the damage, knowing that Aleppo's Old City figures on UNESCO's World Heritage list?
 
Gharipour: It is really heartbreaking news.  Unfortunately, in the battles between rebels and soldiers, a fire broke out in the historic market of Aleppo and destroyed 700 to 1000 shops in the Suq al-Madina.  It is just sad to see that what has been built in centuries can be completely destroyed in a few hours. This example and many others show that UNECSO regulations have not been enough to preserve these historic sites in critical times, and there is a need to revise these laws to push governments to take preservation and restoration efforts more seriously. The destruction of many other local bazaars in smaller cities indicates that local people need to be more educated about the value of these historic sites.


AUC Press: You spent 15 years studying and researching bazaars in the region. Why the fascination and passion for bazaars in Islamic cities?

Gharipour: The bazaar is unique in many ways.  It is the best reflection of the cultures on a local and global scale.  It has been the core of many social activities and political movements in the region. Although each bazaar has its own micro dominant culture, it can highlight collaborations and conflicts within the society.  You can observe all sorts of social and religious interactions and exchanges within the bazaar’s parameters.  In this sense, the bazaar, as a historic site, is the physical embodiment of many factors within a society.  Different parts of the bazaar have witnessed many historical events and cultural and religious ceremonies.  Their structure reflects ambitions of a ruler or conflicts among different stakeholders. The concept of the bazaar is very complex; it is much more than commerce; it is about time, people, and stories that have shaped these visible and invisible spaces.

View from the upper terrace looking toward the southern side of the Khan al-Jumruk in Aleppo
(photograph by Janet Starkey, 2009).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read more about Aleppo's world heritage, visit the blog of AUC Press author Leslie Lababidi.

December 2012

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