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Blending fascinating ethnographic description with incisive social analysis, Stoller shows how these savvy West African entrepreneurs have built cohesive and effective multinational trading networks, in part through selling a simulated Africa to African Americans. These and other networks set up by the traders, along with their faith as devout Muslims, help them cope with the formidable state regulations and personal challenges they face in America. As Stoller demonstrates, the stories of these West African traders illustrate and illuminate ongoing debates about globalization, the informal economy, and the changing nature of American communities.
Merchants at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market dread January. No one likes to be outside on cold, bleak days. Braving plunging January temperatures, the merchants stand stiffly at their market stalls at 116th Street and Lenox Avenue resisting the biting north wind and hoping that shoppers, already jaded by the Christmas holidays, will step out into the frosty air and buy a scarf, a sweater, a wool hat, or a piece of cloth. Even though January is the slowest, most difficult month, the merchants, mostly West Africans from Niger, Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia, show up every day, arrange their product displays, and pray to Allah for a trickle of business.
Issifi Mayaki is no exception. Like some of the other West African traders at the market, he grew up in Niger and Côte d'Ivoire. He came to New York City in 1992 and has traded in Harlem since 1993. Issifi is a Hausa, and the Hausa, a West African ethnic group from Niger and northern Nigeria, are known for their skill in commerce. Issifi's brothers, his father, and his grandfather are all, like him, itinerant merchants.
I went to see Issifi, whom I had known for three years, on the first Saturday in 1997, an unusually warm day for January. Saturdays and Sundays are the most productive days at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market-even in winter. Taking advantage of an uncharacteristically warm day, Issifi had started earlier than usual to set up his display of African print cloth. By the time I arrived at noon, he had already arranged his bolts of cloth on two card tables covered with black felt.
The flair of the display revealed Issifi's sense of style. The table to the left featured assorted bolts of brightly patterned African cloth. Issifi had placed the prints with bright blue and red backgrounds at the far end of the table. Next to them, midway in his display, he'd arranged more muted colors in descending order of brightness. The effect of this color spectrum was striking. On the table to the right, Issifi had bolts of cloth imported from Mali. At the front he offered mud cloth, also known as bokolanfani, created by applying mud in geometric designs to a rectangle of homespun white cloth, which is then dyed black. The process leaves white symbolic patterns on the dark background. Toward the back of this table, he had placed bolts of homespun cloth fashioned in brightly colored stripes. Larger pieces of mud cloth hung like flags from the walls, giving the stall the feel of a salon. A canvas tarpaulin stretched over aluminum poles served as a tent, protecting Issifi-and the other merchants-from sun, rain, and snow but not from the cold wind.
Issifi and I hugged one another and exchanged New Year's greetings. As usual we spoke in French mixed with a smattering of English. Issifi is an attractive man of average height with a fine-featured oval face. He wore a shiny black leather jacket, black corduroy pants, and a black and white cap fashioned from mud cloth. With wire-rimmed glasses framing his soft brown eyes, Issifi cut quite a sophisticated figure. He proudly pointed to a sign hanging at the back of his stall:
IME African Cloth Booth #185 116th St. & Lenox Ave. Harlem 7 Days A Week
"I understand what the 'I' is on the sign," I said. "But why the 'M' and the 'E'?"
Issifi smiled with some embarrassment. "The 'M' is for Monique. The 'E' is for enterprises."
Monique was his African American girlfriend, whom I had met on previous visits to the market. "Is she your partner?" I wondered.
"No," he said resolutely. "She isn't. She wanted me to put her initial on the sign and on business cards so that other women would know that I'm taken." He paused a few moments and added. "She gives me a hard time. She doesn't trust me. She wants me all for herself. When I travel she wants other women to know about her."
Meanwhile two African American shoppers perused Issifi's offerings. They seemed more interested in our conversation, some of which had been in English, than in purchasing cloth. Issifi knew both the man and woman-regular customers.
"You're listening to our conversation," he said lightly, but with some embarrassment.
The man smiled and said nothing-a quiet affirmation. He finished looking around and said, "Catch ya later, brother," as he moved away.
"So," I said, resuming the conversation, which I found interesting. "You said Monique gives you trouble?"
"You know how it is," Issifi said. "There are many differences between African and American women. Two different cultures. You lived in Africa. You know how it is."
Issifi was in a confiding mood. He went on to explain his personal situation in great detail. He said that in Africa men could pretty much do as they please. African women, he stated, make few demands of their husbands. A wife usually does not question her husband's decisions or behavior. "I respect my wife and she respects me," he said, "but she doesn't consume me."
