by Magnus Marsden
One of my most memorable evenings while conducting fieldwork in Yiwu, China in 2016 fell on 20th March, the evening of Nowruz, Persian New Year. Having put my three-year-old son to bed and waited for my wife to return from her Chinese language classes it was often a part of my fieldwork routine to have a beer in one of the two ramshackle bars popular with foreign traders that were located in Yiwu’s Maida area. This area of Yiwu is named after a popular and long-standing Arabic restaurant located there and currently run by Yemenis from the southern city of Taiz. On previous evenings I’d met traders from the Iranian cities of Gelan and Kish Island, Afghans visiting Yiwu with their Belorussian business partners, as well as Kenyans, Ugandans and Congolese merchant-migrants. I’d also seen great gatherings of Sikhs and Hindus from Afghanistan tuck into meals of feast like proportions that were consumed alongside plentiful bottles of imported whisky.
On the evening of Persian New Year, I met a trader in his late fifties from northern Afghanistan who told me that he had come to Yiwu from Odessa in Ukraine. He was visiting Yiwu in order to purchase the scooters that he sold wholesale in Odessa where he lived for twenty years. Having shared a few toasts, we turned our attention to a group of young Iranian men and women who were celebrating the New Year and dancing to Iranian pop music. It turned out that some in the group were visiting Yiwu from Tehran and Mashad while others were based in the city where they ran transport and trading offices.
In the corner of the room sat a couple in their late fifties. After a while the man and woman stood up to dance to the Persian music as well. I soon discovered that while the woman was originally from the western Pakistani city of Quetta, her husband was the son of an Iranian who had moved to Pakistan ‘many years ago’. The family had for long been involved in the trade of used cars in Pakistan, but the couple had come to China to see whether they could start importing goods – such as bags and textiles – to Pakistan. Over the course of meeting the couple it became apparent that their trip to China led them to realise that the costs of importing goods from China to Pakistan were considerably beyond their means.
It was interesting to reflect on the dynamics of the contemporary Persianate world in the context of that Nowruz evening: Dari-speaking Afghans, Persian and Turkish-speaking Iranians, as well as a mixed Urdu-Persian speaking couple were all brought momentarily together through commerce in a city in maritime China. In particular, however, the case of the Iranian-Pakistani couple was intriguing. During the years that I often visited Karachi in the early 2000s, I spent several evenings with a northern friend of mine and his business partner, an Iranian gentleman from the Zahedan region whose family had been resident in Karachi for decades. They were an interesting pair of friends with whom to spend time because my friend from northern Pakistan was the descendent of an Islamic holy figure who had moved to what was then British India from Iraq by way of Afghanistan in the 1920s.
The evening with the Iranian-Pakistani couple in Yiwu reminded me too of the Iranian cafés that have since the 1920s been a vibrant element of the culinary and intellectual life of Karachi, as well as Bombay in neighbouring India. These cafés which sell strong cups of tea, buttered toast, and South Asian and Iranian dishes, are dotted across Karachi’s Saddar area and elsewhere in the city. The cafés were mostly established by merchants from Yazd in Iran who moved to Karachi in the 1920s. Some of the cafés are owned by Zoroastrian Iranians, others by Shi’i Muslims. These venues were vibrant sites of intellectual discussion and debate in Karachi in the 60s and 70s and are remembered fondly by thinkers and intellectuals in the city to this day. During a visit to Karachi in November 2017, I had the opportunity of visiting some of the remaining establishments. There are still several Iranian tea merchants operating in the same part of the city, although the ‘Irani special chai’ appears to comprise tea imported from Kenya.
Connections between Iran and South Asia are well-documented by historians of the early modern world. There had also been a close and intimate relationship in the first decades of the twentieth century between Iran and British India, focusing especially on the great cities of Karachi and Bombay. The cafés established by the Iranians were an important aspect of Karachi’s intellectual life in the heady years following Pakistan’s independence. Commercially, ties between Karachi and Iran were important in the 1990s. During the time I spent in Yiwu I met several Iranian traders who told me that until they had started to visit China in the late 1990s they mostly purchased the goods in which they dealt – such as watches – in the port city of Karachi.
Today, sadness about the demise of Karachi’s Iranian café culture amongst the city’s intelligentsia, reflects broader changes in transregional cultural and commercial formations. The political and economic rhetoric in Pakistan today is focusing on developments associated with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as India has invested in building a new port in Chaharbahar, Iran, that is designed to facilitate Indian access to the markets of Afghanistan and Central Asia. Shifts such as these in the activities of traders are an important reminder of the way in which the rise of commercial nodes such as Yiwu has also had ambiguous implications for other, more historic forms of trans-regional dynamics. A Nowruz night in a beer shack in Yiwu ultimately helped to illuminate the city’s complex role as a site of inter-Asian (dis)connectivity.