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Department of Social Anthropology


Senior Research Seminar with Dr Samuel Williams (University of Cambridge)

The gift business: Learning to sell souvenirs in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar


One of the world’s oldest marketplaces, Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar has transformed over recent decades into one of the world’s most visited tourist sites. Among the most eye-catching aspects of this historical development has been the proliferation of souvenir stalls and a procession of young men —eager to explore what the market has to offer, discovering what it takes to make it in business— who nowadays must prove their mettle first as souvenir traders, or as they call it ‘the gift business’.

Not even a recognized trade as late as 1980, today some seventy percent of fixed-place businesses in the Grand Bazaar are ‘gift shops’. If Clifford Geertz in the 1970s defined a ‘bazaar economy’ as a tertium quid unlike either non-market economies or highly commoditised industrial economies, what has become of commerce in the world’s most famous bazaar over the last twenty years, increasingly galvanized by this so-called gift business — on the face of it, a trade in reasonably standardised, mass-produced souvenirs to foreign tourists?

Based on fieldwork in the Grand Bazaar conducted at intervals over the last fifteen years, including twelve month’s apprenticeship in the gift business, this paper examines ways novice souvenir traders themselves learn how the bazaar works as they are trained to ‘make bazaar’; that is, to bargain. Analyzing how they learn to bargain with tourists, with other traders, and with the curious cast of state actors they soon encounter in the bazaar, this paper suggests that rather than turning into a Disneyesque ‘Bazaarland’ or an Orient-themed shopping mall, the Grand Bazaar has if anything become more Geertzian than it was even a generation ago. For as young souvenir traders fast realise, finding their feet in the gift business is less about learning how to sell souvenirs than discovering how to exchange a good that’s not quite either a gift or commodity — namely, tourists.

Friday, 5 March, 2021 - 16:15 to 18:00
Event location: 
Online - by email invitation