From the Field: Istanbul

July 2016: Sussex anthropologist Magnus Marsden’s field research for his ERC-funded project, ‘Trust, Global Traders and Commodities in a Chinese International Trade City’ brought him to Istanbul, Turkey from which he sent this dispatch. **Republished from Asian Dynamics Initiative, University of Copenhagen.**

by Magnus Marsden

I am staying in a neighbourhood of Istanbul, Zeytinburnu, that I have visited on and off for 6 years. It has been home to Afghans of largely Uzbek and Turkmen background since the mid-1980s, but in the last four years the neighbourhood has become a vibrant site of Afghan sociability – not merely of Afghans seeking to travel to Europe. I am staying in a neighbourhood I have visited on and off for 6 years, a home to Afghans of Turkic (Uzbek and Turkmen) background. But in the last four years it has become a vibrant site of Afghan sociability. Not only of those coming to Europe about whom one reads a great deal in the news – many have moved here to trade and do business and have come from all over Eurasia. I have met in the street people I have known in Tajikistan and Ukraine, let alone Kabul. There is a veritable assortment of Afghan restaurants and ‘watani’ handmade ice cream parlours to choose from, most of which have been opened since my last visit in April 2013. These are a real spectacle for Afghans and locals alike as the ice cream makers, who hail from northern Afghanistan, make their special delicacy by pounding cold cream in steel pots that are submerged in ice.

The reason I came though was to find about more about families from northern Afghanistan who moved to the Saudi cities of Jeddah, Mecca and Madina in the late 1970s and early 1980s. During my four months of research in Yiwu, China earlier this year, I met several traders from Afghanistan who told me of their work in Saudi and their lives in Turkey. As luck would have it, the majority of the guests in the hotel in which I stayed in Istanbul are Afghans visiting from Saudi – they come in the summer to escape the heat of Jeddah, as well as to order carpets and clothes to be delivered to Saudi on time for the great hajj pilgrimage. Many also attend or organise the weddings of relatives who were resettled here in the 80s by the Turkish government. Indeed, several of the Afghan traders I have talked with successfully sought to acquire Turkish citizenship in the 1990s and 2000s. Holding a Turkish passport they say, raises their status in Saudi Arabia. It also gives them a national identity they believe is durable (many are from families who migrated from the former Emirate of Bukhara to Afghanistan in the 1920s and 1930s). Finally being Turkish also affords the children of these trading families access to higher education, something they say is very difficult in Saudi: ‘when our children finish class 12, we have no choice but to bring them into the shop or warehouse and start them trading’.

Unlike in the other Afghan commercial communities and networks I have studied, the majority of the men I have spoken to say they have never returned to Afghanistan after they left in the early 1980s. Those who theorise this say it is because they were already refugees in Afghanistan when they left, having been denied access to the Afghan national identity card (tazkira) until at some point in the 1960s. Saudi Arabia, like the UAE, operates they kafilah system (a Saudi system is required to be a partner of the business activities of a resident foreigner): some of my informants have told me that their kafilah are third generation descendants of 1920 emigres from Bukhara. These people, they say, have ‘become Arab’ but are still more trustworthy partners than those without Central Asian heritage. The community of northern Afghans in Istanbul is growing more and more complex by the day – on the one hand there are the new wave of commercial investors from Kabul entering the city, buying property and opening businesses; on the other hand, the significant communities of Turkmen who continued to reside in Pakistan (especially Peshawar and Lahore) – where they own carpet manufacturing and trading business – are increasingly shifting to Turkey as the Pakistan state has become increasingly hostile to refugees from Afghanistan.

The trading activities of Afghanistan’s communities in Saudi Arabia and Istanbul are also interesting: many bring tea shirts and Arab dresses from China to Saudi – ‘hajjis buy lots of gifts for their relatives and they don’t care about the quality only the price’. I have managed to meet in Istanbul several traders I had become acquainted with in Yiwu. One man I have met in both places for example exports to Jeddah Arab tunics that are made in Yiwu by a company that employs those interned in Chinese jails as tailors. These traders also export higher quality Turkish products to Saudi Arabia, especially clothing and carpets. Some run their own factories, especially in Zeytinburnu and towns in the Southeast of Turkey where there are established communities from northern Afghanistan.  It has also been reported to me that until the onset of war, Afghan traders would travel from Jeddah to Aleppo in order to purchase machine-made carpets. The situated choices in terms of whether to purchase in Turkey or in China or elsewhere in the Middle East is an important element of the traders’ strategies.

It’s been an interesting trip – now the challenge is to get to Jeddah and see the street there that has been the heart of Afghan and Central Asia trade in Saudi Arabia. Bukharian street in Jeddah’s old quarter – Al Dhahab – is, I am told, where the first emigres from Central Asia arrived in the 1890s, and now a home to Afghans who moved to Saudi in the 1980s. There are also many traders from West Africa who live in this part of the city. I think a trip there could lead to an interesting anthropological/historical piece on economies of hajj from an ethnographic perspective. Let’s hope there is a way forward for the visa…

Photo: © Salvator Barki for Getty Images, ‘Galata Bridge, Karakoy, The Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey.’ The tram tracks along the bridge run from the Zeytinburnu suburb to Kabatas.

Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. His most recent book,Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016. He is currently PI of an ERC Advanced project entitled: ‘Trust, Global Traders and Commodities in a Chinese International Trade City.’

One comment

  1. […] fleeing Afghanistan in significant numbers. During the course of research in both Saudi Arabia and Turkey last year, I met dozens of young men from northern Afghanistan in their late teens and early […]


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