economy,‚Ä™‚Ä™ liberal politics, and ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜rational society,‚Ä™‚Ä™31 with markets in
industrial societies assumed to consist of rational, impersonal, and dis-
crete transactions. Narrowly deÔ¬Āned maximization of self-interest is said
to be the sole motive and the mechanism that allows for markets to
clear. This view of western markets has been largely undermined by
empirical studies on industrial organization (see below). Finally, the
bazaar-as-tradition perspective uniformly presents the bazaar as
untouched by state policies, agencies, and agendas. The only moment
when the state enters these accounts is when bazaars react negatively to
it. In a sense, these authors reproduce the bazaaris‚Ä™ claim and desire to
be independent and free of state interference. They simply accept that
the bazaar is an entity that is impenetrable by state policies just as it is
impermeable to socioeconomic changes.
A note on cultural representations of the bazaar
The representation of the bazaar and bazaaris in Iranian society would
make for a fascinating literary and historical study. Here, I would like to
simply touch upon the dominant strains of how bazaars are perceived in
nonacademic texts and argue that they share the premises of what I have
called the bazaars-as-tradition perspective. The popular views found in
both western and Iranian accounts also treat the bazaar as a holistic way
of life that fosters a unique set of symbolic structures, cultural traits, and
Whether in Iran or beyond its borders, the popular view of the bazaar
presented in literary, journalistic, and cinematic treatments begins by
relating the bazaar to the past. For instance, the bazaar is said to be ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜like
an untouched relic‚Ä™‚Ä™ and it has remained the same ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜since time imme-
morial.‚Ä™‚Ä™32 Not only are its buildings old, but it has ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜antique ways.‚Ä™‚Ä™33
For western observers this timelessness represents the essential qualities
of Iran, and the entire orient. Typical in this regard, a New York Times
reporter writes: ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜If a single place captures the indeÔ¬Ānable essence of life
in the east, it‚Ä™s the bazaar ‚Ä“ a seething irresistible warren of merchan-
dise-laden stalls in twisting, unnamed lanes,‚Ä™‚Ä™ and bazaari commerce
and ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜mentality‚Ä™‚Ä™ is a fundamental component of Iranian life: ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜in olden
time Persia had two national sports: polo and bargaining.‚Ä™‚Ä™34 This view
makes it into policymaking discussions too. In a cable sent in August
1979 from the U.S. charge d‚Ä™affaires to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance,
Jennifer Alexander and Paul Alexander, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜What‚Ä™s a Fair Price? Price-Settings and
Trading Partnerships in Javanese Markets,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Man 26 (September 1991), 493‚Ä“512.
New York Times, November 7, 1961.
Wall Street Journal, November 30, 1978.
New York Times, November 18, 1973.
Conceptualizing the bazaar 53
the bazaar is used to evoke the ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Persian psyche.‚Ä™‚Ä™ The embassy ofÔ¬Ācial
writes that in order to guard against ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜a pervasive unease about the
nature of the world,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Iranians develop a ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜bazaar mentality so common
among Persians, a mindset that often ignores longer term interests in
favor of immediately obtainable advantages and countenances practices
that are regarded as unethical by other norms.‚Ä™‚Ä™35
But this essentialist reading and rendering of the bazaar is not limited
to the occident. Many Persian-language magazine and newspaper arti-
cles on bazaars view them as abstract physical structures and speak of
their historic architecture and centrality in urban life. Jalal Al-e Ahmad,
a renowned essayist and proto-Islamist social critic, wrote a letter to the
mayor of Tehran in 1958 complaining that he was destroying the
character of Tehran‚Ä™s public spaces and replacing it with blind and
second-rate imitations of western styles.36 In the course of this emo-
tional and scathing attack, Al-e Ahmad writes: ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Destroy the arches of
the bazaar, so we can use more Japanese sheet metal and Belgian and
Russian glass. . . . I am surprised that there is no one in this huge
municipality that knows that the spirit and authenticity (esalat) of
Tehran is the bazaars.‚Ä™‚Ä™37 An article in the popular Talash magazine tells
us that the ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜bazaar takes you to the past.‚Ä™‚Ä™38 Meanwhile, a 1972 article
published in the Yaghma, an intellectual monthly, Ô¬Ārst summarizes and
quotes extensively from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European
travelogues, and then concludes, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜If we take the bazaar from the city, it
is as if we take the heart from a chest.‚Ä™‚Ä™39 Oddly, even the mouthpiece of
the Shah‚Ä™s ill-fated single party, the Rastakhiz newspaper, included an
article that on the eve of the Revolution stated, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜The eastern city
without a bazaar is exactly like food without salt.‚Ä™‚Ä™40
While the bazaars‚Ä™ buildings are cherished as an emblem of a past, the
people making a living in them have a more suspect standing in Iranian
society. It is true that bazaaris are sometimes depicted as the symbol of a
chivalrous and moral way of life grounded in Islamic ethics and more.
