Simsar, samsara (Middle East and North Africa)

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Simsar, samsara 🌍
File:Middle East and North Africa map.png
Location: Middle East and North Africa
Definition: An intermediary between the buyer and the seller
Keywords: Middle East North Africa MENA region Brokerage Triangle Trade Reseller Personal connections
Clusters: Intermediation
Author: Alberica Camerani
Affiliation: Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Alberica Camerani, Alumna, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

In Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, simsar (also samsar, female simsarat) is an intermediary between the buyer and the seller (Hassan 1986: 255). Samsar derives from the Arabic verb s-m-s-r, which means 'to act as a broker or middleman' (Lamprakos 2017:167). A simsar is an actor who ‘facilitate[s] the transactions between other actors lacking access or trust in one another’ (Marsden 1982: 202). For most, being a simsar is a full- or part-time occupation, albeit unregulated.

The extensive contacts and abilities of a simsar enable transactions that would be difficult or impossible otherwise. Some simsars (the correct Arabic plural form is samasira) specialize in specific type of goods, such as cars or residential property; others deal with any type of resource. ‘[T]his kind of man possesses nothing, has nothing, he is always listening to the world around him, and his place of work is simply the outside, the city, the people. [The city] is where the business takes place, and it is definitely his place’ (Majdalani 2005: 14).

In the pre-Islamic period, the traders in the region were called al-samasira (Hassan 1986). In the medieval Islamic world, simsars were itinerant peddlers, as evident from the documents certifying their existence in the Middle East and in North Africa in the eleventh century (Shatzmiller 1993:96). The modern profession of simsar shares similarities with the commercial brokers who were present in the trading hubs around the Mediterranean and the Indian and Atlantic oceans (Rothman 2012: 36). The Italian noun sensale (‘a mediator or intermediary in a deal for a fee’, Hoepli 2015) and the archaic French noun censal (‘a broker in the Levant’, Littre 1878) both deriving from the Arabic simsar support this hypothesis (Cortellazzo 1989, Schacht 1982). In the middle ages, samsara (meaning ‘brokerage’, also known also as funduq, khan or wakala, depending on the region) was the name of the commercial venue where international and wholesale traders met local buyers and sellers (Raymond 2008; Gelderblom 2013) and could rent slots from the manager of the property, the samsari (Lamprakos 2017).

The best simsar in Sidi Bouzid, a small town in Tunisia. Source: photo by author © Alberica Camerani.

Although today their meanings are quite distinct, in the middle ages, barrah, a ‘town crier’, was one of the synonyms for simsar (Colin and Becker 1999). Detailing the negotiations between Arab and European traders mediated by a simsar, the Dictionnaire Universel De Commerce (Savary des Bruslons 1741) refers to them as a ‘proper comedy’ (Savary des Bruslons 1741: 720-721). If the European buyer did not accept the price requested by the Arab seller and wanted to negotiate, the simsar would ‘pretend to be angry, cry and shout like a mad man, and would advance as if he wanted to strangle the foreign merchant, but without touching him’. If this would not avert the buyer from further bargaining attempts, he would start to ‘tear his clothes, knock his chest with his fists rolling himself on the ground and shout like a deflowered man’. As soon as the negotiation concluded, he ‘regained his tranquillity […] and finished the piece with Allah Akbar, Allah Akbir, ‘God is great, God is very great’, that he pronounced with as much cold blood as if he had not faked all the contortions and the crisis of a possession’ (Savary des Bruslons 1741: 601).

Samsara joins the ranks of several other informal brokerage practices that facilitate exchanges, help get things done and create opportunities through social connections and acquaintances. A comparison to other forms of brokerage is instructive in identifying the main characteristics of samsara. In contrast to tapsh, a practice in Azerbaijan of obtaining favours for family, friends and contacts through clientelistic channels, samsara is a market-type exchange, characterized by a ‘quantitative relation between the objects transacted’ (Gregory 1982: 41) or presence of cash in the transaction (Jancsics 2015). It involves a commission depending on the value of the transaction; usually, but not necessarily collected from the seller (agent), while tapsh is a reciprocal exchange that ‘establishes a personal qualitative relationship between the subjects transacting’ (Gregory 1982: 41) and thus is not bound by time, quantity or quality of goods (Sahlins 1965:147). The reciprocal nature of tapsh is also maintained in vertical and clientelist transactions (Aliyev 2017).

Tapsh and simsar also differ in the relation between the broker and the transacting parties. As an outsider, the simsar engages in liaison brokerage, in which the broker ‘link[s] distinct groups without having prior allegiance to either’ (Gould Fernandez 1989:93). This is known as the tertius gaudens, ‘the third who enjoys’ (Simmel 1950:154), gaining advantages such as power, influence and profit from the conflict of others. The tapsh broker, on the other hand, has a personal connection with both parties. The tapsh broker mediates between the supplicant, with whom the broker has a close relationship, and a third party, with whom the broker is acquainted. Tapsh is a form of representative brokerage in which a member of a group is delegated to negotiate information or resources with an outsider (Gould and Fernandez 1989).

The difference between samsara and wasta mediation, which shares the geographical distribution with samsara, is less distinct. At first glance, the commission taken by the simsar seems to point to the disinterested nature of a samsara transaction in contrast with the more personal wasta. Yet wasta brokers may also receive a compensation in the form of a gift or monetary reward. Reports from Moroccan respondents suggest a simsar ‘would be a person they did not know personally and whom they did not trust’ (Sommerfelt 2001:63). The difference between samsara and wasta is more a matter of degree: choosing to call the middleman a simsar or a wasta broker indicates the type of social tie that binds him to either party (Sommerfelt 2001). A middleman will be called a wasta broker by the party closer to them and simsar by the other party. Their relationship is always biased - as scholarship notes (Stovel and Shaw 2012), ‘there are no fully neutral forms of brokerage’ (Jancsics 2015:81). Samsara is no exception.

As an informal practice, samsara can provide access to goods and services unobtainable through other channels. However, it can also have adverse effects. Simsars with a strong presence can become a powerful lobby in the industries based on intermediation, such as real estate property. In Morocco, the lobby of simsars ‘imposed its law on the real estate market’ and left traditional estate agencies bankrupted (Algerie Press Service 2010).


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