"Here," said Issifi shaking his head, "they want to own you, to control your life. And they're jealous."
He described the evolution of his relationship with Monique. When they met on 125th Street in 1994, Issifi told her that he was married and had children. He explained to her that his first allegiance had to be to his family in Africa, meaning his wife and children, his mother and father, and his five brothers. Monique said she understood Issifi's situation and appreciated his candor. As time went on, however, she began to fall in love with him and became more possessive, especially when Issifi told her how much he missed Africa (see chap. 8).
Not having seen his family for five years, Issifi had begun to long for them. "I miss Africa so much that I've become a nasty person, giving everybody a hard time. I really want to go back to see my family."
Issifi's mother is in her mid-fifties and lives near Maradi, Niger, a hot, dusty, windswept region of the West African Sahel. His father and three of his brothers are merchants who live in Abidjan, a major West African commercial center in Côte d'Ivoire. At the time of our conversation, a fourth brother, who had trained as a primary school teacher in Niger, had been living for several years in Melbourne, Australia, where he worked in a boutique specializing in African art.
Talk of his family compelled Issifi to think of his mother. "For me," Issifi said, "there is no more important person than my mother. You know how it is between sons and mothers. I really miss my mother. But when I tell this to Monique, she thinks that I really miss my wife. I care very much for Monique and I respect my wife, but my mother is more important. We are of the same blood."
This longing, according to Issi., had made him irritable. He reiterated how Americans couldn't understand why family is so important to Africans. "You understand," he said to me, "because you lived there for seven years. But Monique?" He shook his head. "Maybe next year, I'll go back," he went on. "One of my brothers will come here. After I train him, I'll go back to Abidjan and he'll stay here."
"Maybe your brother in Australia could come?"
"I already asked him, but he won't come. He doesn't like Australia. He says that there aren't enough black people there."
"Did you tell him that New York is different?"
"Yeah, but he doesn't believe me. He thinks New York and Australia are the same. One of my other brothers will come."
For some reason the unusual warmth of the day hadn't drawn customers to the market. Merchants passed by offering their greetings to us. A young African American woman asked if Issifi had Dutch Wax cloth. Issifi searched through the bolts and found some. The woman didn't like the color scheme and sauntered away. Issifi faced me squarely and continued our conversation.
"There are two important things in my life: family and the things that stir my heart. I sell my products to any person, Christian or Muslim, pastors or drug dealers, for if I am honest, money has no smell. If God grants me money in exchange for hard honest work, I must first make sure that my family is okay, that they're well fed, well clothed, well housed, and in good health. Then, if there is something left, I buy things that stir my heart."
Issifi pointed to his black leather jacket and said that he bought it at the Gap on Broadway and 75th Street. He touched his corduroy trousers. "The Gap. I bought three pair." He unzipped his jacket to reveal his rust-colored linen shirt. "The Gap, also," he said, smiling.
Issifi's new purchases resulted from economic opportunities sparked by Kwaanza, a recently established African American holiday celebrated between Christmas and the New Year (see chap. 5). During Kwaanza, which commemorates the cultural and historic linkages of Africa and Africa America, Issifi rented space at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, the site of the Metropolitan New York Kwaanza Exposition. He sold a great deal of cloth to African Americans who came to celebrate African values, African culture, and to buy, Issifi added, "African" products. Flush with cash from his Kwaanza success, Issifi sent money orders to his family. Then he followed his heart to the Gap.
But the New Year, as always, brings a shift in economic fortunes. It brings many days when merchants outnumber shoppers at the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem Market. On slow January days, merchants like Issifi welcome the chance to talk to friends, shoppers, and fellow traders. In mixtures of English, French, Hausa, Songhay, Bamana, Malinke, and Wolof, they express their frustrations about living in New York City or work out deals with visiting suppliers or compatriot colleagues. They might travel downtown to Canal Street to buy inventory. As practicing Muslims, they invariably pray at mid-afternoon, late afternoon, and sunset. Some of them, like Issifi, sit behind their tables quietly studying the Qur'an. And sometimes, when the market lull seems to stop time itself, they stare dreamily out into space and watch the gray sky darken.
Two days after my visit uptown, I ran into Issifi at the Chase Manhattan Bank ATM machine at 73rd Street and Broadway. It was still early in the evening, and after we greeted one another, we walked north together along the west side of Broadway. Issifi was on his way to see a fellow trader and dealer in African art, Hamani Gado, who lived at the Hotel Belleclaire on 77th and Broadway. But since he had some time to kill before his rendezvous, we wandered over to the Gap. His eyes sparkled. I invited him to have dinner with me and some friends. He declined. "I need to see my friend," he stated. "Another time." Smiling, he slipped inside the Gap to browse and perhaps to buy.