But more commonly, the tradition and history of the bazaar is viewed as
backwardness and its norms are greed and opportunism, with bazaaris,
New York Times, January 27, 1981.
This letter was republishsed in Shalamcheh, an ultra-conservative biweekly that
frequently attacked the reformist Tehran mayor, Gholam-Hosayn Karbaschi. Shalam-
cheh 2, no. 13 (Mordad 1376 [August 1997]), 6‚Ä“7 and 10.
Shahrokh Dastur-Tabar, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Hojrehha-ye Qadimi, Bozorgtarin Markaz-e Dad va Setad-e
Tehran,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Talash 75 (Day 2536, 1356 [January 1978]), 57.
Kazem Vadi‚Ä˜i, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Bazar dar Baft-e Novin-e Shahri,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Yaghma 25, no. 1 (Farvardin 1351
[April 1972]), 16.
Rastakhiz, 11 Ordibehesht 1357 [May 1, 1978].
54 Bazaar and State in Iran
like the petit-bourgeoisie and merchants under all skies, often ridiculed
and chastised for being miserly, instrumental, gauche, and blindly
bound to old ways.
The former image of the upstanding bazaari, principally held by some
members of the bazaar and championed by some members of the Isla-
mic Republic, begins by characterizing bazaaris as moral businessmen.
They are always in good Ô¬Ānancial standing and stand by their word in all
their dealings by placing their honor and reputation on the line.
Knowing this, one would never think of requesting a signed document:
‚Ä˜‚Ä˜When a bazaari says that he will ship you a good, he will. There is no
doubt in it,‚Ä™‚Ä™ a bazaari said. Their moral order is couched in religious
principles of justice and contractual relations. I was reminded by one
particularly devout fabric seller that the Prophet Mohammad was a
merchant, and I was thus to conclude that there was an inherent bond
between Islam and commerce, that traders have a clear and impeccable
model for their actions. Thus, Islamists describe the bazaar‚Ä™s economy
as ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Islamic economics.‚Ä™‚Ä™41 The bazaar is not simply an architecturally
historic site; it is an essential component of the ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Islamic city.‚Ä™‚Ä™42 For
some supporters of the Islamic Republic, such as Asadollah Badam-
chian, the moral and Islamic nature of bazaari affairs and its organic
relations with the clergy have naturally made the bazaar a force against
despotism and for Islamic society and government.43 In these studies
the bazaar and bazaaris are typically modiÔ¬Āed by adjectives such as
‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Islamic‚Ä™‚Ä™ (eslami ) and ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜eastern‚Ä™‚Ä™ (sharqi ). Thus, not only is ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜The
shopkeeper a friend of God,‚Ä™‚Ä™ as the Prophet allegedly proclaimed, but
the bazaari is a friend to the moral Islamic order.
A contradictory, but arguably more common view of bazaars is cap-
tured in the adage, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜The bazaar is the sanctuary of the devil, and the
bazaaris are the devil‚Ä™s army.‚Ä™‚Ä™ For several decades now bazaari, as noun
or adjective, has had a pejorative meaning in wider Iranian society. The
disparaging of the bazaari begins with his physical appearance. In
movies, newspaper caricatures, and literary descriptions, the bazaari is
represented as a middle-aged, overweight, and physically unattractive
man with ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜meaty and hairy hands.‚Ä™‚Ä™44 He is unshaven, unkept, and
wearing the same simple old clothes every day, and we are to infer that
Entekhab, 13 Day 1379 [ January 2, 2001].
