This much-awaited book is a monumental achievement of fieldwork in out-of-the-way places, across dangerous frontiers, over an extended period of time. Marsden takes us on a journey that enables us to experience alongside him the constant sense of precariousness, of living between dangerous pasts and uncertain futures, which is the day-to-day experience of his Afghan trader friends. In this densely described, argued and analysed account of cross-border trading, the central message is one of complexity; beyond that, Marsden finds ambiguity and ambivalence. The traders who Marsden befriended are primarily Dari speakers, a dialect of Tajiki/ Persian, and many are ethnic Tajikis from northern Afghanistan, though the author is at pains to emphasize the multi-ethnic composition of the Afghan trading diaspora. The centre of the study, the city of Dushambe, is the capital of Tajikistan, an ex-Soviet Republic now an independent state. Northern Afghanistan, where most traders come from, was also the base of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance movement and before that, of the Afghan communist party that took over the regime in Kabul after the Soviet invasion. Many traders cut their teeth in trade while students in Soviet universities or officials of the Afghan government. Inevitably they became refugees in Pakistan and elsewhere once the government was toppled in 1992 by the Taliban. Many were thus quite educated with established networks, and many opened their first small businesses in their places of exile. Education, social mobility, and the civil war and its aftermath thus uprooted many Afghans from their tribal or peasant communities and rural livelihoods. As a result, the Afghan diasporic trading community, by now scattered worldwide, is heterogeneous both in terms of class and ethnic origin, although most are northerners. Many moved into Russian and Ukrainian cities, like Moscow or Odessa, or to other ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia; others are based in the Gulf states where the central offices of larger trading companies are often situated, and many others smuggled themselves into or managed to gain refugee status in European capitals, with larger communities emerging in the UK, mainly in London, and in the United States and Canada. The goods these Afghans trade in are multifarious and often fortuitous—a matter of chance encounters or temporary cross-border price differences to be seized and exploited. Very often their businesses fail. Trade and investment in places like Tajikistan are precarious, dependent on corrupt or overzealous officials and subject to unpredictable surges in anti-Afghan sentiment. Afghans are vulnerable to sudden raids, betrayal by partners or ‘patrons’ who fail or cheat them, and to officious bureaucrats, with little recourse to the law and no protection. Bribes are commonplace. Despite this, many Afghan traders have flourished. There does appear to be a hierarchy in the goods sold, however, with cement from Pakistan handled by large merchants who rely on fleets of lorries, employees and middlemen. The trade in gems and seasonal tangerines also seems profitable, if risky. Otherwise a myriad of goods, from cheap Chinese products to Indian scarves and cheap jewellery now move down this twenty-first century ‘silk road’ and throughout Central Asia, Russia, Ukraine and even London markets. There is also a trade in heroin but the book avoids this topic. Marsden is keen to highlight the ethical dimensions of Afghan trading, and to deny that they are merely strategic operators and immoral wheeler-dealers. Traders guard their integrity and value their reputations. At the same time the author admits that trust is often betrayed, and hospitality, while essential to survival and thus strategic rather than entirely altruistic, can also lead to problems as guests too betray their hosts. Although mentioned early on in the book, it is in relation to trust, however, that Marsden fails to conceptualize, or even document fully, the comparative differences between the Afghan and other classical trading diasporas. A key argument famously put by Abner Cohen in relation to Hausa traders is that they succeeded because of their willingness to extend large-scale credit without warranties or ‘modern’ contracts. This is why, Cohen proposed, they joined the Tijaniyya order, to create religious boundaries marking them off from other Muslims. So too, the Sindhi Hindu trading diaspora studied by Markovitz, centred on the town of Shikarpur, financed much of Central Asia as far as Bukhara without written contracts. Networks of credit and trust are thus closely intertwined in the literature on early trading diasporas. And yet we know little about the way that credit is extended among Afghan traders, although one gets the impression that it is, indeed, as with the Pakistani traders I studied in Manchester, the lifeblood of the trading diaspora, even in an age of cellphones and the internet. This caveat aside, one of the great achievements of the book is its encyclopaedic embedding of the ethnography in a world of relevant literature including, saliently, anthropology. Its compendious notes reflect a realm of scholarship on traders, diasporas and much else besides, ranging from Africa to China and (even) the UK, enriching and deepening this unrivalled text. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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