The trickster’s burden: carpet sellers and the manufacture of authenticity in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar

This week in the CRESIDA seminar series, our speaker is Patricia Scalco from the University of Helsinki, who is sharing her research with carpet sellers in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar. Come and join us on Thursday, March 21st at 4.15pm in Room G070 at Parkstead House to learn more.

Detail of Turkish carpet (c) Muharrem Zengin


 The oldest and largest covered market in the world, the Istanbul Grand Bazaar, currently contains over 3000 shops distributed along 61 ‘streets’. Built two years after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, the Bazaar displays a remarkable – and intriguing – resilience, retaining both its features and its purpose as a place of trade for over 600 years. Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic research and pursuing my interest in the dynamics of circulation of goods in places defined as ‘passageways’ and ‘crossroads’, this paper explores the figure of the carpet seller, the most iconic – and at times, feared – of the Bazaar’s tradesmen. Persuasive storytellers – sometimes flamboyant, at other times moody and even hostile – tourists approach these sellers with fear and fascination, while the local population often treats them with contempt. While the former experience the Bazaar as a ‘labyrinth’ coloured by perceptions of spatio-temporal dislocation, locals distance themselves from these experiences and. narratives altogether. Engaging with these features, this paper approaches the Bazaar as crossroads. Viewed from this angle, carpet sellers can be seen, I suggest, as embodying the ‘trickster’, and thus playing an important role in calibrating ambiguity and ambivalence as means to (re)interpret contradictions, (de)stabilize meaning and value and (re)signify the foreign tourist’s quest for ‘authenticity’ – a much sought-after feature ascribed to hand-made, locally produced carpets, which are increasingly threatened by the influx of machine-made pieces. Exploring how ambiguities and ambivalences are managed through performance and narrative by skilled tradesmen, the paper suggests that through the process of generating or suppressing ambiguity, the carpet seller manages not only the expectations of foreign tourists, but also a much larger crisis triggered by centuries-old conflicts that are materialized in the contradictions of the encounter between hand-made versus machine-made products.

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