Abbas Moghaddam, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Bazaar ‚Ä“ the Achievement of the Islamic Civilization: A Short
History of the Tehran Bazaar,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Newsletter of Chamber of Commerce Industries & Mines of
the Islamic Republic of Iran (February 1994), 99‚Ä“101.
Speech given at the conference ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜The Bazaar in the Culture and Civilization of the
World of Islam,‚Ä™‚Ä™ Tabriz University, Tabriz, Iran, 28 September‚Ä“1 October 1993.
Sadeq Hedayat, Hajji Aqa (n.p.: Entesharat-e Javidan, 1356 ), p. 16.
Conceptualizing the bazaar 55
physical appearance is meaningless to him, with the pursuit of wealth an
end in and of itself or a way to satisfy his greed and gluttony. Since he is
old-fashioned and religious, he is often bearded and Ô¬Āngering prayer
beads. He is shown calculating large sums of money on an abacus or
pencil and paper, rather than a calculator or a computer. These large
sums, moreover, are viewed as windfall proÔ¬Āts derived from usury, for
the bazaari is known to be unscrupulous, conniving, and materialistic.
In Sadeq Hedayat‚Ä™s satirical Hajji Aqa, the main character is a rather
despicable import‚Ä“exporter.45 Combining all the negative character-
istics of a stereotypical merchant, Hajji Aqa is shown to be self-inter-
ested, an opportunist, and miserly. Despite being extremely wealthy and
enjoying baths and massages, for instance, he reduces his visits to the
public bath when the price is increased.46 In another section, we are told
that he buys cotton and doubles the price without even seeing it.47
The general depiction of bazaaris as greedy and materialistic is pre-
sent in Iranian cinema too. Amir Naderi‚Ä™s classic Tangsir depicts bazaari
moneylenders as uncompromising and manipulative men who oppress
the tragic hero.48 Postrevolutionary Ô¬Ālms, which are imbued with a
heavy dose of anticapitalism and condemnation of the wealthy, often
present bazaaris as villains. In Marriage of the Blessed, Mohsen Makh-
malbaf‚Ä™s surrealistic ode to veterans of the Iran‚Ä“Iraq war, the tragically
deranged veteran derides a bazaari for his passive support ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜behind the
war front.‚Ä™‚Ä™49 In one of the climactic scenes, the veteran taunts and
mocks the bazaari, who has handsomely proÔ¬Āted from the speculative
war economy, by chanting ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Forbidden (haram) bread is delicious!‚Ä™‚Ä™
This scene represents another popular criticism ‚Ä“ that bazaaris‚Ä™ reli-
giosity is only a facade, a public act to conceal immoral and un-Islamic
acts. ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Bazaaris are full of tricks and even in matters of faith they have
ulterior and self-serving motives‚Ä™‚Ä™ may best sum up this accusation.
Bazaaris themselves reiterate these contradictory stereotypes. In my
conversations some bazaaris lauded the ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜real‚Ä™‚Ä™ bazaari (often of the
past) as being honest and principled in matters of business and charity,
and protective in social matters. I was told that the true bazaari has a
chivalrous ethic (ma‚Ä˜refat) and is socially aware so that he ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜sees beyond
his own pocket.‚Ä™‚Ä™ This bazaari is aware that trade, whether it is
exporting carpets or selling teacups, is part of the national project to
Ibid. 46 Ibid., 44.
Ibid., p. 50. For similar characterizations also see Anjavi-Shirazi, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Hadis-e Ketab va
Ketabforushi az Bazar-e Bayn al-Haramayn ta ruberu-ye Daneshgah,‚Ä™‚Ä™ 53.
Amir Naderi, Tangsir (1973).
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Marriage of the Blessed (Farabi Cinema Foundation, 1989).