* * *
In 1996, Issifi had his ups and downs. Like all peddlers, he lives in seasonal limbo. Summers are usually good; winters are usually bad. Like many immigrants in New York City, Issifi has also been in a kind of existential limbo, for in 1996 he was an unregistered alien. Although it was unlikely he would be caught, he lived with the possibility of being detained and deported. His unregistered status also meant that he had some difficulty finding health care, obtaining licenses, and finding wage-paying work with benefits. As is true of most immigrants in New York City, the variegated texture of his life remained unknown to others. Most people who talked to him at the market knew little about his family, his past, his culture, his values, aspirations, or dreams. Although he worked daily on the streets of New York City, he remained, like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, an unseen person. Like his brother traders, he walked among the shadows, earning money but maintaining a judicious distance from a society whose values he found both fascinating and disturbing.
Issifi and his colleagues from West Africa inhabit one small, virtually unknown niche of urban immigrant America. Their arrival is symptomatic of the groundswell of economic and social change that has profoundly affected North American cities over the past fifteen years. Most writers who have discussed "the new immigration" stress how it has resulted from the economic and social dislocations brought on by globalization. Their analyses are illuminating but seldom do justice to the stories of the real men and women who have left their families to come to places like New York City to earn a living.
This selective inattention is not all that surprising given the invisibility of West African immigrants like Issifi Indeed, Issifi has multiple invisibilities. He is one of thousands of black men who blend into the background of Harlem. He is a pious Muslim. He is a cosmopolitan African merchant who earns money from African Americans, most of whom have only a partial understanding of his culture or his economic sophistication. In 1996, he was torn by contested allegiances-to his wife and children, to his girlfriend and her child, to his mother, father, and brothers, and to his own desires.
There are thousands of Issifis along the East Coast of the United States. For more than fifteen years, West Africans have steadily poured into New York City. Most of these immigrants, most of them men, have not been formally educated. They are traders or unskilled wage laborers, not diplomats. Many of them make a living as street vendors in Harlem, Brooklyn, and lower Manhattan, where they share informal vending space with African Americans, Jamaicans, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Pakistanis, and Afghanis. Those who are literate and have work permits may drive Medallion cabs, which are licensed; others, perhaps without documentation, drive the so-called gypsy cabs, which are not always regulated by city hall. The more successful West African traders have used their profits to open restaurants or boutiques like Karta Textiles, a shop on West 125th Street in Harlem that sells cloth and clothing from West Africa. Other merchants operate thriving import-export businesses. From April through October, Issifi sometimes joins the groups of West Africans who pack vans with exotic leather goods, cloth, and jewelry made in Africa, as well as baseball caps and T-shirts-with the logos of American sports teams-made in China and Korea. They tour through what they call the bush-Indianapolis, Kansas City, Detroit-following the African American trade show and convention circuit.
Not all the West Africans living in New York City, however, are merchants. Many of them work as stock clerks, security guards, and grocery store delivery people. On the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example, many of the stock clerks in Price Wise Discount Drug Stores speak to one another in Wolof, the major Senegalese language, as they take inventory. From 1994 to 1997, their boss, the manager, was also Senegalese. At Lexington and 92nd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, sidewalk conversations sometimes take place in Songhay, a major language in the Republic of Niger, as several Nigeriens take a break from delivering groceries. Larger groups of West African deliverymen can be found in front of Fairway, a large grocery store on Broadway between 74th and 75th Streets. On 110th Street and Lenox, a community of West Africans live in a "vertical village," which they call "Le Cent Dix" (the 110th), a rundown, rat- and drug-infested hotel. Some apartments function as communal kitchens; others operate as "neighborhood" boutiques (see chap. 8).
Deteriorating urban conditions have made the American "bush" more appealing to many West Africans, luring them away from New York City-especially if they have what they call "papers," namely, an employment authorization permit from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This card not only enables them to drive registered cabs, but also allows them, unlike Issifi, to work for wages in factories and stores.
Excerpted from Money Has No Smell by Paul Stoller Copyright © 2002 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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|Prologue: Money Has No Smell|
|1||A Slow Afternoon at the Harlem Market||1|
|2||Urban Intersections/Existential Crossroads||11|
|3||The Way of the Jaguar||28|
|6||Regulating Urban Life||88|
|7||The Spatial Politics of African Trading in Harlem||121|
|Epilogue: Issifi's Path||176|
Posted December 12, 2011
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