Sunday, April 15, 2007

Storing Bottles: Business in a Kurdish Muslim context . . .

I must be careful not to speak beyond my knowledge. So please understand that my comments, here, are based on the small observations I made during 10 days in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey . . . and the testimony of several people who have lived in this part of the world for many, many years.
A few observations:
  • Walk up and down the streets in almost any community in northern Iraq or southeastern Turkey and you will find dozens of shopkeepers and artisans all selling very much the same items. No prices listed. All "just" waiting for someone to do business with them. In Diyarbakir, Turkey, I took photos of about 20 shoeshine men and boys all lined up, one next to the other, beside the railing in a public square.

    Talk about competition!

    But it's actually more like the automobile rows you find in the United States--you know, where all the auto dealers locate right next to each other.

    I found it was the same way in almost every marketplace we went. All the hardware shops were lined up, one right next to the other, in a single block; all the fabric stores; the spice shops; the women's garments; men's garments; . . . even a row of mannequin stores!

  • There were very few large stores. In fact, I can't remember seeing any that were over maybe 2,000 or 3,000 square feet, total. And those felt empty!
I asked about this phenomenon.

  • First, there is no lending at interest permitted in this society. Which means it is difficult--almost impossible--to get more money than is available within your own extended family.

    Second, you can't trust anyone, especially if they are outside your own family.

    Result: No enterprise can grow bigger than the extended family.
Bob told a story from his time in Iraq in the early 90s.

Bob was involved with an NGO (Non Governmental Organization; i.e., a charity) that sought to vaccinate Kurdish families' animals.

One day, a doctor came to him. "Brother," the doctor greeted him. "I speak the truth in the Name of Jesus: Dr. ______ of such-and-so city [about 80 miles away] is selling the [donated] vaccines to the government and pocketing the money. . . . I tell you the truth, as God is my witness."

Well, this put Bob in a terrible position.

Back in the early 90s, there were no inter-city telephones in northern Iraq: not land lines and definitely not cellphones. So to check out the allegations, Bob had to devote a day to go to City B, speak with the accused doctor, and return.

When he arrived, he challenged the doctor, who immediately denied the charges and said, "Here! I will bring you the proof!"

He then proceeded to bring out his paperwork and all the spent vials of vaccine.

"See!" he said. "The bottles. . . . We must always store the bottles in case anyone ever charges us with wrong-doing. . . ."

Question, now: Who was telling the truth?

Bob could not be sure, but he was tending to side with the doctor who had been accused.

"Why do people do these things?" he asked, hoping, perhaps, to gain some insight.

"It is the way we do things here," said the man. "And so we store bottles. For proof of innocence." And Bob had spent a day to ensure integrity of distribution.
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