It seems that we now live in a world where trade is carried out in absolutes. We enter well-known shops, selling well-known brands at rigid prices, in standardised quantities. But as you travel east through Europe, much like the parameters of acceptable driving etiquette, or the risks attached to drinking tap water, the idea of trade becomes increasingly uncertain. No more so does this appear to be the case, than in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.
Despite the chaotic frenzy that greets you on entry to the 550-year-old market, it is not the frantic mess of a Primarkon Saturday afternoon; the Grand Bazaar possesses something altogether more soulful. If when shopping you value clear price tags and your own personal space, it may be best to stay clear of the area. However, if you feel your purchasing experience may be enhanced by the off-chance that the occasional football shirt salesman may lure you into a separate backroom and attempt to sell you heroin then look no further. If you can ignore the maze-like structure, see past the unending camera flashes, and hear beyond the voice of a worried American mother over the intercom system, telling her lost child to meet her by the entrance, you might even be forgiven for thinking your experience feels authentic.
The Bazaar seems to be home to five main types of stall. Firstly, and perhaps the most visually striking, ‘The Hanging Lamps’ stall, decorated solely with the lights they sell. The salesmen here pace around their shops, staying low to avoid bumping heads on the turquoise, green and orange lampshades that dangle above, always tweaking and taming the price-tagged spectrum around them. Next is the predictable ‘Almost Designer Outlet’, rammed to the ceiling with Calvin Klein as well as an almost unnerving number of leather jackets. These are much the same as the counterfeit shops anywhere else, only more vertical – the less said about them the better. Strongest smelling and undoubtedly favourite among the over 50s are the ‘Stuff in a Jar’ stalls. It becomes difficult to thoroughly peruse these through the sea of eager noses trying to sniff out a good deal with bloodhound-like efficiency. Probably the most undisputable presence in the Grand Bazaar is “The Rug Shop”. Wandering in looking lost, the proprietor will quickly sit you down, conjure a pot of sweet apple tea out of nowhere, and begin explaining that whilst Afghan material is fine, nothing compares to Uzbekistani. As wholesome as it all appears, do not be surprised if the same guy slips you his eBay business card on the way out. Last and possibly least is the “All the Other Commemorative Shit” stall; Istanbul themed shot glasses, Istanbul themed key-rings and Istanbul themed ashtrays, much like the one which now decorates the coffee table in my living room.
In many ways it seems that Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is not an authentic shopping experience at all. It is just a different platform on which to continue buying things we do not need without feeling so bad about it, a bit like Argos in a very sad sense. But parking the Tyler Durden-ish cynicism for a moment, it cannot be doubted that the energy and excitement you see everywhere in the market is all too real. No one could conceivably wander aimlessly among the soulless stretches of walkway that make up Intu Chapelfield shopping centre in Norwich for more than twenty minutes, but in the Bazaar the hours melt together without consideration. Arresting the suspicion that everything happening feels genuinely fake, it is not hard to get wrapped up in the charms of the Bazaar.