The Merchant's Plight

Damage in a section of the souk in the old city of Aleppo after the area was shelled by Syrian regime forces on September 30, 2012. Source: AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA

Damage in a section of the souk in the old city of Aleppo after the area was shelled by Syrian regime forces on September 30, 2012. Source: AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA

Mazen Kalab arrives an hour late for his interview with me, a Western journalist. He twitches nervously as he settles into his chair at the café of the hotel in Istanbul where he has been living on and off since August, when he gathered his family and fled his home in the ancient Syrian city of Aleppo.

Kalab is a war refugee and he wears his exile heavily. Two years ago he was part of a family empire within Aleppo’s legendary textile industry. He owned his own factory, employed fifty workers and generated a complex of related work: cotton growing, harvesting, dyeing, and weaving. He says his factory made two hundred thousand dollars a year in revenue, a figure that is no doubt wildly understated.

“Aleppo is a river to the Syrian economy,” Kalab said, “and it has dried up due to the fighting.” The war to depose Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad smothered Aleppo in its embrace this year and it has yet to let go. Portions of the city held by rebel forces are occasionally shelled by regime loyalists from the air. Most of the residents have left. First to go were the super-rich, the predatory elites who, since Assad was elevated to power after his father’s death in 2000, helped themselves to vast slices of industries and services. They were followed by the traditional oligarchs, the established merchant class that has dominated the city’s industry for centuries in their discreet, understated manner. The last to leave were the itinerant farmers and tradesmen, the dispossessed who could find nothing left to pick from the rubble.

A diaspora of merchants from Aleppo is accumulating throughout the Middle East. Just as their Mesopotamian brothers fled a sectarian holocaust in Iraq several years ago for cities like Damascus and Amman, so now are Syrians seeking refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Dubai, and Egypt. They flee the war and the profiteering and they take with them an entrepreneurial instinct honed since Aleppo was a gem in the setting of the Old Silk Road. It is unclear weather they will come back. In an unguarded moment, Kalab declares he will seek “commercial immunity” in the United States—as he sees it, an American passport in return for a sizable direct investment in the country. A US diplomat later confirmed that foreign businessmen can effectively buy citizenship for about USD500,000.

“When I was home I was well known,” Kalab says. “Here I know no one. I’m nothing.” Kalab tells a familiar story: in late summer he was approached by rebels and was asked to contribute five thousand dollars to the revolution. A few weeks later the same group demanded enough money to buy ten Kalashnikov-style assault rifles. Fearful that he or his sons would be kidnapped should he decline the request, Kalab packed his family members into an SUV and drove to Lebanon, where he has family.

Kalab and his uncle spent two months in Cairo and Amman looking for buying opportunities. Finding none, he left for Istanbul to meet with some Turkish traders he knew. “We’ve dealt with the Turks for years in textile exports,” he says. “There is no opportunity like there is here.” Like his fellow exiles, Kalab has a grudging admiration for Turkey, Syria’s historic rival, for being shrewd enough to orient itself toward the more dynamic markets of the West as much as the East. “Turkey is more open to Europe,” he says. “They outsmart us in trade agreements. They take and we give.”

With the help of his Turkish hosts and some old Aleppine partners, Kalab raised enough money to launch a garment factory in a rented apartment in suburban Istanbul. It is now alive with the din of a dozen second-hand sewing machines and fabric cutters manned by Aleppine exiles. Every few days trucks from their old buyers in Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia come to the apartment and collect a load of cheaply made sportswear for working-class consumers back home.

Kalab is unsure of his next move. He is the middling son of a family with five brothers and three sisters. In keeping with Aleppine tradition, each son launched and operated his own company rather than work for the family patriarch, as is so common elsewhere in the Arab world. Aleppines wince at the suggestion that they have been a pillar of the Assad dynasty. In fact, they argue, Aleppo’s enterprises have accommodated the current regime just as they did the Ottomans, Mongols, and Seleucids who preceded it. There is also a deep cultural antipathy among Aleppines for Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian strongman who in 1957 negotiated the United Arab Republic with his Syrian counterpart. Nasser, so goes the local narrative, nearly destroyed Syrian agriculture and industry with his variants of land reform and nationalism before the Aleppines rallied alongside his enemies to dissolve the union.

“We are independent,” says Kalab, now on his third cigarette, “even among our siblings. “That is the Aleppine way. Each succeeds or fails on his own. Of course we will support family members who fail or get married, but we also compete with each other.” During family reunions, Kalab says, the men always end up in the living room talking business while the women huddle in the kitchen. They discuss output, design, modes of production, new markets—everything, it seems, except income. “Why should we speak openly about something we’d never tell the government?”

Kalab’s factory specialized in athletic wear. Beginning in the late 1990s he sold product to buyers of top European soccer teams, and in 2006 he supplied several World Cup teams with uniforms and fan merchandise. Each year he would travel to Al-Hasakeh province in northeast Syria, where the best cotton grew, to inspect the harvest. Al-Hasakeh gets abundant amounts of rain, Kalab explains. The soil is red and the climate is perfect for cotton. There have been no yields since rebel forces garrisoned the mills. “Both sides in the war are destroying it,” he says. “The regime has bombed the fields.”

The interview is winding down. Kalab has relaxed, but he will not be drawn into politics. If he has ties to a particular faction in the revolt, or if he is loyal to the regime, he is not letting on. He is, true to his Aleppine instincts, all business. “When they find an honorable person to lead Syria we will support him,” Kalab says. “Right now neither side is suitable. We are all reluctant to start all over again.”

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