Thursday, December 14, 2006

The answer is trade

The Souk al Milh at dusk

The bazaars and souks of the Middle East are one of the region's greatest draws for tourists: my favourites are the labyrinths of Aleppo, the hot and fuggy Hamidiyeh in Damascus and the Souk al Milh in Sanaa, in Yemen. A purchase in a place like these never fails to generate a vivid memory. I remember how at prayer-time in Jeddah, the twinkly-eyed Afghan who was trying to sell me a carpet simply pulled down the metal shutters of his treasure-trove of a shop: locking us in and the religious police, the Mutawwa out. I bought the rug. And two others.
Trade opens countries, for traders take a pragmatic view of life. The hey-day of Middle Eastern trade began a thousand years ago when, like today, Europeans wanted goods from China. I've just been re-reading an account of a seventeenth century younger son, John Verney, who went to Aleppo in 1662 with £10 in his pocket and a letter from his father advising him not to 'keep lewd company, and by drinking, gaming, or your own idleness, loose your reputation'. John Verney did gamble with his trading friends, but on the arrival dates of cargo ships. It was an early form of freight derivatives, I suppose. Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city, and Verney rubbed along with Turks, Armenians and Syrians, Muslim Christian and Jewish. He survived the plague which killed his room mate, and returned to London twelve years later a relatively rich man. (Susan Whyman, Sociability and Power in Late Stuart England, Oxford 1999)
Ways of trading change. Electronic trading has largely replaced the open outcry markets which are the spiritual successor of the eastern souk. Damascus will have a stock market next year, it is hoped. If we in the west want peace and prosperity in the Middle East, we should be doing our best to encourage developments like this.

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