56 Bazaar and State in Iran
represent Iran in the best light in the world arena, all the while creating
jobs for fellow citizens. Other bazaaris were more wary and cognizant of
the negative connotations associated with the ways of the bazaar. For
instance, several asked not to be called bazaaris; they preferred to be
referred to as merchants (bazarganan), traders (kaseb), or businessmen
(biznesman). This was particularly true among younger bazaaris. When
one young tea trader in the Tehran Bazaar proclaimed that he was not a
bazaari and was a businessman, his uncle chuckled and turned to me
and said, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜He is embarrassed to be called a bazaari, but that is what he
is! He shouldn‚Ä™t be ashamed.‚Ä™‚Ä™ Turning back to his nephew he added,
‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Don‚Ä™t worry, you‚Ä™ll get older, and you won‚Ä™t care what people think.
You‚Ä™ll accept that you are a bazaari.‚Ä™‚Ä™ Among carpet wholesalers in
Hamburg, many of whom come from bazaari backgrounds, to say that
someone‚Ä™s ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜behavior is bazaari‚Ä™‚Ä™ implies that he pays his debts late and
that he tries to nickel and dime you.
Tradition is thus interpreted in inconsistent, even schizophrenic, ways
in these common characterizations of the bazaar and the bazaari ‚Ä“
authenticity, morality, miserliness, backwardness, and so forth. What
unites this collection of images is that they all treat the bazaar as a
holistic social sphere emerging out of a particular psychology or culture
that works at the collective and individual levels. These views locate the
bazaar in the traits and tastes of the individual and simultaneously deny
any agency by homogenizing and reifying all those who are classiÔ¬Āed as
The Bazaar as a class
While Marxist concepts and terminology are often used by Iranian
analysts, much work actually goes to show that Iran‚Ä™s conditions and
development do not Ô¬Āt Marxist theory.50 It generally does not trace
shifts in modes of production or relate superstructural changes to the
economic foundation. Instead, this Marxist-inspired literature is deÔ¬Āned
by its use of class as a unit of analysis, the privileging of economic
variables, and the relating of modern Iranian history to world capitalist
developments. When it comes to the bazaar, these scholars stress its
economic role and class facets. Historically, the bazaar‚Ä™s incorporation
For Instance, Bijan Jazani emphatically writes, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜a bourgeoisie failed to develop in Iran
as it did in Europe during the Middle Ages.‚Ä™‚Ä™ Bijan Jazani, Capitalism and Revolution in
Iran: Selected Writings of Bizan Jazani (London: Zed Press, 1980), p. 1. For a review and
critique of Marxist studies of Iranian history, see Abbas Vali, Pre-Capitalist Iran: A
Theoretical History (London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 1993).
Conceptualizing the bazaar 57
of production and commercial activity, however, has made it difÔ¬Ācult to
relate class directly to modes of production, so works blend social and
cultural forces to mediate the empirical complexities.51
Authors who are more dogmatic in their Marxist analysis, such as Bijan
Jazani, describe the bazaar as a somewhat uniÔ¬Āed entity that is char-
acterized by petit bourgeoisie tendencies; or in moments inÔ¬‚uenced by
dependency theory, bazaaris are classiÔ¬Āed as the national bourgeoisie.52
Hossein Bashiryeh‚Ä™s study of state‚Ä“society relations during the twentieth
century traces the various revolutionary movements within the context of
the emerging world capitalist system and changing class alliances.53 In
this account, the bazaar‚Ä™s petty bourgeoisie standing is modiÔ¬Āed by var-
ious adjectives, such as ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜traditional‚Ä™‚Ä™ (p. 5), ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜national‚Ä™‚Ä™ (p. 11), and
‚Ä˜‚Ä˜Islamic‚Ä™‚Ä™ (p. 13). Hence, while these authors stress the economic and
class dynamics of the bazaar, they inevitably turn to social and cultural
aspects that are not included in or derived from economic forces.
Another characteristic of the bazaar-as-class framework is that it views
the Iranian petit bourgeoisie as underdeveloped since Iran‚Ä™s capitalist
system does not coincide with the western-based Marxist model of
society. Sadeq Zibakalam has recently commented, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜In short, it should be
said that in Iran the bourgeoisie and the capitalist strata have not developed.
In Pakistan and Turkey and other societies where the party system has
taken shape, independent economic strata and layers came into being
beforehand. In Iran this layer was never created . . . .‚Ä™‚Ä™ But he is quick to
add, ‚Ä˜‚Ä˜The only important and independent sector [in Iranian society]