War proving bad for business

SUN JOURNAL

Pakistan: Vendors say conflict in Afghanistan has meant financial hardship and goods harder to come by.

October 31, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - The business universe of Haji Iqbal Khan is the Hassan Cloth House, his 10-foot-by-10-foot fabric shop on an alley in the Saddar Bazaar. It is a cramped place where the front wall is thrown open to the sunlight and the other three are lined by roll after roll of cloth, bunched like the colors of the rainbow.

A foreign visitor arrives, and salesman Ghulan Mohiyuddan swings into action, rising from a squat to flip on a ceiling fan, whisking away the stench of an open sewer just around the corner. He then leans into the alley to hail a passing boy, who darts away only to reappear moments later with a tray of steaming green tea - the prerequisite for hospitality and the lubricant of local commerce.

On this particular morning there is quite a passing scene, although it is nothing out of the ordinary. The shopping crowd is mostly men and boys in sandaled feet, the breezy lines of their shalwar suits flowing gracefully.

A motorcycle weaves past, grunting through the lower gears, followed by a clopping horse that pulls a flatbed wagon on which a small boy stands like a charioteer, steady at the reins.

From the other direction, a beggar approaches at ground level. His right leg is amputated just below the knee, so he travels on his fists, arms swinging like crutches, left leg tucked, his knuckles blackened by the grime of the streets.

But it is the women in the crowd to whom Khan's merchant instincts are attuned this morning. This is the time of year when they buy cloth to make their families' clothes for the winter. And one by one they duck their heads through his entrance for an appraising glance, some showing their faces beneath head scarves, others shrouded head to toe, gliding forward like clouds in their pale cotton burqas.

Yet, business is only about half of what it ought to be, says Khan, squatting cross-legged in the back by his locked steel cashbox. Even in this almost hidden corner of Pakistan, the tremors of politics and world events register quickly at the till, especially when you're competing against perhaps a hundred other fabric shops within the few acres of your own bazaar.

"When there is an [anti-war] demonstration in the city, the women, they simply don't come to the market that day," Khan says. "So, yes, I am worried, because the war in Afghanistan these days is directly affecting us."

Not that Khan is a disinterested party. On the wall just above him, in a recessed space between his overstuffed shelves, hangs a newly printed poster of Osama bin Laden. Like many Pakistanis who must scramble just to get by, Khan believes America hasn't proved its case against bin Laden and that airstrikes are needlessly killing Afghan civilians - not to mention needlessly hurting Khan's sales and the fragile finances of his customers.

Yet, in a twist of logic, the picture of bin Laden on Khan's poster is superimposed on a photo of the exploding World Trade Center: innocent until proved guilty, but indisputably the conqueror of lower Manhattan.

Like many merchants in Peshawar, Khan gets his goods through unconventional channels. Virtually all of his fabric is imported, and he takes delivery a roll at a time from bicycle and pedestrian couriers, the last leg of a smuggling route from Afghanistan that skirts the high costs of taxes and duties.

Not that there isn't still an overhead. For a 100-yard roll of cloth, which might eventually fetch $300 worth of sales, Khan pays not only the supplying warehouse but also the courier, who gets 50 rupees (about 80 cents). There are also monthly bribes to policemen who patrol the bazaar. They keep silent about the deliveries that pass beneath their noses, and in return a shopkeeper pays as much as 2,000 rupees (about $35).

Supply has grown scarce because of the war, meaning he pays more. But it's the lack of demand that worries him.

"Last month I had four salesmen here," Khan says. "Now I have two. We cannot afford the expenses and the rising prices."

A woman steps into the shop, and after a few moments of browsing she makes the first purchase of the past half hour. His salesman measures her selection from a roll of blue fabric, then cuts it with giant shears while Khan punches out the price on a pocket calculator.

"I have five children to support, and my brother has six, and he has a shop, too," Khan says, taking two 100-rupee notes from the woman and sliding them into the cash drawer.

Outside the shop, another beggar scrapes by on his knuckles. A woman rounds the corner and stops for a look, followed by another.

"Excuse me," Khan says to his guest, rising to his feet. "I must attend to my customer."

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